If We Were the Rulers of Hebrew School World

This blog entry is a four year old document created after the CAJE conference in St. Louis. Given the recent flurry of postings on the “failure” of Hebrew school, I believe that the time has come to repost it. It is really long, so I will post it in four parts during Sukkot. I invite you to come into my virtual sukkah and engage in a conversation with colleagues on what may be the most important issue we face.

– Gris

Part One:
Five Reasons That
Hebrew Schools Can’t Succeed

I am riding with this congregational rabbi on the way to the synagogue when conversation turns to the future. The rabbi is fantasizing a congregational day school and explains the choice by saying, “After all, Hebrew schools can’t work.”

I swallowed, said nothing, and came home ready to teach a session at CAJE called “Five Reasons That Hebrew School’s Can’t Succeed.” I solicited a few friends to join in and found that they were worried about the impact of such a session. They were scared that a number of people would not get the irony in the title—that it was really intended to look at conditions that were needed to succeed.

A few days later we hosted a number of Los Angeles principals for a luncheon at Torah Aura, and the topic was on the table. I then realized that second half of the conversation – the part that imagined a better future – was more important. We changed the name of the CAJE session, and I changed my focus. This series of essays is designed as a preparation for CAJE.

We’ll start with some key problems in this essay and move to the fixes in the next several issues of the Gris Mill.

1.         Rabbis and lay people don’t believe that they can succeed.

I am not even sure that we believe we can succeed anymore. We know that we have some success. We can all tell stories of the individual moments where we feel that we have made a difference. But whether we are making enough of a difference to preserve Jewish life—that is the big question. As long as we doubt our own success, as long as the leaders of the community doubt our success, failure is likely.

Here is my truth.First we have to restore our own faith in what we are doing. We need to believe that Hebrew schools can make a huge difference in the future of the Jewish people. Then, with that renewed faith, with that renewed energy, we can go out and sell our colleagues and our lay leaders on it. Then, with their help, we can sell our clients on the difference we are going to make in their lives. Otherwise we have a wonderful failure to fulfill.

2.         They now exist as learning communities with too few hours to impact significantly on student lives.

Let us forget about content for the moment. Let’s forget that all the research says that it takes three sessions a week to readily master languages. Let’s forget about all the wonderful programs we would like to run. Let’s ignore the improvement we could make in our faculties if we could hire them for more hours per week. We need to focus on just one truth. The future of the Jewish people probably resides more in the friendships that our students make in school and the level of community we forge among our students than in anything we teach them.

The simple questions that needs to be asked are (a) Do we meet often enough? and (b) Do students attend enough of those few sessions to bond with each other? Because it is their friendships that will bring them back after Bar/Bat Mitzvah, and it is what they do after Bar/Bat Mitzvah that will lead to Jewish connections in college, and it their Jewish life in college that will lead to their Jewish future. Getting the first domino in place is a major part of the job. It is George and Sarah who will lead Britney toward a Jewish future, not the ability to read v’shamru with few enough errors and more than enough fluency to secure the Jewish future.

3.         School goals are now so low that success in school doesn’t equal success in Jewish life.

If Jews could get tattoos, this would be on my chest: “Bar/Bat Mitzvah is not going to save the Jewish people.” If I thought it would make a difference, I would hire a sky writer to write in the skies over every Jewish conference in North America, “Just preparing students for Bar/Bat Mitzvah will not assure the Jewish future.”

If our students can answer four questions with well-reflected and informed answers, then Jewish life has a chance.

  1. What is my role in the redemption of the world?
  2. How do I understand and how will I face my own mortality?
  3. What tools can help me to continue becoming the best person I can be?
  4. What is my connection to the Jewish people, and how does the State of Israel enrich my Jewishness?

The answers to these questions build a Judaism that is important more than one day a lifetime, more than at a few family gatherings a year, more than a decaying sense of ethnicity in a post-ethnic America. A Jewish education that doesn’t make Jewish life a vocation, a way of being (a job), is a Twinkie Judaism filled with empty calories and with little chance at succeeding in the real job, carrying the Jewish people forward another generation.

We have given our educational goals over to the DJs and caterers, to the people who do Bar/Bat Mitzvah preparation, and to the dance teams. We have correctly affirmed the need for Jewish preschools to build a solid foundation for Jewish living but have forgotten to assure that it reaches into adulthood. Schools that challenge students all the way through high school are few and far between.

4.         The contexts of ethnic identification and religious life in North America work strongly against our success.

There was a time when Jewish schools could fail and Jewish life would still succeed. In an era when Jews were different, outsiders, the other, Jews stuck together. We married each other and raised families with a sense of Jewish memory because we had little choice.

We are now living in a North America that considers us “white,” that allows us to distance ourselves from Israel, that has adopted Yiddish words, bagels and chicken soup and guarantees our equality with Kwanzaa. We are past a generation with different accents, different memories, and different priorities. Jews are not marrying out of their Judaism, they are marrying into a pluralistic community that fully welcomes them. Judaism is no longer a nationality (in our context), barely an ethnicity, and it will survive only through active (rather than passive) choice.

5.         We have failed to make family education a context and have reduced it to a program, and we have failed to wrap the supplemental school in the supportive environment of camps, youth groups, and Israel experiences for a significant number of our students.

We had in our hands tools that could have corrected the situation, and we have reduced them to minor options or mechanical programs. Summer camps serve way too few of our children (and are now way too expensive to service a significant percentage). Israel, which used to be the instant solution to the problems of America, never reached 15% of American Jewish kids (and has run into a political barrier to participation: danger). Youth group is not what it once was—and that is a longer story we will explore in a future essay.

But the big question is: What ever happened to family education? Once the great promise, it has been reduced from “context” (a way of looking at Jewish education as a series of relationships between school and home) to one predictable program per year per class.

Now that we have chronicled what is wrong—it is our obligation to make it better. That we will do in the coming days.

One Response to If We Were the Rulers of Hebrew School World

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