Not All Hebrew Schools Suck, Part II 3

Joel Lurie Grishaver

Joel Lurie GrishaverAttached to a link that read Should We Send Our Kids to Hebrew School?the website Kveller leads us to an article called “Finding My Jewish Community, or Making it Myself” by Logan Ritchie. The story is that of a homemade religious school created by a number of families in Atlanta called the Jewish Kids Group.

In praise of this camp style school we are told:

…my boy learned the Shema in sign language, sang “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” in Hebrew, and got slathered in a Dead Sea mud bath. Since then he has taught my dad how to play Simon Says in Hebrew, been serenaded by a Jewish American Idol contestant, created a map of the Negev desert in Israel, played with Hebrew puppets, and created his own Hebrew alphabet book.

It is hard to fault any of this learning. It is also hard to say that much unique (other than the mud bath) took place here. You will find most of these activities at most Hebrew Schools. Often fear is worse than the reality. When you create your own Hebrew school it tends to be very much the same.

The author explains: “I want my rabbi bearded, wearing a tie-dye tallit, and playing guitar. I want my son to grow up to be a thoughtful, spiritual, civic-minded, Jewish man.” Not everyone wants a “Hippie” rabbi but most people and most schools work towards “thoughtful, spiritual, civic-minded, Jewish people.”

The families involved did not have to step outside the synagogue system to get this education for their family and their child. They did (as they point out) save on synagogue dues. We know that no one should have to support the Jewish community.

If you want to see just as innovative a school happening in a Synagogue Setting, see Mayim—The Elementary Community at Temple Beth Shalom. They are not so hard to find.

Home-cooked food is often better than eating out. I am not against home cooking and will never oppose parents who work hard to creating a learning process for their children. The Hawthorne Effect virtually guarantees their success. I am all for innovation, because it makes for more involved practitioners and participants. Viva the revolution! Every ten years or so there is the need to invent new educational jargon and reject the methodology of the past. I have done that, too. Now I am the past. For my birthday Jane took me to Bouchon, a Thomas Keller restaurant. It was better than any home-cooked meal.

Bible Story

Let’s study some Torah. We learn between Numbers 11:27 and 11:29:

A young man ran and told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.” Joshua son of Nun, who had been Moses’ aide since youth, spoke up and said, “Moses, my lord, stop them!” But Moses replied, “Are you jealous for my sake? I wish that all the Eternal’s people were prophets and that the Eternal would put God’s Spirit on them!”

We, the previous generation of Jewish innovators, are being told that our work is outdated and that newer innovation is all around us. We need to respond like Moses, “Would that all of Jewish schools were innovative.” It doesn’t matter if the innovations aren’t all that new. It doesn’t matter if not all these innovations work. And, it matters less if these innovations are replicable. What matters is that the very investment in innovation will just about always make things better; when parents are part of the innovative process—how much the more so.

Synagogue Schools

Jonathan S. Woocher is Chief Ideas Officer of JESNA and heads its Lippman Kanfer Institute, an Action-oriented Think Tank for Innovation in Jewish Learning and Engagement. Dr. Woocher is the author of the book Sacred Survival: The Civil Religion of American Jews. In his book he argues that synagogues are a dying institution that will be replaced by JCCs and Jewish Federations. As I see it, the new growth in Jewish life is mainly in religious institutions, such as independent minyanim and reboot. Dr. Woocher is probably North America’s leading voice for innovation. Not surprisingly, the most touted innovations on the scene are mainly non-synagogue in origin. Many, many Jews are seeking synagogue alternatives. Education isn’t different. Think tied-dye tallit.

There are a few things I worry about when we talk non-synagogue education.

  1. I don’t want it to cover only the bar/bat mitzvah prep years. Gaps and meta-message scare me. I don’t like any education done just for a coming of age ceremony. I want life-long learning or the possibility at least. I care about the before and the after.
  2. I worry about the Bermuda Triangle of Jewish Engagement: the summer camp, the youth group, and the Israel experience. While alternatives do exist, they are usually not as content rich and as accessible as Synagogue/Movement connected experiences.
  3. I want real Jewish life. I love storefront synagogues that struggle with the whole family. I don’t like Hebrew school in a garage that knows neither brit nor funeral.

