On Hebrew School Change: An Opinion

By Rabbi Paul Steinberg

I hated Hebrew school as a kid. So, I suppose it’s kind of ironic, perhaps funny, that I now oversee a Hebrew school and am working so hard to develop a program that is meaningful and, dare I say, enjoyable.  Admittedly, it’s not easy.  It’s not easy because there is a lot for Hebrew school to contend with.  The hours of the day and competition with other extracurricular activities are just two of the major obstacles.  But let’s face it, a sweeping challenge is that Hebrew school is countercultural.  Heck, Judaism is countercultural, and Hebrew school may be the most explicit manifestation of its expression for most of our families.  That is to say, it is countercultural for a kid to go to another “school” after school and/or on Sunday mornings to learn about something that is hardly relevant or possibly totally irrelevant to the rest of their lives.  Hebrew, Tefilah, Shabbat, and Kashrut exist only within the walls of the synagogue for many of our kids.

This leads to why I am a bit skeptical of leveraging the camp experience as our model par excellence for a new Hebrew school paradigm.  Camp is a completely isolated experience from the world and there (like in Israel) Judaism is no longer countercultural.  It has its own culture, its own biorhythms, its own model of leadership, and there is an inimitable, calm independence kids get there.  Jews can be Jews all day and night there.  Let’s just remember: we have to “go away” for the camp experience. 

By the way, we also have to admit that, for a large number of campers, the Jewish component is their least favorite and many merely tolerate it. I know kids that refuse to go to Camp Ramah, or have abandoned it after one summer, because there’s “too much praying.”  In fact, many of us who have been to Ramah have witnessed or perhaps had to personally force teenagers to begrudgingly show up for their Yahadut class. I am certainly a Ramah fan and my family is a Ramah family, but we should be cautious as to not exaggerate its Jewish educational successes when staking our resources and ideas upon the model.

Looking to experiential education and informal, camp models to give us tools to address the challenges of Hebrew school is surely a good thing.  Before we go too far in changing our paradigm, however, let’s make sure we have implemented and applied the best practices that could accompany any program.  Here are a few:

 1.    Raising Prestige and Denying the Negative Stigma

It is too often that we hear of Hebrew school in negative terms. It is often devalued both implicitly and explicitly, even the butt of Jewish jokes.  Indeed, some of the recent conversations around Hebrew school take their assumptions of its failure too far.  The truth is that there is a lot of good happening in Hebrew schools that is often overlooked.  There needs to be a lot more “good-mouthing” about our Hebrew schools.  Student work should be held to standards of excellence and showcased throughout the synagogue.  The rabbi should get to know the Hebrew school staff and classes, and then exclaim from the bimah of the wonders of the learning and teaching that is going on.

Moreover, it is not uncommon for synagogue leadership to refer to the Hebrew school as an economic drain and that the synagogue “subsidizes” the Hebrew school.  That conversation needs to be turned upside down.  It may in fact be just as accurate to say that the Hebrew school subsidizes the synagogue.  A lot of the membership money comes from parents who simply want to enroll their children in Hebrew school, adhering to minimal years of B’nai Mitzvah requirements.  Most people don’t join synagogues for the services or the sermons. It is more common that they join for the school and, if they like it and find it worthwhile, they’ll continue to pay membership and stay. Thus, the culture and language around Hebrew school from the synagogue leadership must change, so that, instead of it being viewed as a separate appendage, it is referred to as a centerpiece of the mission of the synagogue and as the primary educational organ of the institution.  Increased prestige will improve the quality and social forces surrounding it.

 2.    Ongoing Staff Development

I came into the synagogue and Hebrew school world as a Director of Jewish Studies and Hebrew at a Solomon Schechter school.  The first thing that struck me about Hebrew school is that the teachers never met to discuss the program, student work, planning, or problems.  In fact, many of the teachers didn’t know each other.  I wondered how we were teaching and modeling community if the staff itself wasn’t a community.

Therefore, when I moved to running a Hebrew school, my first act was to establish a weekly, two-hour staff development meeting.  I trimmed down the budget, cutting many line items in half in order to pay my teachers to attend this meeting.  That’s right, my teachers are paid to learn and it has been worth every penny.

For those two hours, we study Jewish texts together, as well as discuss aspects of general education including developmental psychology, school vision, classroom management, and lesson planning.  We also make time for co-planning, sharing ideas, engaging in critical group protocols, and celebrating each other as colleagues and friends.  For me, as the leader, this is a lot of work to prepare, but I cannot imagine a school without ongoing meetings that involved genuine engagement, as opposed to monthly ones wherein policy paperwork is simply read aloud.

This seems to be an area where funding could play a large role.  National philanthropic organizations could be helping to train lead educators to be staff developers and assign individual staff development consultants to each synagogue (the Hebrew program NETA, has such a development model).  Hebrew school staff development workbooks and guides could be created.  We need to incentivize our talented and bright young people to teach in Hebrew school and paid staff development is one way to do it.  Simply put, we haven’t yet invested in developing the “textpeople” that we need our Hebrew school faculty to be.  This will have a profound impact on the teachers, inspiring them, nurturing them, and growing their sense of self-worth in the community, which reverberates throughout the whole community.

