A Response to Paul Steinberg’s The Redemption of Hebrew School Redux

by Michelle Shapiro Abraham, MAJE

From the first moment that we read “And God spoke and the world came to be,” we Jews have known the power of language. As it was with the creation of the world, so too it is with Jewish Education – we need a language to explain, define and push us to be reflective practitioners who are forever reimagining, reframing, and reclaiming our tradition.

In Paul Steinberg’s article The Redemption of Hebrew School Redux, he reminds us that “we need to reclaim the spirit of Jewish Education.” I don’t believe there is a synagogue educator, myself included, who would disagree with him. The quest to impact families, touch adults, and inspire students to not only learn about, but actually become our story, is at the heart of what we do every day. Steinberg is right though – when we are “scrambling to grasp the frayed fringes of impossible demographics and sociology” we sometimes lose sight of this and need to return to the heart of what we do. His point is well taken.

Steinberg closes his article by posing the question “What makes for excellent and meaningful Jewish education that endures within the minds, hearts, down to the very souls of our students?” Again, he is right. This is the question that so many of us are asking. However, he then, sadly, rejects the voices of those who are working towards answers for a new generation and crafting the languages to help us understand, analyze and take action. These voices are coming from all over the Jewish world – synagogues, schools, colleges and yes, camps.

The data from the Foundation for Jewish Camp helped prove that overnight camp successfully impacts Jewish identity (as defined by a series of Jewish identity markers in their groundbreaking study Camp Works). Empowered with this data and the insights of many great educators, Jewish camp professionals have striven to understand why camp works. Is it merely that camp is a 24 hour a day experience as Steinberg implies? Is it as simple as experiential/informal teaching styles? What everyone from the secular camping world, to camp directors, to us Jewish Camp Consultants will tell you is that it is actually a complex set of intentionally crafted strategies that range from relationship building to teachable moments, from rituals to interactive and personally challenging programming. It is a language driven by youth outcomes and inspired by kids who begin as nine year old campers and return as 20 year old staff members.

The language of the camp world – the language that many of us are exploring for its relevancy to synagogue life and education – pushes us to see our work through a different lens. Like the language of the many “change initiatives” that are currently at work in the Jewish world, the language of camp gives us tools for understanding, defining, evaluating, and going beyond mere inspiration. Do these change initiatives create something that has never existed before? Ecclesiastes was right – there is nothing new under the sun. However, often when we use a new language and are open to new approaches, we see our work differently and understand new possibilities.

The Rabbis knew that merely saying that each of us should feel as if he/she went forth from Egypt was not sufficient if indeed we were to become the story. So they created the language of the Hagaddah, the ritual of the seder, the multi-generational game of the four questions and the recipes (or at least their wives did) that we pass down from generation to generation. Like them, we know that simply saying that one should feel connected is not enough. We need the language, the techniques, and the revolutionary ideas to help us change inspiring words into daily reality.

Steinberg is right. We can’t let ourselves get overly caught up in the financials and demographics. We need to avoid “shiny fads,” and ensure that our education has depth, meaning and relevancy. He is right that this task should not fall on the shoulders of Jewish Educators alone – it is a task demanded of all of us. However, it is also a task where mere inspiration is not sufficient and what he dismisses as “shiny fads” can be roadmaps for understanding what we do and techniques for actually creating what we dream.

Ours is a task that requires us to hold tight to our tradition, and to embrace modern approaches of evaluation and project design; a task that demands us to reclaim what we already know and to reimagine revolutionary techniques and approaches that are beyond our knowledge; it is a task that invites us to take joy in the community sitting beside us, and demands that we reach toward others who are not at the table. We need to embrace what we are learning in every change process, in every conversation, and in every setting. We need to listen to every word and push ourselves to understand new languages and new ideas.

This task of simultaneously living in the past and being visionaries for the future is not too difficult for us, nor is it out of our reach. Indeed, it is what we Jewish Educators have always done – from generation to generation, continuously creating and recreating.

Michelle Shapiro Abraham is a graduate of the Rhea Hirsch School of Education at HUC-JIR. She currently serves a consultant for the Foundation for Jewish Camp Incubator and Nadiv projects, and is the author of the Reform Movement’s new Mishkan T’fillah for Children and the CHAI curriculum Family Education materials. In addition to her consulting and writing work, Michelle has served as a synagogue educator for over fifteen years.

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  1. Nachama Skolnik Moskowitz says

    I very much appreciate the way Michelle Shapiro Abraham captured the shifts we face as a Jewish community, as well as a sense of the fluidity needed by Jewish educators and Jewish institutions to address them. Her message very much reminds me of Daniel J. Libenson’s “Jewish Education for a Time of Wandering,” an article that has greatly impacted my own thinking as a Jewish educator. http://zeek.forward.com/articles/117450/. Libenson’s conclusion resonates well with that of Michelle Shapiro Abraham:
    “In the modern world, time feels sped up, and we are more impatient than ever to find immediate answers and to get where we are going. We all want to know what the future of Judaism will be, and we want to know it now. Paradigm shifts, however, take their own time. Previous versions of Judaism did not appear overnight, but rather took hundreds of years to materialize and solidify. Even after the cataclysm of the destruction of the Second Temple, the Jewish people wandered in the theological wilderness for at least another century before the consolidation of Rabbinic Judaism.