So far, synagogue schools seem the best way of doing that for the majority of the community. And we live with the truth that says, “the better the synagogue, the better the school.”

The Godfather of Jewish education in North America was Samson S. Benderly. He hated the Sunday School and called it, “the shande school,” He built communal secular alternatives called the Talmud Torah. These were matched with a system of Hebrew Colleges that extended Jewish education through high school and college and had a system of Jewish teacher training. Almost all of the Talmudai Torah are out of business (St. Paul and Minneapolis are an exception) and most of the surviving Hebrew colleges are negotiating mergers with secular universities to stay in business. This was a failure of civic Judaism and the world is not better for it. What has survived is the synagogue school, day schools, and a few high school experiences. I believe that we have to work with what we’ve got. While the leading alternatives are not synagogue connected the majority of students are.

Gaps Damage Jewish Engagement

I know that changing schools is not a good thing. The greatest loss in Jewish education is between Jewish preschool and continued Jewish schooling, and the gap between Jewish pre- and post- bar/bat mitzvah school is almost as big (see Demography and Jewish Education in the Diaspora… by Sergio DellaPergola and Uziel O. Schmelz ). What none of these alternative strictures offer at the moment is anywhere to continue (see Re-Designing Jewish Education for the 21st Century). Most synagogue schools have two way connections with the before and the after. What I know is that promotions are better for Jewish survival than graduations.

The End Game

American Education changed dramatically with No Child Left Behind Teaching relationships were no longer important, caring about and knowing each student was secondary, only student test scores matter. Government now demands that teachers teach for the test in order to survive. If you read my blog entry on Gary Marcus’ Guitar Zero you will see a very different model of teaching where excellence involves knowing when and how to challenge each student and when that student needs help. Knowing the right way of helping is equally important. I have regularly argued that Jewish teaching needs that kind of intimacy (see my book Teaching Jewishly).

I suspect that a lot of the anger directed at the Hebrew school is deferred anger from the secular schools who are mechanically score oriented and are a harder target. Believe me, public and private school teachers and administration get a lot of flak, too. But, they seem better able to survive it.

Innovation is in the air. Our lives are now literally in the clouds. My cheer-leading for synagogue schools is not regressive—it simply an acknowledgement of an anti-synagogue bias, and an acknowledgement of reality. Everyone should innovate and share those innovations. We should grow the entire interface between Jewish learning and Jewish learners. To embrace technology we need not abandon eye-contact. To applaud innovation we need not denigrate the journeymen who are still working in the mines.

John Dewey wrote Experience in Education in 1938 that is the foundation of today’s Experiential Education trend. In that book he argues against the “straw dog” he labels “traditional education” in order to forward innovation. He speaks as if there are “traditional schools” where all is bad and “progressive schools” where all that is sunshine and light. The same dichotomy has been used pitting “Hebrew Schools” against “innovation.” Not fair and not true. We are all concerned with the survival of the Jewish people and the growth of Judaism. Some places do that well in traditional settings and some places do it poorly and shallowly in the name of “innovation.” Our goals are complex. The population is diverse. The funding at a minimum. And Rabbi Tarfon says, “The Master continues to be demanding” (Pirke Avot 2:21). Remember, not all Hebrew Schools suck.

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3 comments

  1. Preaching to the choir. If anything we have to increase the days students attend religious school. We keep watering it down. Some synagogues now have it only two days a week and some only one day a week. In addition, we have to stop the arts and crafts and teach our students how to read Hebrew,prayers and how to daven with kavanah..

  2. Even though I am very big on arts and crafts, and JEWISH arts and crafts at that (I could write a book!), I have to agree with Cantor Korbman. Not that we should drop arts and crafts all together, but use it to TEACH. Boil it down wherever possible–e.g., while it is nice to create a get-well card in order to fulfill the mitzvah of bikkur cholim, why spend an hour on it–and everyone making their own–when having each student write a short note fulfills the mitzvah and takes much less time! You can even give them 5 or 10 minutes to decorate it!

    Nita Polay Levin

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