Hebrew school, is it the answer?

The esteemed Joel E. Hoffman and Joel M. Hoffman recently took to these pages for a fascinating discussion on the merits of the Jewish community’s conventional Hebrew school model.

As someone who is blessed to be involved in the workings of many hundreds of Hebrew schools, I would like to weigh in on this important topic (even though my last name does not happen to be Hoffman).

Joel E. questions the success of the current Hebrew school model. Notwithstanding the millions invested into ever more attractive and hands-on Hebrew schools, the non-Orthodox intermarriage rate hovers at around 71%.

He proposes the reason for this to be the lack of holistic engagement. A child who graduates Hebrew school will have little to no Jewish engagement throughout their teen and adult years; and a child whose parents’ and siblings don’t care to light Shabbat candles or know why Jews say the Shema will struggle to retain tangible feelings for Judaism as they grow older.

To counter this, Joel E. feels that the wider Jewish community needs to focus their energy on an array of adult educational and engagement programs. Instead of abandoning Hebrew school, however, we should change the model  to primarily a web-based one with weekly social get-togethers.

Joel M. on the other hand, feels that Hebrew school is important for its intrinsic value. Wherever a child will end up in life, the values they receive in Hebrew school provides them with a moral compass for life. In this regard perhaps Hebrew school can be said to be highly successful even today.

A joke is told of two erstwhile friends who had a heated falling out. Friends and family prevailed upon them to seek mediation, so they approached the local rabbi. After carefully listening to both sides, he pronounced the verdict: “You are both right”. The rabbi’s wife overheard this metaphorical spanning the fences and interjected, “How can they both be right?”

To which the rabbi responded, “You are right, too.”

In my opinion, both points are valid.

We in the Jewish community cannot; indeed, must not, relegate our teens, our young adults, and our adults, to second tier status because we are investing in our children’s Jewish education. Intermarriage, a sign of wider Jewish indifference, is a real threat to our future; in addition, Judaism is a way of life — for our entire life.

At the same time, keeping Hebrew schools vibrant and active is of paramount importance.

In addition to providing every child with background, values, and Torah knowledge in the place they are, it is far more likely that a child who had a Hebrew school education will attend Torah classes as an adult.

Even more importantly, the verse (Malachi 3:24) states, “והשיב לב אבות על בנים”, “That he may turn the heart of the fathers back through the children.” Countless families have become more Jewishly involved because their children were inspired at Hebrew school. In fact, many Chabad Hebrew school directors actively engage the parents, grandparents, siblings, and friends of their students. They consider Hebrew school to be a significant engagement tool for the entire Jewish family.

The question is, as Joel E. Hoffman put it, how to get the most “bang for the buck”? With limited resources, where should we put our focus on — Hebrew school or adult education?

There is a pragmatic approach in life, and a purpose driven approach.

Can we invest our all into Hebrew school to make it the very best it can be, while simultaneously creating a vibrant world of Jewish adult education and engagement?

The pragmatic approach is no!

But the purpose driven approach is: we must.

When my mother, Professor Kate Miriam Loewenthal, was in her mid-thirties, she taught psychology in London University while rearing four children — my three sisters and brother. Under intense pressure from the clash of her career and family, she entertained the idea of dropping her professorial position in order to focus more on her children. She decided to ask advice from the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of blessed memory.

The Rebbe advised her to continue in her career of psychology and continue to raise a family. Today she has 11 children, more than 80 grandchildren, and numerous great-grandchildren; she has authored 6 books and many academic articles; she still teaches in university today; she has given tremendous innovation to the Orthodox community with respect to mental health issues; and she serves on various boards of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement.

I do wonder how she does it all. I’m not sure I have the answer.

But it was what was needed.

In my position, I am privileged to work with many Chabad emissaries, many of whom routinely juggle a family of their own, adult programming, teen programming, Hebrew school, preschool, and summer camp.

And I question: How do they do it?

But they never asked themselves how to do it. They asked themselves, “What does my community need from me?”

And they have responded: not by decreasing one program or another, but developing more.

The problem of Jewish indifference will not be won on one front alone. It requires initiatives at every stage of a Jew’s life.

About the Author
Zalman Loewenthal is the director of CKids-Chabad Children's Network, an international organization based in Brooklyn, NY. CKids provides after school programs and Hebrew school development for Chabad houses. Zalman was born in London, UK and received Rabbinic ordination in 2010 by the Central Chabad Yeshiva in Brooklyn, NY.
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