ISO: The Perfect Hebrew School

By Julie Wiener

September 23, 2009


Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Week.

September, with its just-sharpened pencils, yet-to-be-filled notebooks and new school/new Jewish year possibilities has always been my favorite month.

school suppliesWith my older daughter, Ellie, settled into first grade at our neighborhood school, I am using this September to officially kick off a yearlong project: a citywide quest for the perfect Hebrew school.

Yes, “perfect” and “Hebrew school” may sound like an oxymoron. After all, Hebrew school is arguably the most maligned institution in American Jewish life.

It’s a rite of passage that I, the child of thoroughly secular Jews, never experienced for myself. For most of my youth, the incomprehensible Hebrew–which I saw on placards outside my neighborhood’s many synagogues and flowing through foreign prayer books during my rare, uncomfortable ventures to religious services–beckoned, yet also seemed to symbolize exclusion, the cryptic font like security bars or a locked gate keeping me out.

I didn’t find the keys until college when I joined Oberlin’s Kosher Co-op and then, still completely illiterate in Hebrew and with a vocabulary limited to “shalom,” signed up for a semester at Tel Aviv University.

I soon learned to (among other things) clumsily negotiate Tel Aviv’s Carmel Market in Hebrew, saying “slicha” (excuse me) to those in my way, requesting “hetzi kilo hetzilim” and “shtei kilo agvaniot” (half a kilo of eggplant, two kilos of tomatoes) from the vendors, and mostly paying the correct number of shekels they demanded in return.

Perhaps even more nourishing than the regular supply of fresh fruits and vegetables I consumed, was the obsession that Israel– where Hebrew was alive and bubbling over everywhere, not just in prayer books and Torah scrolls but on movie marquees, street signs and overheard conversations — sparked in me.

Back in America, I blasted Israeli pop music from my boom box, pored over homemade vocabulary flash cards crafted from tiny strips of colored paper, and plotted my return trip to the Promised Land. At 23, I did a few months of kibbutz ulpan, followed by a year working in a Jerusalem office (with an English-speaking boss). On Shabbat, while my American roommate, a yeshiva student, went to shul, I painstakingly worked my way through the front page of Haaretz, looking up words in my battered paperback Hebrew-English dictionary.

I want Ellie and her 3-year-old sister Sophie to share my enthusiasm for Hebrew and Judaism, but not to, as I did, feel like outsiders growing up or feel the need to play catch up as an adult. Since my husband Joe isn’t Jewish, the girls are only half-Jewish in ancestry, which makes it all the more important that they be confident and knowledgeable about Judaism and that it mean something more than just bagels, lox and a shared history of oppression.

My approach to the kids’ Hebrew school options contrasts greatly to my behavior vis-a-vis their secular education. While many parents I know in our neighborhood have pursued charter schools and specialized programs all over the city for their kids, I’ve been content to keep Ellie at our zoned public school. Instead of exhausting her (and myself) with school bus or subway commutes in search of the ideal learning environment, we’d rather she walk around the corner, make friends with kids from a range of ethnic backgrounds and get a good-enough, albeit not perfect, education.

For Hebrew school, though, the stakes are higher. For one thing, neither Joe nor I know as much about Judaism as we do about, say, reading and arithmetic, and — while we celebrate Shabbat each week and often read children’s Bible stories at bedtime — our ability as Jewish educators is somewhat limited.

Also, whereas our local public school is good enough, a lot of Hebrew schools really aren’t. In fact many, if their horrible reputations are to be believed, do more to quell Jewish interest than to nurture it, and some remain staffed by old-fashioned teachers who preach against intermarriage, a message I not only dislike but believe would make my daughters (and husband) feel unwelcome. Not to mention, while public school is free, Hebrew school is going to require a substantial cash outlay; I’d like to make sure it’s money well spent.

This summer, my daughters saw Mommy go to “Hebrew school” — an intensive month-long class at the JCC in Manhattan. My Hebrew had been dormant for years, but I managed to place into the advanced level and successfully make my way in Hebrew through news articles, passages about Israeli history and even sections from Pirke Avot. (As an added bonus, I also got to watch Israeli TV shows from the exercise machines in the JCC gym.)

One of the best things about the class was interacting with the other students, among them a professor of medieval Jewish philosophy (whose husband is a well-known neocon), a sheitel-wearing yeshiva principal and scholar married to a prominent Modern Orthodox rabbi, an Orthodox man who runs a yeshiva for post-college men and a 20-something Ramaz graduate who teaches in a liberal Jewish day school.

It was empowering to keep up in Hebrew with people whose Jewish knowledge so far surpasses mine, and it also was exciting to argue respectfully with people who don’t share my liberal Jewish outlook or background.

Let’s hope I can find an equally stimulating and enjoyable Jewish education for Ellie and Sophie.


About Julie Wiener

Julie Wiener is an associate editor at The Jewish Week. You can reach her at