Back to School On Education

By Leonard Fein

Published February 11, 2005, issue of February 11, 2005.
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The big news in Jewish education these days is, of course, the dramatic expansion in day school enrollment. We are indebted to Marvin Schick and the Avi Chai Foundation for providing us the count as of the 2003-2004 school year: There were 759 schools and 205,035 students. For those of us in the non-Orthodox community, the growth in the Solomon Schechter schools of the Conservative movement and the burgeoning of Reform schools have been nearly breathtaking.

I well recall the first creaky years of the Solomon Schechter School here in the Boston area, a product (as most such projects are) of the near-monomaniacal devotion of a handful of people. Now the school is bursting at the seams, and there are three more Schechter schools in the area.

But before we allow ourselves to be carried away, let us bear in mind that the total numbers involved on the non-Orthodox side of the ledger are in fact pitifully small. Of 205,000 students altogether, 18,000 attend Schechter schools and 4,400 attend Reform schools. Add in another 17,000 who go to community schools, and you still have less than 20% of the total. Day school education in the United States remains overwhelmingly an Orthodox phenomenon.

So what happens to children in Sunday schools and in afternoon Hebrew schools remains a critically important, if often neglected, concern of the community.

The matter was much on my mind this last week, since I’d been invited to talk to the parents of an afternoon school on the matter of what an educated Jewish child ought to know.

At first blush, the answer seems easy: Hebrew, customs and ceremonies, a bit of Jewish history and so forth. But when you begin to think about it, you immediately come to recall that Hebrew school is remembered by most American Jews as the place where they failed to learn Hebrew.

Myself, I blow hot and cold on the matter of language. On the one hand, mastery of Hebrew is a huge resource. Even though one can get along quite comfortably in Israel with English, there’s an integrity and a richness in the language that is utterly lost in translation. At the same time, we seem — with here-and-there exceptions, to be sure — not to know, not even after all these years and all the effort, how to teach the language successfully. Do we really intend that our children emerge from the Hebrew school experience with an enduring sense of failure?

As to the rest, which typically takes place with children who are very young, it often seems to border on the trivial. We desperately want our kids to understand something of the thundering history of the Jewish people, but mostly the best we can do, given their age and the quality of too many of our teachers, is to tell them that it was thundering. At 8 years old, they might believe what we say, but it doesn’t much matter to them.

What wants teaching? What can engage the minds and the hearts of even the very young?

At its best and strongest, Jewish history, like Jewish life today, is all about knowing how to answer the one key question that structures the entire saga of our people: Where are you? That was God’s first question, and it remains the operative challenge we are given. The answer to that question is no mystery; it, too, is presented, again and again, in our texts. The answer is, “Here I am.”

A responsible and inspiring Jewish education, it seems to me, should be organized around teaching what being “here” means, where “here” is.

Being “here” is not about geographic location; it is about a way of living. It is about being present, about paying attention, about internalizing the central concepts and values that inform our tradition. Yes, some particular skills are helpful, but at the risk of encouraging a mishmash of unanchored ethical culturism, I think the skills of decisively lower-order priority. (In any case, how much skill does it take to engage in responsive reading during a worship service? Yawn.) But: It is never too early to learn what it means always to be ready to be the 10th person in a minyan; it is never too early to be encouraged to be the first person in a minyan; one is never too young to learn about tzedakah, hence about paying attention to the Other.

When I was a child, in a public school, we read “Silas Marner.” I’ve not looked at the book since, and therefore haven’t the foggiest idea why it was thought important for us to read it. At the same time, in Hebrew school, we were slogging through biblical texts. What I took away from the contrast was that Hebrew school, as cryptic as it often seemed, was about things that were really important, while public school was not.

That was a while ago, and public schools, for all the bad rap they get, have plainly set for themselves and their students higher standards than those that once prevailed. Meanwhile, Hebrew schools have developed an institutional inferiority complex, born of the recognition that they are very much an add-on, very nearly an afterthought.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Here and there, it is in fact not that way. In the best of the day schools, it is never that way. But even without the structural advantage of the day school — it cannot be perceived as an afterthought — the goals of Jewish education when thoughtfully developed are as lofty as can be.

Thoughtfully developed? Just ask the parents what really matters to them.

Leonard Fein is the author of “Against the Dying of the Light: A Parent’s Story of Love, Loss, and Hope” (Jewish Lights).

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