Jewish Education Can’t be Optional

  

alef-betFor four years, we tried a day school education for our son. For the first two years, it worked. The secular education was excellent, our son’s Jewish identity blossomed, and his knowledge of Jewish history, texts, and the Hebrew language grew.

But our overall satisfaction with the education didn’t mean that we thought the school was perfect. It wasn’t, no school is. We wished there was a greater sense of community and felt that the Jewish studies program was too narrowly focused. But our son was thriving, so it was easy to overlook these issues.

In our son’s third year, the school put in place a new administration. It adjusted the secular curriculum and teaching style in a way that didn’t work for our son. Now the lack of community and the prayer and language focus of the Judaic education nagged at us. Still, we gave the changes a chance. But by year four, it was obvious it was time for a change.

Moving from day school to a non-Jewish learning environment meant that our son would attend religious school starting in the fall. Some of our extended Jewish family and the day school administrators suggested that we let him skip it for a year since he would be ahead of the other students. I wouldn’t consider it.

I didn’t care that he was practically fluent in Hebrew. I didn’t care that his understanding of the Torah was deeper than other children his age. I didn’t care that weekday Hebrew and Sunday school might be filled with much drudgery. And I didn’t care to listen to my son whine about going before he even attended a single class. He was going to religious school. Period. The end.

I explained to him that religious school was not optional and that it was something that a majority of American Jews endured; a right of passage. I told him that if he didn’t go he’d feel left out when all of the other kids complained. I wanted him to have something to complain about too.

I knew it was futile to try to convince him that religious school was fun. I wasn’t sure it was. I knew from my position as a trustee at my synagogue that the religious school staff was working to improve the experience, but I wondered how much improvement there had really been in the past 30 years.

But it didn’t matter to me whether religious school changed a little or a lot. My son was still going. I cared too much about a Jewish future to make it optional.

People think that the faith of a marriage partner is a monolithic determinant of Jewish identity. It’s not, but Jewish education is. According to a 2008 Steinhardt Social Research Institute study, “every additional hour of Jewish education received has an exponentially greater impact than the hour that came before” on the relevance of Jewish identity and attitudes towards Israel.

Another significant predictor of future Jewish engagement is community. The Steinhardt study found that adults who grew up “with more densely Jewish social networks are…more likely to engage in ritual practice…and to raise their children as Jews.”

Religious school might be universally loathed, but it is a shared activity. And shared experiences create bonds. Like it or not, religious school bonds most American Jews. It builds community.

Over the course of a few hours each week, Jewish kids engage with other Jewish kids. For some, it’s the only time they interact with other Jews. For others, like my son, it’s a place to rekindle relationships with preschool friends and reconnect with kids from overnight camp. This community is what makes religious school tolerable, and dare I say it, enjoyable.

My son may complain about going, but on the way home he always says he enjoyed it. He likes his teachers, likes the discussions, and loves seeing his buddies. I’m surprised and thrilled because as Deb Morandi’s recent blog post points out religious school is not enjoyed or even tolerated by all.

I give Deb credit. She has not given up on Jewish education and is trying to find an alternative that can help make being Jewish meaningful and enjoyable for her children. Luckily, there are many choices that involve various levels of parent engagement. I hope Deb and other parents in similar situations find an educational method or tool that works for their family because education is too important to a Jewish future to be optional.

We tried Hebrew school. It didn’t work.

  

By Deb Morandi

Walking to school in the rainThere has been a lot of discussion in my Interfaith home this holiday season, but not about what you would think. My husband is Jewish, I am not, and we decided more than nine years ago when our twin sons were born that we were going to raise them Jewish.

We had many reasons: My husband knew more about his religion than I did mine, relatives we lived near are Jewish, the list goes on and on. This has not come into question, nor has the age-old “Do we have a Christmas tree” dilemma. We have a tree and celebrate Christmas out of respect to my heritage and family in a secular way. This had all been ironed out years ago and I think we navigate it pretty well. What is being discussed now is how we are on the verge of quitting Hebrew school. We have been struggling for months with what the right decision is and no matter how we spin it, it comes down to: Hebrew school just isn’t working for our family.

