Teach your children

Synagogue schools: creating a sense of belonging to the Jewish people

In Short

Supplementary schools have always been an integral part of the Jewish ecosystem, alongside summer camps, travel to Israel and teen programs.

As school breaks for the summer, and we look towards the new school year, our minds are still on the Census of Jewish Supplementary Schools conducted by The Jewish Education Project and its findings. As practitioners and researchers, we are grateful for this important contribution to the data on Jewish education, and on supplementary schools in particular [full disclosure: both Nancy and Saul served on the practitioner committee that provided feedback on early drafts of the report; Nancy participated in the design of the framework for part-time education that accompanied the report, and Saul serves on the board of trustees of The Jewish Education Project]. Yet, we were disappointed that the finding that garnered the most attention was the declining enrollment in this setting, rather than the successes and resilience of part-time education and its educational leaders.

Neither of us were especially surprised by the numbers reported on synagogue enrollment. Synagogue school participation has been on the decline since its peak in the early 1960s. There are many ways to interpret the changing numbers in any given school other than the often cited assumption that it must be the subpar quality of the program. For us, the most relevant variables are the changing demographics in the Jewish community and the budget of a synagogue or other supplementary school. In New York City, for example, neighborhoods in the Upper West and East sides are seeing lower enrollment that mirrors the decline in the parent-age Jewish population. Compared to day schools and camps, most supplementary schools have received little funding to address the challenges of this setting and, with budgets limited to addressing the basic needs of the school, few can afford to take the risks and spend the necessary money to innovate.  

Despite this, the census shows that the majority of parents in the target population in North America continue to choose this setting to educate their children, more than any other form of Jewish learning. In previous decades, school enrollment was often linked to compulsory attendance requirements for those becoming Bar and Bat Mitzvah. Today, with the number of more affordable and less time-consuming alternatives available, this cannot explain the ongoing commitment of families to this approach.  

We contend that the best explanation for the resilience of synagogue schools is the devotion and creativity of educators in this setting, as is reflected by the design principles that accompany the census. They have consistently adapted to the changing needs of their families and learners. Over a century ago, they integrated art, music and drama into their curricula. Many have made the building of relationships paramount, creating positive, joyful environments for learning by integrating social-emotional learning into their daily schedules and curricula. Others have shifted the roles of teachers and students through project-based learning, experiential education, and educational technology.  

Synagogues provide a unique educational setting because of the life experiences they offer. As both spiritual and cultural centers, synagogues are places where intentional, values-driven, intergenerational relationships can be built amidst diverse populations. They provide opportunities for individuals to share different viewpoints and perspectives, for experiencing life’s joys and sorrows, and for demonstrating what it means to be responsible to others.  

We recognize that only in some cases are synagogue schools viewed as an intrinsic and vibrant part of a synagogue’s identity and mission, or places where educators are valued as key members of the institutional leadership. And yet, educators in synagogue schools are dedicated and devoted to their students and their teaching. Additionally, many view their work as a means to expand their own Jewish knowledge, to engage in regular Jewish practice, and to develop relationships with others who share a deep love of Judaism. One could say that supplementary school faculties form the largest collective of adult Jewish learners in North America.  

The old trope that parents are demanding their children waste their time “because I went to religious school and hated it” rings false. In fact, in our work as congregational educators and consultants, we more often hear parents telling us, “I wish religious school had been like this when I was a kid!”This is supported by the finding that 87% of students in synagogue schools loved or liked their schools! This is a statistic that should be celebrated! 

Supplementary schools have always been an integral part of the Jewish ecosystem, alongside summer camps, travel to Israel and teen programs. Often participants and staff are shared by these programs, and the educators move fluidly between roles in these settings as they advance in their careers. Jewish educators have strong collegial relationships with one another, across denominations, geography and institution, operating from a “rising tide lifts all boats” mindset that, unfortunately, is not always shared by institutional leaders and outside funders. 

We call upon all those who care about the future of the synagogue school to read this census and to act upon it. Yes, there has been a decline in synagogue enrollment. But synagogue schools are still where over half of all students in the target population are enrolled in sixth grade. One hundred percent of the respondents believe in the importance of synagogue schools in creating a sense of belonging to the Jewish people. The design principles noted in the study are being implemented in many schools, resulting in knowledgable, engaged students and families who love their schools! This census and its findings lend credence to what we already know: Synagogue schools and educators are resilient, creative and dedicated to what they do. But funds are desperately needed to attract, train and retain good teachers. When synagogue leadership and donors tie the school budget directly to enrollment, it may prioritize recruitment and marketing over professional development and improvements in classroom instruction. We need leaders and funders to support our educators, so that they can continue to innovate and meet the needs of future generations.

Nancy Parkes, Ed.D., is an educational consultant and lecturer, who for 11 years served as the education director at Temple Israel Center in Westchester, N.Y. Saul Kaiserman, RJE, is writing his dissertation in Jewish education, having served for 15 years as the director of lifelong learning at Temple Emanu-El in New York City. Both are products of synagogue supplementary schools (Nancy loved it, Saul did not).