What if the model isn’t broken? Using the Congregational Religious School as it was intended to be used
by Steve Kerbel
I have spent my adult life, even when pursuing other career choices, involved in Jewish education. I spent twenty years on the informal side, staffing and writing study materials for youth groups and Jewish camps, teaching in religious schools, tutoring b’nai mitzvah, and eventually teaching in day schools and leading two congregational religious schools for the last 18 years. I am a product of two excellent day schools, USY and several fine Jewish summer camps.
A few weeks ago, on a Shabbat morning, events converged in the sanctuary of the suburban Washington, DC congregation where I now work that lead me to believe that the congregational model of education might just work, if it’s used properly. Like any tool, you get different results if the tool is in the hands of an experienced craftsman versus a weekend warrior. Allow me to expand the thought.
Two smachot occurred, an auf ruf of a couple who met in the 4th grade of our religious school, and a bat mitzvah of one of our students. This was not the ordinary student, by any definition. She is gifted with a beautiful voice, she is poised and mature. But she has also been in synagogue most shabbatot since she was two weeks old. Her family welcomes Shabbat every week, builds a Sukkah and invites guests to share in its use, her father blows shofar on the High Holidays. When this family’s younger son had a conflict between weekday religious school and his Tae Kwon Do class, it was the Tae Kwan Do that yielded to religious school, not the other way around. The children in this family attend a Jewish content summer camp for four weeks every summer.
I contend that this is the right way to use the Congregational religious school model. You participate in services and activities, you take a role, you bring your Judaism into your home and you carry it out again, sharing it with others. This student led all of Kabbalat Shabbat on Friday evening, led the Torah service, read all 8 aliyot and led the congregation in Musaf. Not a typical suburban bat mitzvah. This was a religious school student, not a day school student. To me, it was a lesson in what can be, when we put a product to its best, intended use.
There is a lot of discussion and dissent in the education and lay communities that the model is failed, its failing most families, its tired, I’ve even heard that it needs to be blown up. The model as designed has the potential for success; to create comfort, confidence and community. The model can create committed, literate, striving Jews who integrate Jewish rhythms into their daily lives. We can connect our people to our living texts, we can teach about the sanctity of people and the sanctity of time, we might even improve the quality of our families’ lives. The cost is family buy-in and involvement. If you commit to raising a serious Jew the same way you commit to a serious musician or athlete, it takes what all these people talk about: participation, cheering your kid on, modeling healthy behavior, and yes, as any concert musician or Olympian will tell you, sacrifice. All those athlete profiles we watched from London this summer moved our emotions about how the athlete’s families have to sacrifice for the success of their child. I think we have to create this same expectation for our families if they want to commit to raising successful Jews.
The problem, however, is that the vast percentage of families involved in congregational education are the equivalent of those who take music lessons or participate in a sport and do not become, nor do they have any aspirations to become, concert musicians or Olympians. What models can we adapt or create to attract and retain these families as active, engaged and continuing participants in Jewish communal life?
The ‘model is broken’ conversation comes from the growing acceptance that, although we know what could work, we have been unsuccessful in convincing our audience. We are constantly in the position of the salesman who ‘successfully’ sells the car except for one small problem – the customer doesn’t buy it. The search for alternatives to the current model is driven by a desire to find the formula that will somehow break through this conundrum. We are without a doubt in a period of searching, transition and change. It may be that the formula I describe will remain as a viable option for some families within a larger community-driven set of alternatives. But for now, the search for the right context and mix goes on.
I’m not certain there is an exact formula that will work for everyone, and even the highest quality tool doesn’t produce the highest quality result every time. Perhaps the right investment by the consumers in the product, and quite frankly, better modeling and instruction by education professionals, can make a big difference in making something that may not be working for everyone work better for more people in an affordable, accessible way.
Steve Kerbel is Director of Education at Congregation B’nai Tzedek, Potomac, Maryland, is the current chair of the Education Directors Council of Greater Washington and a national officer of the Jewish Educators Assembly.