Shmuly Yanklowitz

Hebrew School: A Failed Experiment

Growing up, I spent years’ worth of Sundays being bored out of my mind, asked to memorize dates and names, playing games well below my level, and singing songs I didn’t understand. I was confused by why I was in class with students who were both younger and older than me, many of whom didn’t show up half the time because of a “conflict” like a baseball game or simple apathy. The lack of commitment from all involved furthered an ambience of disengagement. The only highlight of Hebrew school was donuts.

In short, Hebrew school achieved almost nothing for me and unfortunately I’m not alone. Now as we’re beginning to think about the Jewish education for our daughter, we have hard questions to ask.

Hebrew Sunday School began with good intentions. Rebecca Gratz, who had previously founded the Female Hebrew Benevolent Society in 1819, created the first Jewish Sunday School in Philadelphia in 1838.

Hebrew school image

She wanted to create a parallel structure to the Christian Sunday schools already in existence, and believed that by becoming well-versed and observant, Jews would earn the respect of the Christian world. The schools provided employment for Jewish women, and in turn the best female graduates would become the next generation of teachers. Other cities soon established their own Sunday schools on Gratz’s model.

Hebrew school today is a way for many parents who don’t choose to invest in a serious, comprehensive Jewish education (or are unable to) to feel good that they’re giving their child some Jewish experience, and it is often a prerequisite for a child’s becoming a bar or bat mitzvah (requiring new jobs and the concomitant costs). Hebrew school today is also, unfortunately, all too often a great way for a child to feel terrible about their Jewish experience. Many synagogue leaders in fact are not even interested in improving the Sunday school. It is merely a vehicle to attract new families to synagogue membership. The Jewish education of our youth cannot be propped up as a superficial means to achieve other organizational goals and benchmarks.

One way in which this manifests itself is in language. Hebrew University professors Sarah Bunin Benor and Steven M. Cohen have conducted interesting research on the linguistic changes that have taken place among American Jews. Hebrew pronunciation in Jewish schools has changed over time. From 1920-1960, pronunciation shifted from a Yiddish-inspired Ashkenazi system to an Israeli Hebrew system, possibly reflecting a rise in Zionism and more Israeli teachers in these schools. As Benor notes: “The use of linguistic features helps Jews indicate which groups they align themselves with and which groups they distinguish themselves from.” For example, knowledge and use (or choice not to use) the phrase “She’s staying by us” [versus “at our home”], which correlates most with Jews from the New York area who have some background in Yiddish, was used by more than half the Orthodox Jews surveyed, while more than 60 percent of non-Orthodox Jews know the phrase but choose not to use it. The statement, Orthodox identity (especially Ultra-Orthodox as opposed to Modern Orthodox) is most likely to correlate with using “SUK-kiss” rather than “soo-COAT” and “shul” rather than “synagogue” or “temple.”

While this may appear significant, some Jews merely fall into the fashion (as, for example, people who would say “colored people” at the time the NAACP was founded in 1909, “Negro” during the early civil rights struggle, “black” in the later 1960s, and “African American” or “people of color” later). One baby boomer who had attended Conservative services early in life noted: “When I was growing up, I called it Temple. When my children went to a Day School, I called it synagogue. I now call it shul. I am not sure why,” is a similar example.

According to Benor’s research, reported knowledge of the Hebrew language correlates strongly with childhood Jewish education. Respondents who attended a non-Orthodox Jewish Day School were much more likely than respondents who attended Hebrew school more than once a week to report being proficient in spoken Hebrew (48% vs. 9%), to have good or excellent comprehension of Hebrew in prayer books (59% vs. 18%), and to have good or excellent comprehension of Biblical Hebrew (51% vs. 14%). The differences, of course, become even starker when we compare day school attendees to those who attended Hebrew school only one time a week. One must be immersed in a culture to make sustainable linguistic, identity, and value shifts.

Linguistic trends aside, there is no correlation between attendance in Hebrew school and a sustained commitment to Jewish life. I’d like to say it is better than nothing but I’m not sure anymore. Sometimes the damage of forcing our kids to participate in a boring, out of touch Jewish experience can alienate them forever. Sociologists Steven Cohen and Lawrence Kotler-Berkowitz wrote (on page 15): “Relative to those with no Jewish schooling, there are no consistent, positive impacts for in-marriage, ritual practices, and attitudes toward Israel associated with attendance at supplementary school for 6 years or less or at Sunday school for any number of years.” Further (on pages 17-18), they write “This finding is consistent with other research that has shown attending supplementary schools for less than seven years, or attending Sunday schools for any duration, has an impact on joining synagogues but little else.” Sunday school is the sole exception for type of Jewish education that is not correlated with a strengthened Jewish identity. Ironically, Christian Sunday School, which Rebecca Gratz tried so hard to emulate, has had its share of boredom. An Internet search for “Sunday School Boring” yields more than 23 million hits.

It’s not all bad, though. Here are some things we know do work: day school and summer camp, immersive service-learning, Jewish leadership programs, transformative study and travel in Israel, etc. These are powerful experiences with great breadth and depth.

