The Redemption of Hebrew School

by Paul Steinberg

In the hierarchy of devalued occupations, Hebrew school is a top contender. It is a lot of hard work with little evidence of success and even less thanks. There is actually a Facebook page that captures what many think: “I HATE HEBREW SCHOOL” (caps theirs). Thankfully, it had only 82 ‘likes’ at my last visit. How can we overcome this tragic dilemma, whereby synagogues deploy precious resources toward Hebrew school, often to little avail? Can we redeem Hebrew school?

The truth is that, aside from a lot of kvetching, very little has been done to address the enormous Hebrew school population (app. 70-75% of kids receiving a Jewish education). Interestingly, some have called for changing the name to “supplementary school.” Or, if you prefer, the most current renderings are “complementary school” and “learning center.” Although the Talmud declares that changing a name changes one’s luck, Hebrew school needs a bit more than luck to face its challenges.

In addition to a name change, there are other conversations taking place to re-imagine Hebrew school. They usually take two powerful directions. One is to integrate more technology in the classroom and the other is concentrate more on experiential education, and to make it more like camp (the Jewish educational success case du jour).

Technology may be a great tool to advance Jewish education – even Hebrew school. Or maybe not. After all, as one parent asked me, “I want my kids to learn the Torah and the siddur (prayer book), why do you need a computer for that?” Technology advocates contend that, because kids (“natives to technology”) are so familiar with computers as their primary means of expression, technology can act as a powerful entry point to Torah learning. Also, individual computers or tablets, they say, empower students by reducing teacher-directed instruction and inherently promote differentiated, project-based learning. Critics, on the other hand, are quick to point out that none of the benefits of technology necessarily or directly relate to Torah learning – it is only a vehicle toward learning. In the end, debate is irrelevant, for technology is already being integrated into Jewish education. Unfortunately, little to no money has been directed to Hebrew schools on the national and communal levels to keep up with this trend in the field.

Transforming Hebrew school into camp is also a compelling idea, but very problematic. First of all, what make camps such a success is that it is a whole-life experience: it is twenty-four hours per day and eliminates all of the world’s distractions, including television, video games, scheduling conflicts, school and homework, and even parents. Moreover, camp is self-selecting. Parents and kids choose camp and they are willing to freely spend thousands of dollars for this experience, while Hebrew school is a mandate by synagogue policy as a B’nai Mitzvah prerequisite. In this way, Hebrew school educators are very similar to dentists – they both serve a lot of unwilling clientele!

Furthermore, do the educational goals of camp align with those of Hebrew school? Yes, both seek to educate in areas such as Hebrew language, prayer, Torah, and Jewish practice and both aim to socialize kids with a positive sense of Jewish identity. However, amidst these binary goals remains the essential educational question: how do we balance available Hebrew school hours between teaching content and socialization?

For now, socializing seems to be winning the battle, which some fear is a grave mistake. Hebrew schools are spending more time and money devoted to socializing activities, such as Krav Maga, ropes courses, sports, and cooking. These are certainly more appealing and fun than the formal learning of Torah and prayer, and hardly anyone wants to completely eliminate such activities from Hebrew school. We can, however, apply the prior question about technology to socializing activities: “I want my kid to learn Torah and the siddur, why do you need Krav Maga or ropes courses for that?”

It should also be noted that there is a third approach, which involves ignoring Hebrew school and investing everything in day schools. This, too, is not the answer. Even if a miracle happens and day school becomes free, a significant percentage of Jews still will not choose them over secular private schools and good public schools. Moreover, we should be cautious as to not undermine synagogues, which rely upon Hebrew schools (although they don’t often like to admit it) and their relationship with the Bar and Bat Mitzvah as a leverage point in boosting membership.

The redemption of the Hebrew school (or whatever we call it) will not happen due to the short-term pizzazz of digital screens or programming. Redemption happens through human beings. We need Jewish agents of dynamism and creativity. The mystifying process of human learning is done through people and it is through the emotional and social nexus between human beings that the sparks of cognition, learning, and identity travel. No matter the milieu, if there is a caring and dynamic person connecting with kids, learning happens. As Heschel famously said, “What we need more than anything else is not textbooks but textpeople.”

The redemption of Hebrew school will happen when we finally accept that our dollars and energy should be directed toward incentivizing it as a valued profession. We need to ask local and national foundations to significantly subsidize: 1) regular professional development; 2) teacher salaries through awards programs; and 3) professional benefits, such as offering 50-75% discounts for their children in Jewish schools and camps, free JCC and synagogue memberships, and health insurance plans. We need to develop full-time job opportunities for Hebrew school teachers (e.g., hybrid administrative, youth, and teaching positions). And we need to develop and recruit the “textpeople” who we know make learning happen.

This not so new idea is simply about rearranging priorities in order to get the “right people on the bus,” as Jim Collins, the author of Good to Great, put it. Education is a people business and too often we are seduced by programmatic solutions for people problems, when we really need people solutions for people problems.

If there is but one Jewish message in the world it is that redemption is possible, which is why, at every opportunity, we remember the exodus from Egypt. And just as that redemption required human agency, here too, we must turn to the hearts of human beings – teachers and educators – to take us toward our promise.

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 teaches 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.