But after reading Hila Ratzabi’s article this week in the Forward about providing individualized at-home Hebrew school education, I realize there might be hope for a solution. The mere words “Hebrew school” bring tears from my boys because they are so miserable. This leads to my husband and me having the same conversation about how he needs to be more involved and do more to work with them. But the truth is, I can’t give them their Hebrew education and my husband works long hours and just isn’t home during the week at homework time.

So what does this mean? I think I am better able to express what it doesn’t mean. Going to Hebrew School doesn’t mean you should be this upset at the mere thought of it. Hebrew school shouldn’t be so dreaded that my sons question why their father has to be Jewish in the first place.

I have talked to the Hebrew school teacher and the religious director numerous times and it isn’t their fault. The whole format just isn’t working for us. Hebrew being taught without context at the end of a long day is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to why I sadly feel convinced we made the wrong decision two years ago when we started sending the boys to Hebrew school. We keep trying to make it work, but I think all our efforts have actually made it worse. We have let the boys suffer too long, and forcing them to endure another four years isn’t going to make them want to identify Jewishly afterwards.

So what happens now? Being the parent who is not Jewish, I have trouble visualizing the alternatives. We already chose Judaism rather than my religion, so I don’t want to change course now, and raising them with no religion doesn’t feel right. My husband also has a hard time visualizing the alternatives because he grew up going to a Conservative synagogue and thinks of Hebrew school as “just something that is boring and miserable for all Jewish kids.” This doesn’t seem right either.

Then I read Ms. Ratzabi’s article, and I started to think that maybe my feelings about Hebrew school had some merit. Could there be another way to navigate raising my sons with Judaism in their lives that they might actually enjoy? Could there be a way to hang on to a tangible sense of Judaism without going to a traditional Hebrew school?

The Jewish community is concerned with people making Jewish choices, but what happens when they do? It’s not always a happily ever after, this was a perfect fit, storybook ending. What resources do we turn to, to help navigate a less traditional path so that we don’t abandon practicing Judaism altogether? There has to be a way to create an educational experience that, although non-traditional, is still equally meaningful and respected in the Jewish community’s eyes.

I am not sure what the next steps will be for my family, but I hope there is a path out that there works for us. One that can illustrate to my boys that being Jewish can be meaningful and even enjoyable. If you have any tips or thoughts on this subject, please share!

Saying “No” to Hebrew Day School

  

My kids attend a Jewish daycare/preschool program full-time, and they’ve blossomed under the Jewish instruction. Also, I’ve come to appreciate the support it gives me as a parent trying to raise Jewish children. There are Shabbat songs and Israeli folk dances and Shavuot art projects that are unknown to me because I converted as an adult. I like that my kids have something to add to our observance; when we sing songs for Friday night dinner, I love that they teach me about a shabbat dinosaur knocking on the door.

Since Eli will begin Kindergarten in the fall, our local Hebrew day school has started its sell on why our son would be a great fit for their school. In many ways, he is a perfect fit. But we won’t be sending him to the Hebrew day school, and instead he will attend a secular private day school. One that doesn’t teach about Shabbat dinosaurs knocking on the door.

I hadn’t really thought about how public our decision would be, until friends, day school staff, and congregants began to call us on the phone or cornered us in hallways and asked us to consider the Hebrew day school. Suddenly I’ve felt defensive about my decision, and I didn’t know how to respond without it sounding like I was saying, “My child is too good for this school.”

So my husband and I put our heads together and formulated a response that focuses on Eli’s best interests and stays far away from discussing why the Hebrew day school is NOT in his best interests. Hopefully people won’t believe that this is an indictment of the Hebrew day school. I don’t know if it will work. People are sensitive to these issues.

We are not turning our backs on Judaism or our local community, nor do we discount all we have learned from the past 3 years at a Jewish daycare. Still… I know it feels like a betrayal to some people, even though our decision was never meant to be.

Joy

  

In early May, I had the amazing opportunity to attend the JCC‘s of North America Biennial Conference in New Orleans.  Most of the conference sessions I attended were about leadership, community and the future of the JCC movement – all very interesting and meaningful to me as a JCC professional.  However, the best workshop I attended was the one presented by David Ackerman of the JCC Association and Karina Zilberman, creator of Shababa at the 92nd Street Y in New York City focused on celebrating Shabbat at JCCs.  If you live in Manhattan and you have small children, my advice is to RUN, not walk, to the 92nd Street Y for Shababa Fridays and Saturdays.  If your kids like music and you like to feel inspired, this is the place.  In a room full of 40 adults, Karina was able to create an atmosphere of joy that I haven’t experienced really since summer camp many moons ago.  Her spirit, creativity and unique enthusiasm had a way of making everyone feel good, and in essence, make everyone feel good about being Jewish.  That’s a pretty big and important task.