If we do continue with Hebrew schools, then we should take a leaf out of the books of some of these successful programs and at least consider some alternative models:

  • Stop pushing “studying Judaism” and start modeling “doing Judaism.” One idea would be to make it on Shabbat morning and encourage actual participation rather than on Sunday morning (a less significant day in the Jewish week, and one more likely to present time conflicts).
  • Make the program a service-learning experience where contribution is possible and incorporate learning into the service work.
  • Lead the Jewish learning in the home (pull together a few students and hire a teacher to come to the house). Judaism should be framed within life context.
  • Give kids powerful Jewish experiences that are social, intellectual, and dynamic, and take it out of the “school” context with desks and frontal learning.
  • Turn content education into relational learning (strong peer-relationships is highly correlated with staying in the community) and the learning is much richer when integrated into relationships.
  • Peer and mentor relational interconnectivity is crucial and not merely for the social value but also to foster a sense of community and a notion that we can (and must) be connected to something much bigger than ourselves. 1-1 relationships are crucial.
  • Service (chesed) projects cannot be superficial with token symbolism. Kids see right through projects that have no impact.
  • Make Jewish learning experiential and include the whole family. For supplemental Jewish education to work, the parents must also be bought in. Families should be empowered to make life choices.
  • Don’t make the education bar/bat mitzvah focused. And create powerful teen programs that avoid post bar/bat mitzvah dropout.
  • Jewish youth must be exposed to serious meaningful and spiritual Judaism that promotes responsibility and engagement. It can be made “fun” but this is not everything and constant games will send the opposite message calling into question the significance of our message.

New approaches are emerging like “A Revolutionary Approach to Hebrew School” called Yerusha. Rabbi Joy Levitt’s innovative Jewish Journey Project (JJP), launched in April 2011, is a recent attempt to replace the Hebrew School concept, the current version of which has termed a “failure.” Levitt, a Reconstructionist rabbi and executive director of the Manhattan JCC, hopes the new project will offer supplemental Jewish school education for children aged 9-13, and would involve JCCs, synagogues, camps, and other institutions, along with social action groups.

For the 2013-2014 academic year, The Jewish Journey Project (JJP) will offer third through seventh grade students courses comprising a “Jewish Passport,” leading up to a Bar/Bat Mitzvah in five areas: Torah, G-d and Spirituality, Jewish Peoplehood, Hebrew, and Tikkun Olam. Students will also be able to take independent study courses. It uses the Manhattan JCC, the 14th Street Y, and Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist synagogues in New York in its education, with an approach that does not favor any individual denomination. As of now, 30 courses will be taught as part of the program, 7 days a week. But its tuition of $2,200 (with a discount for JCC members) is more than some comparable congregational Hebrew Schools (one has fees ranging from $1225 to $1985). Even the best programs must be made accessible to all. To be sure day schools have their own cost crisis.

The JJP has overcome some, but not all obstacles. It was funded by more than $1.5 million grant money, including the significant contribution of Michael Steinhardt, who has for a long time been reluctant to fund Hebrew Schools. Six synagogues are participating in JJP to some degree, but some prominent congregations have refused to join. While some are fearful that this collaborative arrangement may lead people to leave their individual congregations, others hope that it will open up options for students who currently study privately to prepare for their bar/bat mitzvah. In addition, it is an effort to improve the reputation of Hebrew schools. As Ivy Schreiber, director of education at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, said: “We make the assumption that Hebrew school is a good fit for everyone, and that’s not necessarily the case…. we’re excited to offer this as an alternative.” Some have hope in this slightly tweeked model.

We can’t keep dumping money into an inherently flawed system. Kids can handle one school not two. For a supplemental Jewish experiential education to be successful it should transform children to help them thrive in life, prepare them to make meaningful Jewish life choices, and foster a love for Yiddishkeit that empowers them along their life journey.

I’m sure there are some solid Hebrew schools out there, but if there are they are in the minority. The clergy and staff are stretched very thin and are often not the right folks to be leading. With limited resources, sometimes teenagers or college students who are not Jewishly knowledgeable or trained as educators are brought in to teach. Hebrew school can be a good entry point for those not yet engaged in Jewish life, but it is not a vehicle for sustained Jewish commitment.

The first job for parents is to model Jewish commitment, learning and living and not outsource one of the most primary roles of a parent: to provide one’s child with values, structure, community, and education. Most synagogues are not equipped to run excellent programs yet as long as parents beg their congregations for traditional Hebrew schools (while complaining about their quality) the problem will continue to exist. I have been amazed that numerous parents even view the process as punitive. “I had to go through it so my kids should too.” It’s necessary pain to acquire some type of minimal and irrelevant type of Jewish identity.

Every child cannot go to full-time Jewish day school (and day schools have their own problems) but Sunday morning Hebrew school can no longer be the obvious alternative. Some towns don’t even have a day school and not all families can afford Jewish camp or Israel opportunities. There must be other options accessible to all. Parents and Jewish communal professionals must partner to create more sustainable and impactful alternatives. Judaism is a lived religion. When groups of kids are taken out collectively into the world for experiences, the encounter can be framed Jewishly (with texts and conversations). One need not (and should not) be stuck in a chair for a second school experience to discuss Judaism when they can learn to live it. For some, Hebrew school may work but for the high majority it has damaged the soul cultivating a deep indifference toward (or even disdain for) Jewish life.

Parents must make hard decisions if they’re serious about providing the foundation for a committed Jewish life for their children. We cannot simply hope they will love Judaism or enroll them into a program that is likely to fail and cause great frustration for all involved. Most importantly, parents themselves must be invested, supportive, and engaged as well if they wish their children to integrate their learning into their lives. The good news is that some alternatives are emerging and many more are yet to be explored. We must support the day schools and supplemental learning programs that are working hard to employ innovative transformative approaches to secure the future of the Jewish people.

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century.” Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.”

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash (Jewish pluralistic adult learning & leadership), the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek (Jewish Social Justice), the Founder and CEO of Shamayim (Jewish animal advocacy), the Founder and President of YATOM, (Jewish foster and adoption network), and the author of 22 books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America and the Forward named him one of the 50 most influential Jews. The opinions expressed here represent the author’s and do not represent any organizations he is affiliated with.