Last week I got into a small argument with a colleague over the importance of teaching what some educators refer to as “synagogue skills” in Hebrew school. My colleague argued that, as part of a supplementary curriculum, our efforts were best focused on teaching Hebrew fluency, Jewish history, and Israel, while allowing for plenty of free time. The overarching institutional goal, he reasoned, should be for students to forge lasting connections with each other.
While I agreed with him to an extent, where we differed was with regards to teaching “synagogue skills”, or “shul skills”, those actions and responsibilities that make up our religious practice. I agree that teaching about Jewish history and Israel, as well as promoting Hebrew fluency, are hugely important facets of our task as Jewish educators. However, the question I posed to him and others around him was, Who will run the minyan? Despite being knowledgeable about Jewish history, Israel, and other areas of Judaica, will they be able to participate actively in religious life? Eventually, our students will be the leaders of their respective Jewish communities, likely ones that value holding communal religious services. When the responsibility falls to them to lead their future communities’ services and be part of their religious life, will they be up to the task?
Who will lead Shabbat services on Saturday morning? Or Saturday afternoon?
Who will recite the Prayer for Rain on Shemini Atzeret, or Akdamut on Shavuot? (For that matter, how many of them know what Akdamut is?)
Who will be able to lead a shiva minyan?
Who will learn the nusach for the festival musaf service?
Who will be able to lead Hallel? Or chant kiddush on Friday night, or be able to chant a Haftarah?
Perhaps several of these “synagogue skills” are self-selecting; in other words, the students who have interest in learning them will learn them eventually, and we will be okay. This is a version of the idea of the “saving remnant”- that, despite our own uninvolvement, Judaism will be perpetuated by those special individuals who take it upon themselves to carry forward the Tradition. These people often become rabbis, cantors, or educators. But these needn’t be the only paths; students and congregants of any age, or level of knowledge or experience on the bimah can become part of a corps of lay leaders, capable of actively participating in religious life. As a lay leader at a synagogue that is largely lay-led, along with two outstanding rabbis, one of my personal highlights of our community is having such a dedicated corps of individuals knowledgeable about all manner of berachot and services, and there are always opportunities for others to become involved.
Does the student love learning about Israel? Wonderful; offer them the opportunity to lead the Prayer for the State of Israel, in Hebrew.
Are they exceptional students of Hebrew? That’s fantastic; teach them how to do a repetition of the Amidah.
Do they value strong relationships with their friends? How nice; give them the opportunity to read Torah, and convey our communal story to their friends and their congregation.
I’ve discussed with colleagues the huge question of how do we ensure that our students are knowledgeable about Jewish religious practice. One colleague has said that when parents have asked him about this, he often prefaces his answer with “you may not like my answer.” How do we get them involved, interested and knowledgeable, he says? Come to shul. Stay for services, in the main sanctuary. Find something in our liturgy that speaks to you, and if you’d like to learn more about it or how to lead it, simply ask someone who is doing it already. A great educational dictum is that we learn by doing; we need to ensure that our students are knowledgeable members of their respective communities with real, usable synagogue skills that will enable them to serve their communities and find their niche in the life of those communities. After all, they will one day run the minyan, if they are not doing it already. Let’s make sure they are prepared to do so.