Seriously Shaking Up Hebrew School Education

By Todd L. Pittinsky

Hebrew school is going up against a lot of competition these days – and often getting beat. The Jewish people are a busy people. Children and their parents have to choose amongst soccer and skating, coding and Cub Scouts – not to mention the ever-rising pile of homework. Hebrew school teachers, we are told, are too often uninspired, the children are bored, and the parents too often think their responsibility ends with car-pool duty. However sweet the challah and however strong the grape juice, each year, fewer and fewer American Jewish parents are making the push, let alone the schlep, to get their children to Hebrew school. Many professionals in the Jewish community are at a loss as to how to stem the flow.

Hebrew schools are trying all kinds of things: a more hands-on approach, more independent learning, more computers, more singing, more professional development. But the attention, the children, and the philanthropic money seem to be migrating to Jewish summer camps, at one end, and private Jewish day schools at the other. These institutions do have plenty to show for themselves. But the unique value of Hebrew school is what it has always been: an entry into a spiritual life and into an ongoing, year-round Jewish community for a broad swath of Jewish children (as well as a catalyst for their families to connect to temples). So Hebrew schools need to be improved, not abandoned.

This will require serious shaking up of the Hebrew school education model. One promising way to shake the system up before it goes into a coma is to borrow a very successful method from the Scouts: merit badges.

In Scouting, a badge means you have proven that you know about something or know how to do something. It’s information you had to learn, a skill you had to master, or a virtue or quality you have cultivated and now are proud to exhibit. You don’t get a badge for showing up one or two days a week or because someone else got one. A badge stands for something that the organization or community awarding it considers important.

In the context of Hebrew school, a badge-based approach is particularly promising. Students might earn badges for learning how to read Hebrew or Yiddish at different levels, for learning about great Jewish artists, Jewish rituals and holidays, and Jewish cooking traditions, or for learning about Kabbalah or Zionism (for those learners and educators who wish to go there). There could be badges for students who learn about what made some of the Great Rabbis great. There could be badges for Jewish history and for Jewish history for example, a badge for learning about the biblical matriarchs and one for contemporary female movers and shakers. The possibilities are vast and exciting.

Badges may seem hayseed compared to proposals couched in the latest educational lingo. But they are not. As anyone who has seen a Girl or Boy Scout proudly display a badge sash knows, badges are nachas manifest. They are an elegant and time-tested means of prioritizing and conveying knowledge and skills that a group deems valuable. For very good reasons, badges are becoming, as the kids say, a “thing” – not yet at Hebrew schools, but at corporations and universities. For Hebrew schools, they offer:

  • Flexibility. Badges can capture a wide range of skills, including those that are often missed or ignored by formal class structures, such as learning to give (tzedakah and tikkun olam). They don’t have to fit into a specific time frame. They allow a profoundly and wonderfully large topic like “Jewish education” to be broken up into enticing chunks, each with a clear sense of purpose, accomplishment, and – at the end – reward.
  • Community building. Badges are a way for Jewish kids to connect with other Jewish kids – and adult mentors – who share an interest. They can also connect kids in Jewish communities that are widely separated in space or in their branches of Judaism through the mastery of shared reference points. And relatedly, they offer mobility. While individual Hebrew schools often tend to move in their own orbits, badges would offer a kind of clearly transferrable “transcript” for kids when a family joins a new temple.
  • Direction. Most temples have a formal education committee which is often having a hard time deciding what the kids should learn. And it can be more difficult still to make transparent to prospective temple members what exactly their kids would be learning. Badges allow for both consistency and choice, giving the curriculum a healthy transparency. They can also channel parent involvement into offering new badges.
  • Motivating. The thrill of displaying one’s badge collection as it grows is precisely the kind of engagement, enthusiasm, and excitement most Hebrew school educators and parents would die for.
  • Crowdsourcing potential. Badges offer a way to turn a world of experts, groups, companies, and organizations into teachers at your Hebrew school. For example, an organization concerned with ecology and Judaism, such as Hazon, might develop a curriculum and badge on Jewish values that pertain to ecology and sustainability. A Jewish museum might develop a curriculum and badge on great Jewish art. A center for Holocaust studies might develop a curriculum and badge for learning about the Shoah.

There is really no end to what can be done. For example, after a bar or bat mitzvah, the badge sash can be dusted off and made ready for a new batch of badges designed to keep young adults and even older adults excited and learning.

The great thing about the badge system is that it would give both Jewish children and their Hebrew school educators a way to choose from the infinite world of knowledge and abilities and to keep building up a rich and practical Jewish identity at a very manageable, self-motivating pace. The troubles facing Jewish education in America today could instead be the opportunity for a burst of learning and accomplishment.

Todd L. Pittinsky is a professor, abba, and founder of the Bubbe’s Badges project, online at www.facebook.com/pg/BubbesBadges