3.    Parental Investment

Ultimately, all educational roads lead back to the home.  Heschel is to have once said, “Judaism is caught, not taught.”  That has actually become the catchphrase of our program.  It means that everything we do, and especially everything parents do and say about Hebrew school is being learned.  If mom complains about the hours of Hebrew school or the schlepping carpool, it sends a message to the child about its value.  If a child brings home a mezuzah that she made in Hebrew school, which goes in the trash the next day, while the 100% math test is posted to the fridge for weeks, it sends a message to the child.  If the dinner table conversation is always about school, homework, TV, or sports and it’s never about Torah or Israel, it sends a message to the child.

First, parents need to be involved and valued “prosumers” (as Jonathan Woocher called it) in the Hebrew school.  There need to be committees and task forces to do the kinds of things that such committees do in any good school. They should be fundraising, organizing staff appreciation events, recruiting, setting up community and class events (e.g., Sunday brunch in the sukkah, Shabbat meals at people’s homes, Purim booths, arranging oneg for children and family Shabbat services) and acting as a sounding board for the administration.   They need to learn the program and communicating the mission to other parents and constituents.  

Second, parents need to have their own learning opportunities.  Not as the general part of the adult education program, but just for them.  This can be family education, but it also has to be education just for parents.  They represent their own constituency, with many interests that are specifically relevant to them about parenting and family, for working parents and single parents, and how Judaism provides wisdom and guidance in these areas.  We need broad educational opportunities for all parents, but also parent havurot.   This group needs to be a valued group and given more places to connect with one another and their Judaism.

 4.    Re-orienting B’nai Mitzvah

American Jewry has created a monster out of the B’nai Mitzvah.  B’nai Mitzvah dominate much of synagogue life.  They impact the spiritual life through Shabbat services; they dominate the financial life through enrollment and B’nai Mitzvah fees; they effect the social and cultural life through the parties and programming calendar; and they deeply influence the educational goals of the Hebrew school.  All of this is an institutional disaster waiting to happen, as institutional loyalty wanes and the cheaper route of private tutoring and ceremonies become more popular.

Focusing specifically on the educational influence of B’nai Mitzvah, we discover at least two significant problems.  One is that we risk reducing the entirety of Hebrew school and Jewish education to preparation for a performative ceremony.  This diminishes our enduring educational goals toward transmitting a sense of positive Jewish identification and connection.  Furthermore, it sends a message that once the Bar or Bat Mitzvah is over, so is the Jewish education, violating the fundamental Jewish values of Torah Lishmah and life-long learning for the sake of spiritual and moral betterment.  This is why the post-B’nai Mitzvah dropout-itis phenomenon is so heartbreaking.

Secondly, the emphasis of the B’nai Mitzvah in our educational program damages Jewish prayer and spirituality by virtue of the fact that prayer is reduced to reading and chanting skills.  There are countless Jews who have spent months, even years, preparing for their Bar or Bat Mitzvah – a ceremony of prayer – yet they are repulsed by Jewish prayer, finding it dull, meaningless, and irrelevant.  B’nai Mitzvah need to remain a spiritual lifecycle event for the whole family and disconnected from the Hebrew school; the Hebrew school cannot be viewed as a B’nai Mitzvah training lab.  This issue is largely an organizational structural issue, which can be fixed.

Much of what I have said above is nothing new.  We have just not asserted the political will to make the necessary changes.  Educational directors may complain about such issues, but, for whatever reason, many synagogue boards have not acted upon them.  There are cultural and organizational solutions that will require taking some risk, maybe even a financial risk in restructuring some costs and dues as they apply to Hebrew school families.  I am suggesting that taking such risks are necessary because the long term sustainability of our synagogue and Hebrew school model is in jeopardy; a programmatic change in the Hebrew school is a mere scratch on the surface of the major sociological and organizational problems at play.

So, given the foregoing discussion, is there anything at all that we can learn from camp?  Of course.  Camp has a way of offering independence, autonomy, and power to its campers and young counselors.  Campers, especially as they grow older, have great say in their projects and programs.  Genuine project-based learning happens at camp.  This is not simply assigning projects to kids to complete, but asking them to create something that meets both their interests and the teacher’s educational goals.  Then they are asked to develop it and employ outside skills and higher-level understanding, such as application, synthesis and evaluation.  The counselors or teachers are facilitators – “guides on the side” rather than “sages on the stage.”  Ron Berger writes about this clearly in his book An Ethic of Excellence.  Hebrew school should be a project-based learning endeavor that incorporates formal, informal, and experiential learning models, utilizing technology as an ally.

Again, any model or solution we raise will require the four points mentioned above because ours is ultimately a sociological and cultural challenge, not a programmatic one.  We should feel compelled to collaborate on these issues on national, communal, and institutional levels.  There are a lot of wonderful people in the world of synagogues and Hebrew schools, and I pray that we will progress with hope and enthusiasm into this new dimension of Jewish life in America.

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