This experience really got me thinking about joy and Judaism – are my husband and I making Judaism joyful for our boys?  We try to make it fun by bringing them to the JCC and synagogue Purim carnivals, by taking them to see Mama Doni concerts and by celebrating Passover with their cousins.  We try to make it part of our lives by going to religious school on Sundays and participating in the family service each week.  We try to make it social by setting up playdates with Jewish friends.  But do we make it joyful?  How do we really do that? 

I think I can see and hear joy when our boys are singing Jewish songs in the car and reading books from the PJ library – but how can we take it to the next level?  Overnight camp is one way for sure – Friday night services outside with all of your friends, singing the Birkat Hamazon (blessing after the meal) with all of the “campy” traditions – but until they (and we) are ready for that, what can we do now?  How can we ensure that they feel great about being Jewish and that they feel joy when they are doing Jewish things? 

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

  

It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year – no – not Christmas and not back to school – but back to Hebrew School.  Remember that amazing Staples commercial from a few years back with the dad dancing through the store while tossing school supplies into the cart with the song playing in the background?  Well that’s how I feel now that it’s back to Hebrew School for my almost 7-year-old first grader.  My family joined a wonderful Reform synagogue in our area last year, just before my son started Kindergarten.  He had been at the JCC for daycare and preschool since he was 10 months old, so on a weekly and daily basis he got all of the loveliness of being at a Jewish school – Shabbat, challah, Jewish holidays, songs, crafts, PJ library books, Shabbat box, etc. I also work at that JCC so we got plenty of opportunities to participate in Jewish activities.   So when he wasn’t going to be getting that from school we felt we needed to step up to the plate and choose a synagogue and choose to send him to Hebrew School on Sunday mornings.

I don’t have particularly strong or happy feelings about my own Hebrew school days and my husband is Episcopalian so his Sunday school was completely different – although probably similar in many ways – holidays, bible stories, music, prayers.  We both wanted our son to enjoy his time at Hebrew School but wasn’t sure that was going to happen based on our own experiences.  Many people I know have said, “Well, I went to Hebrew School, so now my son/daughter is going to go – whether they like it or not”.  In our case, I think the “liking it” factor has definitely gone beyond my son – I actually like it.

I like it because he gets to spend time with other Jewish kids on a weekly basis – solely for the purpose that they are all Jewish and that their families think it’s important to have a Jewish education.  I like it because he gets to learn more about the holidays, prayers and Hebrew than I am able teach him.  I like it because it gives my husband and me another Jewish community to belong to.  I like it because the families there are all Jewish, yet all different in their own way – whether the parents are both Jewish, intermarried, gay, single parents or adoptive parents.  I also like it because our temple invites the parents to join the service every Sunday at 11 am.  I am able to see my son listening to the rabbi, going up on the bimah to lead songs and see his Jewish education in action. 

The best part for me is that I really enjoy the service myself – and I am not one to go to temple on a weekly basis on my own – no regular temple go-er here.  I love the songs and the sign language that the rabbi and cantor teach the kids.  I love connecting to Judaism through music and the absolute best part is the last song of the service.  It’s Tefilat Haderech by Debbie Friedman z”l and the rabbi asks everyone to “hold someone close to you” – and simultaneously all the kids put their arms around their friend’s shoulders and join in singing.  It brings me to tears – almost every time – to see this and to see my son grab his friends swaying in song.  It brings me back to my days at Jewish sleep away camp – which hold a special place in my heart.  It also brings to mind my dad, who passed away 2 years ago, and how proud he would be of me and my husband for choosing this kind of education and Jewish path for our family.

I also have to be honest and say that I also like having two hours to clean the house, go to Trader Joe’s and Target, go to the gym or spend quality time with our 2-year-old son.  I’m not going to lie – its pretty great.  But I mostly look forward to the 11:00 hour when I can be in the sanctuary and be an active participant in the Hebrew school service.