Why? The Continuing Struggle for the Soul of Hebrew School

Hebrew school class (illustrative)

By Paul Steinberg

It’s March and most Hebrew School Principals are planning for next fall, and it’s a war out there. It’s not pretty. I mean, the Jewish people are really busy, and those of us on the frontlines of Jewish education – planning calendars and such – are constantly confronted with just how busy everybody is. There’s sports, dance, homework (an absurd, nearly inhumane amount of homework!), rehearsals, family trips, T.V. and/or Netflix, and general schlepping. In a nutshell, Hebrew school has some incredibly heavy competition.

Moreover, we are currently living in a world of uncertainty, struggling to define success. Many believe in the “either-ors” of the worldly success, such as, either their kid gets into Yale, or they will be doomed to life of janitorial service. When pressed, however, rather than the “either-ors” of external success, most of us truly want internal measures of success for our kids (and ourselves), such as, wellbeing, gratitude, and spiritual health. Spiritual health, by the way, is like physical health – we have it. The only question is whether or not our spiritual or physical health is positive and life affirming. The place and time that Jewish kids primarily dedicate to spiritual health (including community and connection through history, meaning, and language) is in Hebrew School, but committing time to it is a constant challenge.

Beginning in the 1970’s, there were studies that sought to find out just how much Jewish education a kid would need in order to have a positive sense of Jewish identification, both publicly (e.g., affiliation and engagement with Jewish organizations) and personally (e.g., spiritual practices). To absolutely no one’s surprise, they found that more is more likely. Those studies, however, found that the minimum amount of Jewish classroom teaching that was necessary to impart a positive sense of Jewish identification was six hours per week. Thus, Hebrew Schools slowly but surely adopted the six-hour rule, i.e., the six-hour Hebrew School. Here in 2018, however, the six-hour rule has largely been forgotten, tossed out, and is often lost to a state desperation (the unspoken – and sometimes spoken – attitude of, “If we can just get them to come at all, it’s a success.”)

Most Reform Hebrew Schools are now once-per-week on Sundays or Saturdays, at about three hours, and Conservative ones are steadily creeping closer to that model. (Some Conservative synagogues have adopted the Shabbat/Saturday school model, which is so sensitive to busy schedules that it completely sacrifices the use of writing, fine arts, and technology as the effective educational media we know them to be, since they are prohibited on the Sabbath.) The justification for the limited hours is usually a claim that there is some sort of supplemental programming beyond the three hours. Of course, none of these models account for absences or the case of the 6th grader who shows up on the school’s doorstep, never having seen an alef before, usually because they want a Bar or Bat Mitzvah in a year’s time.

Frankly, many Hebrew Schools today are set-ups for educational failure. It seems that the national approach to this problem has been to simply distract us away and to point to Jewish camp: “Just go to camp, aren’t Jewish camps awesome!” Jewish camps are awesome, always have been, but we still haven’t resolved the challenge with Hebrew School. Jewish camping, by the way, was never intended to be the panacea to all Jewish educational issues alone and it should not be now. After all, camp is Jewishly easy – it doesn’t deal with the reality of daily living: it’s 24-7, no parents, no devices, no homework, and no home, period. Comparatively, Jewish camp is easy; Hebrew School is hard.

The truth is, most Jewish educators have the solutions to Hebrew School. It’s pretty much all we think about; our jobs are resting on enrollment. We Jewish educators know how busy everyone is – we really know. In fact, many of us are parents ourselves – we know! We know that the Hebrew School solution is creating a sense of community. We know we need dynamic and experiential curriculum, as well as dynamic and superb teachers. We know we should be utilizing project-based assessments. We know goal-setting, pedagogy, and Understanding by Design curricular development, and we know that we also need more staff development in order to honestly coach our teachers in all of these areas. We know we need staff diversity among our teachers for developmental differences. We know we need great communications and marketing. We know that we can’t succeed without family education and hearty parent involvement through committee work and volunteerism. And we know we have to leverage B’nai Mitzvah to increase learning, involvement and meaning for the whole family. We know – we really know.

