This blog entry is a four year old document created after the CAJE conference in St. Louis. Give the recent flutter 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.
I am doing a parenting session at a synagogue. In the midst of my talk a father stands up and says, “My eleven-year-old son has a busy week, he has school and sports, yada yada yada, he begs me to sleep in on Sunday, and I want to know why I should make him get up and go to Hebrew school.”
I have an epiphany, and I tell him:
- “Because Hebrew school is the only place he is going to learn how to heal death.
- Because Hebrew school is the only place he is going to find his part in the redemption of the world.
- Because Hebrew school is the one place where he is going to gain tools to turn himself into the best person he can be. And
- Because Hebrew school is the place he is going to find the connection between him, Israel, and the rest of the Jewish people.”
The father sits down and says, “Thank you.”
Another father stands up and says, “If this school taught those things, my son would be here every single week.”
I have never forgotten that morning.
Here are some of the things I think I know.
- As Jewish educators we see our job as “Judification.” We are not trying to inform our students about their Jewish skills or provide them with Jewish information. Instead we have taken the responsibility to create (or at least significantly deepen) their Jewish identification.
- We use three or four tools in order to do this.
(1) We start early, because we want to build Jewish feelings. And that is why preschool is so big on the agenda.
(2) We try hard to make our schools either short or fun or both—because we accept the guilt that the previous generation of Jewish schools is responsible for the level of assimilation because the previous generation of students didn’t feel good about going to them.
(3) We emphasize home and family not as process, but as the core context. We try to train our students to hold Shabbat, Passover, and Hanukkah at home, and we empower them to have privatized life-cycle rituals like Havdalah B’nai Mitzvah. And
(4) We worship at the altar of memory rather than the altar of meaning. We operate on the assumption that if our students have enough photographs of enough positive Jewish moments, these good feelings will create the inertia needed to keep them moving in Jewish directions.
- The majority of our client families are consumers. They have no brand loyalty. They will buy that which is cheapest, easiest, and most convenient. They are narcissists in the sense that Christopher Lasch described in The Culture of Narcissim. They are ruled by “The Sovereign Self” as described by Arnie Eisen and Stephen M. Cohen in The Jew Within. It is much easier and less long-lasting to get them to feel good about being Jewish. And most of the recent studies show that it is completely possible to “feel positive about one’s Jewish heritage” and to completely disengage one’s self from the Jewish future. To succeed we should start in preschool building Jewish experiences and feelings, but if we don’t make it to adulthood with a Judaism that is vocational—that offers positive contributions to Jewish life—little is gained.This next generation is not going to tell their children, “I went to Hebrew school and hated it, so you will go to Hebrew school and hate it.” Instead it will be, “Hebrew school wasn’t worth my time—so we will not make you bother with it.”
- We are in an era of post-ethnic chic. Judaism is now a Protestant religion. The bagel is now “The Great American Bagel.” “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s rye bread.” Holocaust guilt is not going to motivate late-bearing Boomers, Gen X-ers and Gen Y-ers to send their kids to Hebrew school. Neither is Grandma’s Passover dinner.Judaism has got to make their life richer, more meaningful. It has got to be vocational and productive, or it will drop away. We all know how to order Thai food, dim sum, tapas, sushi, Indian, Mexican and the like. The deli is no longer our home.
Here is my simple truth. Jewish education is going to fail unless:
- We instill a Judaism and a Jewish practice that is meaningful to adults.
- We build a land bridge from b’nai mitzvah observance to college and then another from college to adult Jewish life.
- We make sure that our students have Jewish friends as well as Jewish memories.
Unitarians can look at their old photos, too. This means that just like teachers writing objectives, we must focus on the final behaviors we are seeking before we plan our lessons and activities.
Good memories alone are a meal made of Twinkies.
The four questions—the ones about death, world repair, self-improvement and Jewish connection—are the ones we have to help our students answer. These are questions of meaning, not resolved by facts, not really touched by good memories. Anything less, however, is empty calories.
Next time we will look at how this translates into school design.