    “While we may be closer to the end than to the beginning of the paradigm shift that began 300 years ago with the Enlightenment and the Emancipation, we must acknowledge that we still live in a time of instability and transition—a time of wandering—and must educate accordingly.

    “An education of not knowing, an education of discovery, is our best hope.”

    In this time of transition, wandering or even paradigm shifts, Michelle’s challenge is helpful – to anchor ourselves in the past, while we envision and recreate the future.

  2. says

    I was in Israel on an educators’ trip back in 2000. We were staying with families in the Netivot area, Philadelphia’s partner city. The thing I had the most trouble with was explaining to my Israeli family what I did and why, in America, did we need Hebrew school. The family had four children, the youngest at that time was four years old. When I said that in our school, we teach kids to say the Hanukkah blessings, the four year old was in absolute shock. “I know how to say them,” she announced proudly. She knew how to say the blessing because she learned at home. Many American kids begin religious school in third grade and they do not know how to say the blessings. They were not taught at home. Their parents were not able to pass down that information, and, in many cases, neither were their grandparents.

    So many of our kids start their religious education in our congregational and community schools with exactly zero experience or knowledge. We need to make systemic change to our grammar and our institutions.

    I work for Jewish Learning Venture in Melrose Park, PA. Our LeV: Getting to the Heart of Jewish Education program is at the end of its first year. Our first cohort consists of four congregational schools who were willing to change the grammar and model of Jewish youth education. The schools are from different movements, different neighborhoods, and are of different sizes. Two of the four schools decided to “destroy” their old model in favor of a completely new way of educating youth AND their families. The other two schools are offering an alternative educational experience to those families that opt in. The models are experiential, do Judaism in Jewish time, include family engagement components, include technology components, re-examine curriculum, and the weekday-Sunday schedule. One of the biggest surprises to the directors of these schools was how little resistance there was from the congregation to make the change. It seemed that everyone was ready for change, except the congregations themselves. Once they committed to this process, the flood gates opened. Our agency supported them through the process of planning and this year we will support them through the process of implementation. We will be adding a new cohort this fall. The application process is open now and the excitement about the LeV program is papable.

    It is a shame that we only hear the wake-up call of the Shofar once a year. It is time to wake-up to the realities of the world we and our families live in and become the institutions that will support whole family learning in a very different way. There is no one-size-fits-all answer. But, there is an answer if only congregations would be open to the possibilities.

    Gloria Becker
    Director of Learning Technologies
    Jewish Learning Venture

  3. Paul Steinberg says

    I very much appreciate the response. I also agree that we need new languages, techniques, and ideas to inspire us to move forward in order to address the needs of the hour. My caution is twofold. On one hand, we need to be cautious about which languages and techniques we choose to use. Camp, for example, certainly works, but for a self-selecting group. Hebrew school is often comprised of many unwilling clientele merely fulfilling Bar/t Mitzvah prerequisites. Second, is that while we consider such languages and techniques we cannot “kick the can” of our sociological and cultural problems down the road for another decade. I am not convinced that our problem in Hebrew school is programmatic. I see Hebrew school bound to the same issues that synagogue institutions face, which are sociological and cultural. We are not going to successful tackle those problems on the backs of Hebrew schools. I think the essence of your response is right – I only differ in that I wouldn’t necessarily address it to Hebrew school alone.

  4. says

    I am the Education Director of Congregation Ohev Shalom in Wallingford, PA, one of the LeV congregations mentioned by Dr. Becker in her response. Our goal was to re-envision our school in order to give our learners and their families the Jewish experiences they need in order to make Judaism a part of their daily lives. We want them to care about what they are experiencing. We want them to feel more connected to and able to participate in our Jewish community. We want them to better understand how to make life choices Jewishly. And, most important, we want to establish within our learners the roots of a sustained personal Jewish identity, one that will grow and evolve as they do.

    As a student of Jewish history, I am very much aware of the myriad changes that have occurred to our people over the past 4000 years or so. The Judaism practiced by Rabbi Akiba was vastly different than the Judaism proposed by Moses, just as the Judaism of Mordechai Kaplan is greatly different from the practice of the Rambam. Each generation of Jews has, throughout history, had to adjust its practices and beliefs to accommodate new situations and new challenges. The challenge for us today is to make Judaism more meaningful and relevant to our children, so that they are not “led astray” by the temptations available to them in a free American society.

    At Ohev Shalom, we have chosen an educational model that combines the best elements of Jewish camps for our weekend sessions, with the options and flexibility of a ‘college’ model that allows students to choose those courses that are most meaningful to them for weekday classes. In addition, we will be offering our children a selection of real-time life cycle experiences, so that our children can experience how a Jewish community comes together for all facets of Jewish life. It is our hope that all these changes will give our children the cultural context they need to sustain a Jewish identity throughout a lifetime.

    Do I have any worries about this major change for our congregation? You bet I do. But it is worth the effort and the worries if it accomplishes our goals, so that our children can be comfortable living Jewishly in an American environment.