Can We Disrupt Religious School?

game changer

By Beth Cousens

Part I: Religious school accomplisheseverything” – and also very little

Philip Roth’s Operation Shylock tracks a main character (named Philip Roth) through a long search for self in Israel. At one point, the character is kidnapped and kept in a dingy basement classroom in Jerusalem.

The classroom helps him recall his religious school days, his experiences in Newark in the 1930s, and he states that “it” – this journey of his through the holy land – it all began:

…back when I’d first taken my seat in that small, ill-ventilated classroom that was the Newark original of this makeshift Jerusalem replica, during those darkening hours when I could barely bring myself to pay attention after a full day in the school where my heart was somehow always light, the public school from which I understood clearly, every day in a thousand ways, my real future was to arise. But how could anything come of going to Hebrew school? The teachers were lonely foreigners, poorly paid refugees, and the students – the best among us along with the worst – were bored, restless American kids, ten, eleven, twelve years old, resentful of being cooped up like this year after year… Hebrew school wasn’t school at all but part of the deal that our parents had cut with their parents, the sop to pacify the hold generation, who wanted the grandchildren to be Jews the way that they were Jews, bound as they were to the old millennial ways – and, at the same time… who had it in their heads to be Jews in a way that no one had ever dared to be a Jew in our three-thousand-year history… Our put upon-parents were simply middlemen in the classic American squeeze, negotiating between the shtetl-born and the Newark-born… rebuking the young ones, “You must, you have to, you cannot turn your back on everything!” What a compromise! What could possibly come of these three or four hundred hours of the worst possible teaching in the worst possible atmosphere for learning? Why everything – what came of it was everything! (1993, p 312)

What a perfect description of religious school! It made no sense – not the way his secular life did – and received no resources and seemed to be understandable only as part of the arrangement his parents made with their parents for living the goldene, good life in America. Public school mattered. Religious school was just something to survive. And yet, it worked. It worked! What came of it was everything (that’s Roth’s emphasis): It imprinted on Roth that he, fundamentally, at his core, is a Jew. And that, in and of itself, is everything.

Repeatedly, when I interview educators about their congregational education programs, I hear something like, “We just can’t get that much done. All we can hope for is some fundamental identity stuff. There isn’t rigor. This isn’t day school.” Sometimes, their goals for their schools include fun – that is, that students should find Judaism fun. Sometimes, their goals include relevance and family engagement and practice. One congregation well captures this in their school’s mission statement: “Our goal is to foster a love for Judaism: A Judaism that is relevant to daily life and a source of ethics and spiritual fulfillment.” There are other goals in this statement – relevance and meaning and integration into daily life. But, the mission statement says, love is first.

These goals (love, relevance) aren’t unimportant. To Roth, they’re “everything.” But they’re also, literally, the basics. Without a sense of self-definition as a Jew (a.k.a. identity), without love, and without fun, nothing else can get done. These things are everything and what we want for our children. But what if that’s all that gets done? What happens when school stops at these basics?

Part 2: Disrupting the religious schoolresetting goals and expectations

Helpful work has been done recently documenting and advocating new models of congregational education. As synagogues have completed projects like Reimagine (the renewed Experiment in Congregational Education) and local Bureau of Jewish Education processes, and as the after-school/Hebrew school model proliferates and influences Jewish educational culture, schools have been redesigned. At this point in this process of educational change, we can see the religious school of the future, and it sometimes, even often, looks only a little like school. Significant change has been made.

Some of this change seems like Silicon Valley’s coveted disruption. Going from meeting from 4-6 pm on Tuesdays to meeting in the summer for “camp”? Or from children meeting in classrooms to families meeting in living rooms? In a sense, this is, indeed, disruption. The shape of the program is radically different.

But two things are relevant here. The first is that only, or primarily (to be fair), the shape of the school is different. What’s the same? What we teach. The profile of the teachers and facilitators. How we train and meet with the teachers.

The second is that a new market has not necessarily developed for these programs, their sponsoring synagogues not necessarily attracting new members and families through these programs, the schools not necessarily creating a new paradigm of teaching and learning. This – the creation of a new market – is the original definition of disruption, that a project identifies and serves a market that previously couldn’t be served. Otherwise, it’s just plain old change – and it’s not necessarily as sticky, or meaningful, as disruption. Disruption changes the game. Change just repackages it.

This change that has occurred in religious school programs across North America has not been easy. It takes real courage to shift these programs that occupy so much congregational energy and that are so attached to the financial bottom line of congregations. And, I’m underestimating the value of some of the change that has happened in congregational education. In the Bay Area, for example, the communal change project in which some synagogue schools engaged (with Jewish Learning Works) resulted in many of them developing deeply Judaic, rabbinic, visions for their schools. In some cases, more students seem to be having more fun and to know more.

Perhaps some know more, but now, students are (finally) meeting our expectations, which weren’t that high to begin with. We can still do better than this. Much better. Judaism itself demands that we do better, that we not just repackage religious school but fundamentally reshape it, raising our expectations of students and of ourselves.

Mordechai Kaplan, in Judaism as a Civilization, makes this call: “The only raison d’etre for Jewish education is the assumption that without it the Jew cannot possibly know what to make of his status as a Jew.”

This is both a straightforward statement and an incredibly intense one. What do we make of our status as Jews? What does it mean to be human and Jewish, living in a non-Jewish state, living among non-Jews (even in the Jewish state)? This question is unresolvable and also the focus of a life, the content of an eternal curriculum, the heart of the rabbis’ Talmudic debates.

Religious school cannot just be fun. Fun is simply not that compelling – it’s fine for a year or two, but cannot combat the call of the soccer field, day after day, year after year. Moreover, there is a difference, one Bay Area educator pointed out, between simcha – a deeply Jewish value – and kef – something we have on Saturday night, and the first is lasting and meaningful. And that’s just one aspect of the work we could be doing.

Education scholar Ted Sizer offered “habits of mind and heart” as a framework for establishing relevant and moving learning goals for schools. Such habits are dispositions, orientations, ways of approaching the world. In Jewish language, habits of heart are middot, characteristics, the enactment of values. We have habits of mind in Jewish language as well, though they might seem less obvious. We read texts in certain ways, inventing midrash or following pardes, and we understanding history through memory, and we view the individual within the context of the collective. These are ways of thinking and they help us know not just what but how to think Jewishly.

Religious school has changed dramatically in the recent past. Perhaps it has become more effective. But it could be a game changer in Jewish life if it were disrupted, truly changed so that new markets found it relevant and so that it created a new way of teaching and learning in Jewish life. It could be disrupted if it led students through genuine human growth, through a process steeped in Jewish narrative and Jewish language and in Jewish ways of being and that facilitates the student’s becoming who they will be. This calls for making choices – we cannot teach everything in habits schools – and it calls for sophisticated ideas about pedagogy and for talented educators. Can we do it? What does it look like? I’m not sure. But for religious school to mean, genuinely, everything, we need to try.

Dr. Beth Cousens is a consultant to Jewish educational organizations in the areas of strategy, program development, and evaluation and measurement. She is the author of numerous articles and research publications about Jewish life and living and blogs at