Hebrew school today is vastly different from a generation ago.
The instruction in most Hebrew school classrooms today includes a mix of video clips, working with peers in small groups on guided-discovery activities, doing art projects, acting out skits, playing games, creating videos, working on long-term projects of personal interest, and engaging in lots of discussions. One will rarely see a teacher lecturing.
In my 7th grade Hebrew school class, for example, the students look forward competing against each other in a trivia game in which they use their iPhones to play Kahoot; and this past week the students utilized the choreography of the “Cup Song,” which we got from YouTube, to practice the Adon Olam prayer.
All the Hebrew school textbooks and workbooks today are age appropriate, scoped and sequenced as part of a professionally developed curriculum, multi-color, illustrated, and inviting, and some include URLs to supplemental materials that are online. Most Hebrew school teachers have attended workshops on differentiated instruction, classroom management (gone are the days of spitballs!), as well as workshops on how to teach Hebrew reading.
Today’s Hebrew school students engage in numerous hands-on experiences throughout the year such as decorating the synagogue’s sukkah, baking challah, cooking and assembling food packages for the poor, making electric menorahs for the local Jewish home for the aged, and Jewish gardening/farming, just to name a few. Some Hebrew schools now even allow Chabad to come in to give really interesting presentations on making olive oil and on making matzah, as well as a tefillin workshop.
Even going back the Hebrew school that I directed fourteen years ago, in every grade there was a family education program, a Shabbaton, and a Mitzvah Project field trip — all of which focused on each grade’s curriculum theme for the year (i.e., tzedakah, protecting the environment, caring for the elderly, etc.). Additionally, to educate the parents, every year, we offered a six session Hebrew reading crash course, a monthly Jewish holiday refresher class, and one year our two-day per week Hebrew school offered a one-day per week “Hebrew School for Parents” program of which seven parents participated.
Nevertheless, study after study has shown than even the best Hebrew schools, and even if followed by participating in a Jewish youth group or in a weekly Hebrew high, have proven to be an ineffective way to transmit Jewish identity and observance. A key statistic is the current intermarriage rate of 71% of among non-Orthodox Jews.
In the past few years there have been several initiatives to tinker with the Hebrew school model to make it more effective. In a half a dozen cities after-care has been combined with Hebrew school, of which some programs utilize the Jewish Community Center or similar institution, for up to a 15 hour per week “camp like” Hebrew school experience. Another model is Hebrew school teachers going into people’s homes to teach a small group of students, thus, flexible scheduling and more intimacy. There are also Hebrew schools that teach primarily through art and Hebrew schools that teach primarily through project-based learning. There are even a few online Hebrew schools.
Although I applaud the instructional improvements and innovative models for Hebrew school, to me these are just a better-tasting “placebo” called Hebrew school.
Even though 90% of non-Orthodox children who get some type of a formal Jewish education are getting it in a Hebrew school, this should not be our focus for sparking a Jewish revival. There are three reasons why I say this.
1) To my knowledge, not one Hebrew school has “Why do Jewish?” as part of their curriculum document; and even with the addition of Tikkun Olam (making the world a better place) to the curriculum over the past 30+ years, the Hebrew school curriculum is still heavily focused on “synagogue Judaism” which children find boring and irrelevant.
2) Hebrew school students learn about building a sukkah every year but this does not translate into the family building a sukkah, nor to the student building a sukkah when s/he is an adult and has his/her own house. Ditto for lighting Shabbat candles and everything else taught in Hebrew school.
3) It is crazy to expect that the little Jewish knowledge that our 8-13 year-olds learn in Hebrew school will be retained into adulthood when we know that the vast majority will have little or no reinforcement throughout their middle school, high school and college years.
Given the above, I am dumbfounded because it should be obvious that by putting so much time, money and hopes into improving Hebrew school we are aiming at the wrong target.
It is my opinion that for synagogues to get the most “bang for their buck” in terms of Jewish education then their focus should be on adult Jewish education.
When a mom lights Shabbat candles, so will her daughters; when parents decide to keep a kosher home, have Shabbat dinner, and go to synagogue services, etc., these become part of the child’s life as well. And when children see their parents going to Jewish studies classes it instills an importance of Jewish learning. But how do we get adults involved in Jewish learning and in growing Jewishly?
Five ways of doing this include:
(1) Creating numerous adult Jewish educational opportunities — including lunch-&-learns in people’s offices, study groups in people’s homes, a Hebrew School for Parents program, and occasional weekends of learning.
(2) Promoting the adult Jewish education courses that take place in the community, including the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute which offers a six session course three times per year in 900+ locations on topics such as the art of marriage, unlocking one’s potential, business ethics, and end of life issues. (Now is not the time to be territorial.)
(3) The rabbi learning one-on-one every week with a few congregants.
(4) The rabbi hosting families for Shabbat dinner.
(5) Mitzvah Campaigns.
Unfortunately due to space limitations for one blog I can not elaborate on the fine details of each of the above, especially with how to get the masses to participate. I’ll have to write a follow up blog.
I am not saying to abandon Hebrew school, but to rethink it in terms of its reality (my three criticisms above). Thus, perhaps the best model for Hebrew school is, of which this is a brainstorm I offer, for Hebrew school to go almost 100% online for the learning of content. Then, the purpose of the weekly (or twice a month) Hebrew school sessions can be on socialization with other Jews, perhaps even in a inter-congregation or community framework, as well as hands-on mitzvah projects which reinforce some of the online learning.
By the learning of content online this solves the problem of conflicts with other activities (my weekly Hebrew school class has an attendance rate of about 50%), and it fosters the mindset and habit of also utilizing the internet for Jewish learning which will carry into one’s adult years.
A synagogue that puts an emphasis on adult Jewish education and outsources a large part of its Hebrew school to online, will definitely have to seriously rewrite their rabbi’s and education director’s job descriptions. A rabbi who quadruples his/her adult Jewish education teaching load, and takes on learning one-on-one every week with a few congregants, and has Shabbat dinner guests almost every Shabbat, will probably not have the time to attend all those Jewish Federation, ADL, JCRC, Black-Jewish, and interfaith meetings.
From my experience, and from conversations with colleagues across the country, it takes about 100 positive Jewish experiences (i.e., classes, Shabbat dinner experiences, etc.) before an adult Jew begins to take on Jewish practices on his/her own. Therefore, turning the tide of assimilation will take offering a mammoth amount of adult Jewish educational learning opportunities and Shabbat dinner invitations, but the return on investment will be far better than the returns Hebrew school is producing.
Rabbi Tarfon is cited in Pirkei Avot (2:21) saying “It is not your responsibility to complete the task, but you are not free to desist from it either.”