What If the Model Isn’t Broken?

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.

Print Friendly
Pin It
Send to Kindle
Click here to to friends or colleagues!


  1. says

    Steve, you’re right that the current model can and does work for some children and families, but also right that it doesn’t and won’t for many others. You also indicate what is needed, which is not hectoring parents and children to do what they are not (yet) ready to do, but providing multiple options attuned to the diverse sensibilities and aspirations of our learners and families (which requires that their voices be part of the process) and geared to the different places they are at in their diverse Jewish journeys. The current model certainly can be one of those options — understood as you rightly present as part of a “package” of Jewish experiences that extends beyond the formal hours in religious school. But just as the measure of a Jewish life extends beyond ritual performance, so too our educational options need to include those that allow for and even emphasize other forms of Jewish expression. The key is forming a genuine partnership of program, parents, and participants that is open, honest, and evolving — all aimed at helping the child develop her or his unique Jewish “soul” as part of a supportive community. No single model is the right one for everyone, but many can be part of an encompassing array of carefully designed, well implemented learning opportunities for Jewish children and families. The role of a congregation needs to be broadened from being only an educational provider, to serving as an educational steward, helping connect families to the experiences, whether in the synagogue itself or beyond, that will help them grow Jewishly at a pace and in a direction that they find meaningful and fulfilling. Both individual models of new programs and new ways for synagogues to think about their roles are beginning to appear in ever greater numbers. As you suggest, we should embrace this process so that every child has a Jewish experience as rewarding and gratifying to observe as the one you describe undoubtedly was for that young woman.

  2. says

    “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. ”

    This vision for Judaism is focused inward. I think many people are looking for a Judaism that focuses outward. The congregational school model segregates children into Jewish-only groups, and withdraws them from other activities (like Tae Kwan Do) that have broader participation. I think tat for both parents and children living in a diverse and inclusive world, there is a need to find a Judaism that can be lived in that world, not one predicated on withdrawal from it into Jewish-only spaces.

  3. A Greenstein says

    I think the author is right- This model of Jewish education works some of the time. I think there are are however two issues ; the first was referred to in the comment section that if we separate our children to “do Jewish” once a week on Tuesday evening it sends a terrible message about what it means for someone who is Jewish the whole rest of the week. If you are only Jewish for an hour on tuesday how important can it be? Issue 2 is the the financial model of the synagogue. The synagogues use their schools to drive membership and to pay for their real estate. Lip service is paid to education being a priority. Lay leadership are hiring Rabbi/Educators not to gain a deeper perspective on Jewish education but to gain a 2 for the price for one professional person. If education really mattered then the line item for professional development would extend past the rabbis which in most congregations it does not. Until education for the sake of Jewish education is a priority rather than for the sake of revenue stream becomes a priority in the congregations you can’t even have the conversation about the fact that “pull outs” for weekly ” Jewish lessons might need to change.

  4. Karla Worrell says

    Religious schools should focus on teaching faith – faith that starts with ritual then takes the beliefs and values found in our ritual and transposes them into daily life. I believe it’s the attempt to broaden religious school experience beyond instilling the skills and inspiration for spiritual participation in the community that has led to many of our current problems. Our youth and families will learn general skills to be active participants in the greater world outside of the synagogue walls. However, they can only learn how to practice the faith that is at the core of our peoplehood in our synagogues and religious schools – the outside world will not teach them this. If we spend our limited time with them teaching what can be learned elsewhere, we give them less of what only we can impart: the passion for Jewish life and faith, the skills to live that life successfully both within the community and outside of it and the opportunity to experience active participation in Jewish life.

  5. says

    Isaac, today, Chinese children go to Chinese school, Hindu children go to Hindu school, Latino children go to Spanish school. Christian children go to church school. No longer are Jews the only minority that splits off from the majority for a small part of the week to focus on its traditions and language. Every minority today is doing a balancing act, so a little Hebrew school isn’t so out of step.

  6. says

    David, I’m not questioning the legitimacy of Hebrew school or suggesting it is not appropriate to have Jewish-only experiences. I’m just saying that for most parents and kids, it’s not a resonant and relevant way to experience Jewish education. Others may be trying it, with varying degrees success, but it’s certainly not working for the Jewish people like it once did.

  7. Bill Robinson says

    Why is it that a family who wants to raise their child to appreciate Judaism, like we appreciate music or sports (taking lessons but without ever the aspiration to be great musicians or athletes), is not seen as a worthy endeavor and just as valuable as those few families who encourage their children to be the equivalent of a Jewish concert pianist? Perhaps the real problem is our unrealistic expectations for congregational education. Is the one success that Steve mentioned a model for everyone or the exception that proves the rule?

  8. says

    I would echo Jonathan Woocher’s comments and add to it that we should also remember that the needs and practices of families today are different than those of the early 20th century when the “religious school” model was developed. Dual working parents or single parents, societal pressures to provide children with a set of well-rounded experiences (thus the Tae Kwon Do example), etc, have led (forced? pressured?) many of our families to make the choices of “Jewish on Tuesday from 4-6 pm” so that they can do music on Wednesdays and soccer on Saturdays, even though that might not be their ideal either. Rather than giving families guilt over the choices they make, we should be thinking about how to provide options for learning and connection and engagement. We should be figuring out how to meet kids and parents and families where they are. We can no longer fit their square pegs into our out-dated round holes.

  9. says


    I have always respected your opinions, and I know you have thought deeply and passionately about this issue. I think, however, you have allowed your investment in the extant system to cloud your judgment. I feel comfortable saying that because, as someone who was equally invested in that system, I allowed the same to happen. I still hold out hope, as you do, that the extant supplementary education model can be salvaged. However, the vast majority of the voices I hear, particularly those of students and parents, echo the ones who have written here that the inward-focused model just doesn’t work for them. As Jonathan Woocher stated, we do need to shift our role to that of guide or as he calls it, steward.

    I recall discussions some years back in the DC area Educator’s Council that we ought to rethink the title “religious school” because that’s not what we taught. Karla Worrell seems to think we ought to be teaching “faith.” I would suggest to her that no amount of teaching can give someone faith. I also believe that it precisely OUTSIDE our synagogues that we truly come to understand what our faith requires an demands of us. How many beggars and homeless people do we encounter inside the synagogue or religious school? Judaism is not about what we practice when we’re only with our congregation, but what we practice in the world, each and every day. The challenges of our ever-changing society – from poverty to racism to violent video games to you-name-it – are there precisely to challenge us. Hiding away in our synagogue classrooms we won’t encounter them except as intellectual exercises. We have, I am afraid, intellectualized our religion almost to death. It’s time to teach our children how to lives as Jews in the real world – by living in the real world, and doing our teaching int he real world.

  10. says

    As far as other groups who send their children for particular rather than universalist education, this appears to be less important for each group as time and generations go on. The groups David mentions may be more invested the closer they are to the first generation immigrant experience. We can’t expect our institutions to ” conquer” the forces of society in general. The world we live in has changed. People do not join groups unless those groups fill what they perceive as their own needs. Membership and participation that was once seen as normative is now totally optional. We look for our families to fill OUR needs. It needs to be flipped. We need to fill THEIR real needs in a setting that is congruent with our core values and ideals.