Why Bother? A Religious School Manifesto
By Rabbi Nicki Greninger
*This goes out to all parents thinking of sending their kids to a (Jewish) religious school… to parents who were raised Jewish, those who chose Judaism, and those who aren’t Jewish but married a Jew.*
In the last month, I’ve had several conversations that got me thinking. One friend asked a group of us who went to Jewish summer camp together (we are now grown up with kids of our own), “Are you going to send your kids to religious school?” In another social situation, a friend innocently asked “Why do kids go to religious school twice a week starting in third grade?” In both cases, these friends of mine are connected to the Jewish community and are already committed to raising Jewish kids. But they (along with many others) wonder about the value of religious school, and about the time commitment required to take part in it. Is it worth it?
In our era of extreme busyness, and in a time when there are many Jewish families in which one parent is Jewish and the other parent is not, it’s a reasonable question to ask – Why bother with religious school? And why should our kids attend religious school twice a week from third grade to seventh grade, as is the case in most synagogues around the country?
To answer these questions, we have to take a step back and ask, “Why be Jewish?” What’s so special or important about being Jewish? If it’s possible to be a good person without religion, then what’s the point? Each of us may have different answers to these questions, but my guess is there are some common threads. Jewish values mean something to us. Yes, there are “American values,” but Jewish values ground us and guide us. Jewish values encompass many generic human values such as kindness and compassion, but there are values unique to Judaism, too, such as the value of rest (see: Shabbat) and a commitment to community (see: minyan). Being Jewish means you are part of a chain of tradition thousands of years old, and when you take it seriously, it helps you know who you are and what you stand for. Being Jewish means being part of something larger than yourself / your family. At its best, Judaism can give meaning and purpose to your life. It has a calendar that can give shape and meaning to time, it has rituals that can bring holiness into your life and the world. When you are in crisis or feel like you’re free-floating, Judaism can give you roots, a foundation, a structure, texts, stories, prayers, and teachings to give you direction and hope.
If Judaism is so valuable, we would naturally want to pass it down to our children, to raise our children as Jews. But how?
Children have to learn. They are not born knowing who they are and where they fit into the world. It is our obligation as parents to provide them roots, to give them a foundation for their life and help them understand the world around them. Therefore, if we want our children to be Jewish, to truly live with Jewish values and to find Judaism meaningful, then they need to learn. Parents can teach their children, but most parents cannot do it alone.
Parents alone can’t teach their kids what it means to be Jewish because part of being Jewish is a connection to community. “Jewish” is not an individual identity. It is a group identity. It is being part of a people. It is possible to teach your kids about Jewish community by getting together with other Jewish families, but it is much easier when you’re part of a synagogue. Kids learn that there are lots of other Jews out there, and that being part of a Jewish community is an essential component of Judaism. We support each other through tough times, and we celebrate together in good times. We teach each other and we learn from each other. We do not do Judaism alone.
Plus, there is so much to learn! Children have to learn what Judaism is – not just the most popular holidays (see: Chanukah), but also about God, Torah, Israel, Jewish values, Hebrew, prayer, Jewish history, and much more. There are not many parents who really want to do that all themselves, so we look to institutions to help us.
Yes, some religious schools are bad. They are boring. They haven’t changed in 30 years. But luckily, in the landscape of Jewish education, things are changing. There are AMAZING religious schools out there (see Mayim in Boston and JQuest B’yachad in Philadelphia for two innovative examples). There are conferences and articles about innovation in religious schools, and synagogues are making changes for the better. If the religious school near you is same-old same-old and you don’t like it, then agitate for change or find a new synagogue. Get involved in leadership at your synagogue to have an impact on education. Join the education committee. Volunteer to be on the board. But don’t just give up and decide that religious school isn’t worth it.
Yes, there are many competing priorities in our lives as parents today. There’s school, sports, arts, way too much homework, trying to make time for family and friends… but each of us must ask ourselves at the end of the day, “Where does this ancient, beautiful, meaningful tradition of Judaism fit into our lives?” Religious school has to be a priority if you want your children to grow up knowing what it means to be Jewish and finding meaning in Judaism.
If Judaism is not meaningful to you, and it’s not important to you to pass the tradition to the next generation, then of course that is your choice. But eventually, then, Judaism will cease to be part of your family’s lineage. But if Judaism IS important to you, and if you want Judaism to continue (and not only for Orthodox Jews), then your children are our future. This manifesto is not meant to be another parental guilt trip, it’s intended to serve as a reminder for why passing on our values, our tradition, our history, our culture is worth it. And that when done well, religious school gives kids the opportunity to learn, do, and be in Jewish community… to develop their identity as Jews, to be the next link in the chain of tradition. Don’t you want that for your kids?
Rabbi Nicki Greninger is the Director of Education at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, CA.