Retooling Hebrew School
Previously I wrote an opinion piece in which I posited that we would get more “back for the buck” in sparking a Jewish revival by increasing the focus on adult education than in putting our hope in Hebrew school. (See my “Hebrew school is not the answer,” February 17, 2003; and Rabbi Zalman Loewenthal’s reply “Hebrew school, is it the answer?” March 7th, 2016).
I now turn my attention to the improvement of Hebrew school. After all, this is where approximately 90% pre-B’nai Mitzvah children who get some kind of Jewish education receive it for at least some of these years.
Hebrew schools today incorporate a lot of hands-on learning, and several innovative models for Hebrew school have been launched in recent years, including the project-based learning Hebrew school model, the learning through the arts Hebrew school model, the aftercare “camp like” Hebrew school model, and the online Hebrew school model.
I applaud the pedagogical improvements as well as the funding and creative innovations to the Hebrew school model. However, I feel that Hebrew schools today still lack a particular “mindset” about Judaism, approach to learning, and purpose of Jewish education since the creation of the very first Hebrew school 178 years ago by Rebecca Gratz (Jewish Quarterly Review, July 1900) which is essential to their success.
What I propose and will explain in this article is the retooling of Hebrew schools with the proper mindset about Judaism and Jewish education.
For starters, the term Hebrew school is factually inaccurate and outdated, plus, we all know this term conjures up negative connotations. I say this, in part, because Hebrew schools do not teach Hebrew as a language, and originally the word Hebrew was used to downplay the Jewishness of where Jewish children went after public school. Therefore, a new name is long overdue.
So what would be a better name to replace the name Hebrew school? I propose the name Mitzvah Center.
Changing the name of Hebrew School to Mitzvah Center, however, is not for semantics, but for the purpose of creating a change in the “mindset” and modus operandi of Jewish education.
- A Mitzvah Center is a more accurate description of one of the main purposes of Jewish education, which is to learn how to do Mitzvot.
- By using the term Mitzvah Center this would be a constant reminder about one of the main functions in being a Jewish, which is doing Mitzvot.
- The term Mitzvah Center more actually reflects what should be a significant focus of a Hebrew school’s curriculum content.
- The term Mitzvah Center relays that Jewish education and Judaism are not just for children but for adults as well.
A Mitzvah Center will still look 80% like a Hebrew school (even if employing an innovative model), however, there are four essential practical differences.
- A Mitzvah Center facilitates the performance of Mitzvot.
Whereas a Hebrew school in teaching about lighting Shabbat candles includes the hands-on activity of the students making Shabbat candlestick holders, a Mitzvah Center would send home candles every week for all the women in the home to light. This is an entirely different perspective on the role of a school, and from a “Center” Jewish education spreads out.
In keeping with the Shabbat candles example, there are numerous examples where a little girl was given Shabbat candles to light and this sparked a family to grow Jewishly. First the mother also lit Shabbat candles with her daughter, then a few weeks later the mother decided not to have the TV on in the living room while she lit Shabbat candles. Then a few weeks later…
Ditto for giving out little grape juice bottles after teaching the students about the Mitzvah of making Kiddush, as well as giving out Shmura Matzah before Passover, etc.
As one can see, a Mitzvah Center does not just teach about Mitzvot, but takes on the responsibility to do everything it can to help its students concretize the learning into action and with their families.
- The ambiance and climate of a Mitzvah Center is Mitzvot.
When a parent comes into the Mitzvah Center to drop off or pick up his/her child(ren) s/he would see various Mitzvah stations in the foyer with Mitzvot that can easily be done on the spot. For example, putting on Tefillin (with the rabbi there to encourage and to help facilitate), saying the Shema, giving Tzedakah, watching a one minute video with a Torah lesson for the week, as well as the opportunity to drop off a can of food for the foodbank, to pick up Shabbat candles, etc.
These have been called “Touch and Go” Mitzvot because they only take a short moment of time to do, and they do not necessitate a lifestyle change. Never-the-less they are an important aspect of “doing Jewish,” and a Mitzvah Center serves to remind everyone of this by creating a culture of doing Mitzvot.
- A Mitzvah Center would have a different Mitzvah Campaign every year.
This is exactly what it sounds like. One year the Mitzvah Center (and synagogue) would promote, for example, the Mitzvah of Mezuzah, the next year perhaps various Mitzvah projects for the poor, then in future years the promotion of the Mitzvah of keeping Kosher, the Mitzvah of helping the environment, the creating of a Jewish library in one’s home, a No Adult Left Behind when it comes to adults being able to read Hebrew, families hosting each other and/or just being hosted for a Shabbat dinner experience in a round-robin format once a month for a year, etc. There are a lot of Mitzvot to promote!
Part of being Jewish is about spiritually growing, and many of these type of Mitzvot require a significant time commitment, financial commitment, and/or an adjustment to one’s lifestyle. Therefore, one Mitzvah Campaign per year is a practical and steady pace.
Not every Mitzvah Center family is going to participate in every Mitzvah Campaign. One’s expectations need to be tamed. But right now no one is participating. No one just wakes up and says s/he is going to start keeping putting on Tefillin or keeping Kosher, etc. without a significant amount of encouragement and support. A Mitzvah Center’s yearly Mitzvah Campaign provides a much-needed opportunity and encouragement for people to grow Jewishly.
- A Mitzvah Center instills “Mitzvah Activism” into its students.
Part of being a Jew, which has been lost in the Hebrew school system, is sharing one’s Jewish knowledge with other Jews and helping Jews do Mitzvot. This teaching would be instilled into the students by them actually teaching and helping others do Mitzvot. For example, the older kids in the Mitzvah Center would help the younger students with Hebrew reading and they would serve as a “Tephillah Buddy” for younger students at school-wide Tephillah services.
Another example: On the Sunday of Sukkot the students in the B’nai Mitzvah class would go to the houses of the synagogue’s members, former members, the Jewish old-age home, etc. with a Lulav and Etrog to help as many Jews as possible fulfill this Mitzvah. Parent volunteers would drive and there could even be a contest to see who can get the most people to shake a Luluv and Etrog. Additionally, when a family decides to start keeping kosher at home, members of the synagogue’s teenage Youth Group would help Kasher the family’s kitchen and dishes. (These later two examples are also one way #1 above is accomplished.)
Of course a Hebrew school can implement any of the above aspects of a Mitzvah Center without a name change, but changing the name from Hebrew school to Mitzvah Center creates a powerful psychological and philosophical message (see the four bullet points above), and by implementing all four aspects of a Mitzvah Center, this will create a synergy that results in an effectiveness that is more than the sum of its parts.