Changing the Negative Narrative of Synagogue Education

Stephen Wise Free Synagogue religious school program; photo courtesy.
Stephen Wise Free Synagogue religious school program; photo courtesy.

By Nancy Parkes

As a Director of Congregational Learning, I know the negative comments about synagogue schools all too well. Sometimes they are blatant comments made by adults who have limited or no knowledge of the changes that are happening in synagogue schools. Sometimes they are comments directed at the families, suggesting that they care less about their children’s education because they made the choice to send their children to a synagogue school. Sometimes – and by no means any less powerful – children who attend synagogue schools are simply not mentioned when lay leaders or clergy speak about the education and experiences that will lead to the development of future Jewish leaders.

As much as we as Jewish educators try, the overwhelming message from our critics is that we are not affecting the Jewish future. For those of us in synagogue education, who care passionately about the Jewish future and about transforming Jewish lives, this can be defeating, and exhausting trying to prove otherwise.

All of us working and teaching in synagogue schools are acutely aware of the limitations of the synagogue setting. We don’t deny it; rather, we talk about it, acknowledge it, and partner with our families and clergy to expand learning outside of the classroom and beyond the limited hours a week our learners are in the building. We reach out to our colleagues and to experts in the field to learn what successful innovation is taking place and how it can be adapted to work in our schools. We attend conferences; we participate in webinars; and, we try new ways to reach our learners. We also encourage our learners to attend Jewish camps, so that Jewish learning and living happen 12 months a year. We organize trips to Israel and support youth group programming. We know that through these kinds of partnerships and sharing of ideas and innovations, we can impact the lives of our learners.

Sometimes, besides our best efforts, we do fail. But, we learn from this, move forward, and, do succeed. We can argue and debate what defines success, and it’s certainly important that we do so. I only ask that our critics, at the very least, join us in the conversation and acknowledge that synagogue education can be valuable, meaningful, and, at its best, transformative.

In Brene Brown’s book, Daring Greatly: How The Courage To Be Vunerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, she refers to the following excerpt from President Theodore Roosevelt’s speech, “Citizenship In A Republic” delivered at the Sorbonne, in Paris, France on April 23, 1910:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly……”

Brown points out in her book that we cannot prevent the hurt that is caused when people speak disparaging about what we do. As a result, Brown has decided that she is simply not interested in anyone’s feedback unless it comes from those that are “in the arena with the rest of us, fighting and getting our ass kicked on occasion,” (p.91). I admit that I find value in this philosophy. But here’s the rub. We are all in the arena – the Jewish arena – together. The problem is that I am not sure how many see it that way. And so, in my opinion, the critics of Jewish education do count, especially when they have an audience that depends on them for guidance in regard to where they should give their emotional and financial support, and the value that should be placed on synagogue education.

I am confident this negative narrative will change. It already has in our community and in many others. Parents and children are telling different stories about their experiences in synagogue schools. More children are bringing their learning home and living what they are learning. Youth groups and camp experiences are being integrated into the school experience, as are trips to Israel for teens and families. The narrative is changing. We just need more people to listen and to tell their stories.

So if you believe that synagogue schools matter, tell your story. Post a message on Facebook today that synagogue schools can and do make a difference. Write an article about the innovative experiences you or your synagogue schools are creating to transform the lives of your learners. Ask your lay leaders and clergy to talk about the value of not only day school education, Jewish camps, Israel trips, and youth groups, but also of the education children and adults are receiving in your synagogue.

I hope my legacy is that I have not only made a difference – even if it is a minimal one- in the Jewish future, but that I have also played some part in changing the negative narrative so often heard about synagogue education. It will only happen, however, if we are willing to stand in the arena together and truly support each other in building the Jewish future.

Nancy Parkes is the Director of Congregational Learning at Temple Israel Center in White Plains, an egalitarian synagogue in White Plains, NY.