Hebrew School is the Answer – But Not If You Ask the Wrong Question

If you think that “Hebrew school is not the answer,” as a man who almost shares my name wrote a few days ago, then I believe you’re asking the wrong question.

In condemning Hebrew schools, my near near namesake, Joel E. Hoffman — I’m Joel M. Hoffman — writes that a “key statistic is the current intermarriage rate of 71% among non-Orthodox Jews.” This is why, he says, even the best Hebrew schools “have proven to be an ineffective way to transmit Jewish identity and observance.” (By “Hebrew schools” he means both religious and Hebrew schools.) The reasoning here strikes me as quadruply faulty.

PullQuote2Most obviously, we don’t know what the intermarriage rate would be without Hebrew schools. Perhaps it would be higher. And even though the sociologist Steven Cohen concludes that one-day-a-week schools may encourage intermarriage, he also observes that attending supplementary school in the teen years has positive effects. In my experience a good pre-bar/bat mitzvah program is the best way to promote attendance after bar/bat mitzvah, so a good school can be an effective bridge to the positive results that Cohen sees.

Secondly, intermarriage is not the only metric of success. I know this claim is controversial, and that some people still see a Jewish child who eventually intermarries only as a Jewish failure. I disagree, both in principle and because I have seen too many children of mixed marriages enter the walls of my school with the goal of living a Jewish life.

Thirdly, even a 71% failure rate — and I don’t think that’s what it is, but even if it were — is still a 29% success rate. In secular schools we teach topics like algebra, Shakespeare, chemistry, and European history, even though far fewer than 29% of the students in those classes end up proficient in those fields. Many students don’t even remember what they were taught. But the classes are not failures if they make the information available to the students who want it. Hebrew school can do the same.

Fourthly, when Joel E. Hoffman writes that “even the best Hebrew schools” don’t work, he advances a practically absurd definition of what it means to be a good school. It’s true, I believe, that too many schools focus on the wrong things and use only artificial metrics of success that align poorly with actual results, so there are many schools that look good on paper even though they don’t work very well in practice. But these are not the best schools. And at any rate, we should not judge the whole endeavor by the failures.

Most importantly, though, Joel E. Hoffman is asking the wrong questions. And in this regard he is not alone.

Like worship services, social-action projects, or myriad other synagogue-based activities, religious school can be a powerful and positive Jewish influence, in this case at perhaps the most important time in a person’s development.

Done properly, religious school gives children and teens a holy community where the richness of our tradition provides an immediate bubble of insulation from the daily maladies that torment them, a long-term foundation that will strengthen them as they travel life’s journey, and an ongoing spiritual and religious context in which to marvel at life itself.

So the right questions include whether the students look forward to their time at religious school and whether they eventually look back on it as time well spent.

My point is not that religious school just has to be fun or that it should be more like summer camp — though I know that some people advocate both — if only because we will never “out-fun” what the children can do themselves and because the two most important elements of summer camp are “summer” and “camp.”

Rather, children are naturally curious, so education is inherently compelling. Children are naturally social, so coming together is inherently compelling. And Judaism itself is inherently compelling. It is of course troubling that some institutions have turned this winning trifecta into drudgery and resentment. But it is not inevitable. Students can love coming together to learn about Judaism just as they can treasure their experiences long after they have left school.

If your students don’t, then fix your religious school.

But don’t give up on it.

About the Author
A pioneer of applying modern translation techniques to ancient languages, Dr. Joel M. Hoffman brings the unappreciated wisdom of ancient texts to modern audiences.
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