We just don’t always know how because, for most of us, our budgets are beat up, our teachers are underpaid and feel devalued, and we occasionally feel abandoned when told that our programs are being “subsidized by the synagogue.” Some educators would argue that the Hebrew School may actually subsidize the synagogue, as hardly any of those students and their families (parents and grandparents), as well as potential B’nai Mitzvah would affiliate without the Hebrew school. The inherent fallacy of the “subsidizing” notion is that the school is somehow separate from the overall synagogue history, politics, culture, and religious trajectory, as well as the sweeping Jewish sociological trends of the community, which is all far too much for any one educator to overcome.

So what is the major sociological trend that Hebrew School is fighting? Why don’t people enroll or volunteer or make time for their kids’ Jewish education? Consumerism in America. The fact is that religious school has become a commodity in the free market in America like everything else. Consumerism is beyond the scope of this essay, but in short, there are two parts: 1) people choose to buy a lot of stuff; and 2) the idea that the customer is “king.” It’s the latter – customer is king issue – that plagues Jewish education. In his 1990 book Fragmented Gods, Canadian sociologist, Reginald Bibby anticipates this issue, writing:

“When religion is drawn up with the whims of the customers, the gods are dismantled. They are custom-made according to individual taste … Rather than looking to them [e.g., God or religious leadership] for direction, we direct them… [Religion] has become a neatly packaged consumer item – taking its place among other commodities that can be bought or bypassed according to one’s consumption whims… religion has become little more than a cultural product and is coming precariously close to acknowledging that culture creates the gods” (p. 1,148).

If it’s all about such consumeristic thinking, where the “customers are kings” in choosing whether or not to enroll or attend, we must make the conversation about our existential philosophy and vision – why Hebrew School. If we solely “sell our wares” based upon dazzling events, marketing strategies, and trendy technologies, we are playing right back into the consumeristic bubble. We must resist that temptation. Instead we must continue to concentrate our efforts on helping families choose by answering why: Why send your child to Hebrew School? In other words, we need a relevant existential philosophy, which demands that every synagogue stakeholder – teachers, clergy, board members, parents – be able to answer “why our Hebrew School” and in one sentence. With such a sentence, we can begin to build a mission and strategic goals with which to discipline our progress and move forward. Here are some existential one-liners that we’ve heard that may get us started:

  • We love the teachers; they really know our kids.
  • The values that are being taught are really important.
  • We feel a sense of connection to others in the community; our friends are here.
  • We believe in our kids having a Jewish community.

Here’s one that we Jewish educators like to hear:

  • This is our people and our community, and we are here to participate and help.

Given the aforementioned cultural climate, here’s one what we might think about pushing more:

  • Hebrew School is where my kids learn spiritual health. (The world is incredibly uncertain. If we’ve learned anything from the political environment it’s that literally anything can happen. Hebrew School and the synagogue is the last bastion of unconditional communal love, where hope is taught, and that spiritual practice and health is the top priority. It’s communal and spiritual health that is actually going to anchor and sustain parents and children through the challenges of the hour.

There is much more to say about Hebrew School and its challenges today. But we know that most Jewish children are educated through Hebrew schools and that we must find ways to prioritize it. I have alluded to the need for resources and systemic solutions. None of these are new. The idea that Hebrew school is important for spiritual health in an uncertain and chaotic time in American history may be another opportunity to engage with non-affiliated or borderline families. Simply put, we must keep diligent in asking the why of Hebrew School and inviting our families to do the same.

Rabbi Paul Steinberg is an educator at Kol Shofar in Tiburon, CA and is the author of the award-winning series, Celebrating the Jewish Year (JPS, 2009), as well as Recovery, the 12 Steps and Jewish Spirituality (Jewish Lights, 2014). He is a nationally recognized speaker and teacher on Jewish spirituality, Jewish education, and recovery.