The Redemption of Hebrew School Redux

What will be our inspiration and idealism that will carry us through the thick of this painful Jewish educational and sociological battle without quitting or annihilating our conscience along the way?

by Paul Steinberg

Throughout this past year, I didn’t hear of any Jewish educator or rabbi hailing from the rafters that their memberships or enrollments are growing. In fact, across the nation, many synagogue memberships and Hebrew school enrollments are gradually decreasing, and it doesn’t look like anything is going to change in the foreseeable future.

We have to wonder whether Jewish communal and institutional leaders are seriously discussing and collaborating to stem this diminishing tide over the next five to ten to twenty years. Clearly, short-term problem solving is happening, but we need to think beyond one-off events and snazzy marketing. Indeed, now is a time of urgency, wherein we cannot consider it a mere luxury to devote energy toward visioning the future, prioritizing needs, and investing in long term, adaptive solutions.

In the meantime, the frontlines of the Jewish demographics and membership war are located in Hebrew schools and being fought by Jewish educators – the overworked grunts and unsung, ungratified, and underpaid heroes of Jewish history and sociology. This shouldn’t be a surprise, after all, the vast majority of Jews join a synagogue in order to enroll a child in preschool, to connect their child to other Jewish kids, or to train them in the tradition and B’nai Mitzvah skills. Ours is a practical people. Does anyone really think they pay thousands of dollars in membership for Shabbat services or to hear the rabbi’s sermons, which, by the way, are free to the public?

For the past year, the battle scarred, stressed out, and devalued Hebrew school educators were nationally called to reconsider their programs. Reinvigorate. Reimagine. Revolutionize. Reframe. Reinvent. Or, in case they didn’t get the message: Change! Change to what? Well, nobody really can say. Just get us more kids and families! Notice my emphasis (albeit a slightly cynical one), that the call for change is not necessarily about engaging students or raising mentsches or building a community of dynamic learning and spirituality. The motivation for change is richly laced with economics.

Surely economics and membership for membership’s sake are not insignificant concerns, and we educators cannot ignore them. That being said, it is during this moment and blend of Jewish American sociology that we must not succumb to the seduction of developing our programs around numbers alone. Rather, now is the time to reclaim. We must reclaim our vision of Jewish learning, of Jewish community, of Jewish living, and of the image of Jewish children we want to grow. Now more than ever we need to reclaim the idealism of the Jewish tradition – that same idealism that led Israelites out of slavery and across the sea, that same idealism that led us to become Jewish educators in the first place.

The two most obvious temptations that subtly divert and seduce Jewish educators are the “camp factor” and the “kvelling factor.” The camp factor, which is very popular nowadays, contends that we can take the successes of Jewish summer camp and transplant them into the Hebrew school by applying camp’s models and methods to the synagogue school environment. As I’ve written before,[1] unless we make Hebrew school twenty-four hours per day, away from television, school and homework, parents, and society in general, Hebrew school simply will not replicate camp. If we want to discuss the value of active and informal learning, which camp utilizes, well that’s a great conversation that has been going on for decades. (But it isn’t this conversation.)

The kvelling factor is that which captures parents and synagogue leaders at certain events throughout the year. It may be at a ceremony or performance of the children singing a Debbie Friedman tune or dressing up for Purim. Ceremonies and performances are lovely and every school has them. However, good Jewish educators know that a “camcorder moment” does not necessarily comprise evidence of enduring learning and engagement, or even enjoyable learning and engagement. In fact, many kids hate ceremonies and performances. They might feel this way because they intuit that rehearsing something that is imposed upon them by an adult, without time dedicated to genuine exploration and student-developed creative synthesis is actually canned, phony, and non-educative. Moreover, when we have such limited hours per week and we spend so many of them rehearsing, we should question their educational potency.

So what is it that we need to reclaim? What will be our inspiration and idealism that will carry us through the thick of this painful Jewish educational and sociological battle without quitting or annihilating our conscience along the way?

We need to reclaim the spirit of Jewish education. We need the Jewish spirit that precedes vision, mission, goals, and curriculum. What is it, after all, that we really want for our students and for our communities? Most say that it’s educating toward Jewish identity. But the problem is that we don’t go any further and define what that means, leaving many to understand education toward Jewish identity as merely a transmission of Jewish ideas, beliefs, or skills. It’s not.

Education toward Jewish identification is an organic and spiritual process whereby students learn not only the subject, but the teachers themselves. They learn their parents and they learn the community. And when they study Torah, they learn their ancestors. Therefore, education becomes a way of transmitting self-hood from generation to generation, generations close and distant. And when we talk of learning their teachers and ancestors, we are not simply referring to learning about them. Rather when we study Torah we become them. We become our parents, teachers, and we become Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.

An educated Jew with a Jewish identity traverses through the expanses of time, from generation to generation. When we are educated, we don’t merely learn about the slaves in Egypt, we became slaves in Egypt. We don’t just learn about the giving of the Torah, we received it at Mount Sinai with everybody else. We, together with Joshua and then with Elijah, crossed the river Jordan. We entered Jerusalem with David and we were later exiled from it, and later still had our eyes torn by the Babylonians with King Zedekiah in 586 BCE. We were smuggled out of Jerusalem with Yochanan ben Zakkai and learned Mishnah with Akiva. We fought the Romans in 70CE and were exiled from Spain 1492. We were bound to the stake by Crusaders in Mainz, we studied Torah in Yemen, and we lost our family in Kishinev. We were incinerated in Treblinka, rebelled in Warsaw, and immigrated to the Land of Israel in 1948, the country where we were born and then died, the country we left and to which we will return.[2]

As Jewish educators we understand that a good Jewish education moves us from generation to generation, continuously creating and recreating selfhood. Through our texts, our teachers, our families and communities, we become past, present and future all at once. We become part of something bigger than oneself, not merely to be a student of Torah, but to be of Torah.

As we prepare ourselves for end-of-year culminating events, and plan for the year to come, let us take a moment to reflect on the year that just past. Let’s ask ourselves: what makes for excellent and meaningful Jewish education that endures within the minds, hearts, down to the very souls of our students? This answer isn’t in reimagining, reframing, or revolutionizing anything. It’s simply hidden in plain sight. Enduring Jewish education weaves the binding spirit of promise of our Torah and history through the hearts of loving and creative administrators, knowledgeable and inspirational teachers, and supportive parents and lay leaders. The spirit of our tradition, voiced by millennia of rabbis and scholars, inspires and demands us to make ourselves and our communities better tomorrow than they are today, not bigger.

It’s easy for educators to lose sight of this spirit when we’re scrambling to grasp the frayed fringes of impossible demographics and sociology. So as the year comes to an end, before we leap to the next shiny fad to temporarily subdue attrition, let’s make sure to reclaim the motivating spirit of Torah as it breathes through us, so to ensure it is passed to our students.

Rabbi Paul Steinberg is the Senior Educator at Valley Beth Shalom in Los Angeles, CA and is the author of the award-winning series, Celebrating the Jewish Year (JPS, 2009). He also lectures at the Graduate School of Education at American Jewish University and is working on his doctoral dissertation on the Bar Mitzvah at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

[1] http://ejpprod.wpengine.com/the-redemption-of-hebrew-school/

[2] Inspired by a speech from Ezer Weizman.