“And You Shall Teach Them Diligently”: Expanding the Ecosystem?

By Dr. Gil Graff

The Biblical Jacob, concerned about the approach of Esau with an armed militia, famously deployed multiple strategies to prepare for the encounter. Millennia later, the descendants of Jacob/Israel encounter a world of boundless opportunity and consider strategies for introducing successive generations to the wisdom of Judaism. Residential Jewish camp programs, Israel experiences and Jewish day schools are commonly referenced as immersive settings associated with lifelong Jewish engagement.

The goals and objectives of programs in these settings widely differ. Though a child might, during a summer camp session, experience shabbat, for example, he/she is unlikely to acquire Hebrew proficiency in that environment (alone). When, years ago, I served as director of a summer camp, it was expected that all campers pursue Jewish learning in some fashion between seasons. The goals of a “religious, educational, Hebrew camp” extended to encouraging investment in Jewish literacy beyond what could be achieved in a limited summer session. Israel experiences such as Birthright recognize the limitations of short term, immersive programs and undertake to extend and deepen the impact of the experience through “post-program” Jewish educational engagement of participants. Day schools enjoy the benefit of multiple, nine month school years over which to provide rich experiences of Jewish learning and living.

Much has been done, in the most recent two decades, to “re-imagine” complementary Jewish education. Experiential learning – for students and their families – has become more common than in previous decades. After school Jewish education is largely about “enculturation.” Familiarity with Jewish holidays and life cycle rituals; ability to decode Hebrew letters; understanding a glossary of Jewish terms and the values they represent; consideration of select Biblical and rabbinic texts (in translation) as they relate to the life of the student; service learning; and a sense of connection to Jews in the world (including Israel) across time and place are among the curricular foci of complementary Jewish education. It is rare to find a synagogue-sponsored complementary Jewish education program that meets more than twice per week, and even twice weekly meetings are not a norm. Hebrew literacy – including access to the classical literature of Jewish teaching in its original language – is not part of the educational vision.

This is, by no means, to suggest that today’s “mainstream” complementary education programs are not praiseworthy. They are, by and large, well-conceived and implemented by caring and thoughtful educators. These programs nurture awareness, appreciation and internalization of aspects of Jewish learning and living and encourage lifelong interest in a continuing journey of meaningful (to the learner) Jewish growth.

Much has been written about day school affordability, and significant efforts are being made – and will continue – to ensure that those with interest in this educational framework who are unable to pay $20,000 per child (after taxes) for elementary school and/or $30,000+ for high school students, can imagine the possibility of sending their child(ren) to such schools. Notwithstanding good efforts, there are many who would desire day school opportunity for their children who do not even inquire, because the finances involved are so staggering.

Writing in 1865, Bernard Felsenthal, a prominent Reform Rabbi in Chicago, pointed to a serious lacuna of once-per-week Jewish education. “If the boys and girls are to be so advanced that at the close of their school years … the Hebrew portions of our liturgy do not seem alien, and the easier books of the Bible are practically comprehensible in their original tongue, then we must establish for them such institutions in which this goal is attainable. In a Sabbath school where the Jewish children assemble once weekly, this given goal cannot be reached….” For Rabbi Felsenthal, enculturation alone was insufficient; Hebrew literacy skills were an essential Jewish educational goal.

I do not suggest that all Jewish families must or should necessarily embrace Rabbi Felsenthal’s vision. However, for those who do, but who lack the means to access day school education, what are the available options? There are a few Hebrew charter schools with “wrap around” Jewish educational experiences (separate, of course, from the publicly funded charter school) and, in some communities, “grass roots” initiatives providing 8-12 “after school” hours of Jewish programming, including Hebrew language instruction have been launched. I welcome visibility that readers might be able to share about such models.

Absent individual capacity and communal readiness to seat all who would seek tools of Jewish learning at Jewish day schools, query whether – in areas of dense Jewish population – it might be imaginable to create an after school program for children in elementary school (and high school, in those communities that do not, already, feature a Hebrew High School) that would meet 8-12 hours per week “after school,” with knowledge-based literacy goals, including Hebrew proficiency, alongside the mission of Jewish enculturation. Each of 8-10 synagogues in a limited geographic zone might have 8-10 families with school-aged children interested in such a program. None of these synagogues would organize its “mainstream” program to accommodate a small minority of families. However, these “outliers” from each synagogue – combined with others in the area who might not be synagogue-affiliated – might constitute a “critical mass” for such a program. Ideally, synagogues would partner in making such an educational option available to children and families who would, likely, largely be drawn from these congregations.

I work professionally at an agency for Jewish education that devotes considerable effort, in partnership with schools, foundations and other organizations, to developing immediate and long-term strategies for ensuring day school access to those requiring financial assistance. These efforts must be strengthened, toward achieving the possibility of making day school education available to all who would like to participate. Notwithstanding schools’ current efforts to create user-friendly mechanisms for accessing day school education at rates that parents might reasonably consider, however, the reality is that there are growing numbers of people who care about the type of literacy skills associated with day schools who are, today, unable to go that route. Jacob’s model of pursuing multiple strategies can, perhaps, serve as a guide to his legatees. Might it be time to consider an “old-new” addition to the ecosystem of Jewish education?

Dr. Gil Graff is Executive Director of BJE: Builders of Jewish Education.