The Rise of Private Hebrew Tutoring

When it comes to extreme parenting, it takes a lot to surprise me. I’ve spent a decade studying child beauty pageants and just published a book, Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture, about 95 families with elementary school-age children who compete in chess, dance, and soccer. But while researching Playing to Win I was struck by something I had never heard of before: private Hebrew tutoring.

It really shouldn’t have surprised me. These days, private instructors exist for kids in almost every extracurricular endeavor (for example, if you play baseball you can have multiple private coaches, like one for pitching, one for hitting and one for fielding). And with families busier than ever, something has to give.

Increasingly, that something is Hebrew School. One father said about his kids, “They used to go to the Temple, but because of soccer — the commitment of two to three times a week — religious school was not in the cards. We feel they get more out of private tutoring anyway. I hated Hebrew School as a kid, so we have a Rabbi come over and work with them. For their Bat and Bar Mitzvahs the Rabbi does the service… It’s really much more meaningful.”

I met several soccer and chess families with private Hebrew tutors who echoed these sentiments. Given that more of the chess families I met identified as Jewish than any other religious group (38% said they are Jewish, compared to 31% who said other, 24% who said Protestant and 7% Catholic) — and given that 28% of the soccer families I met consider themselves Jewish (second to Catholics) — it was surprising how few families chose to make “traditional” Hebrew School a priority for their kids. Parents also me about other choices their families were making, including “taking a break” from traditional Hebrew School or having their kids attend Hebrew School classes at a synagogue when the children could. Other families resorted to bribing their children to go to Hebrew School over another activity.

Some, of course, prioritized the experience of a traditional Hebrew School, with in-person classes two to three times per week. As one chess mom told me, “They have Hebrew School Thursday afternoon and on Sunday, so that takes up probably the most time [outside of school]. But that’s a learning thing, it’s not necessarily an activity to us.”

Even among those who made Hebrew School a priority, parents expressed concern over how much their children were doing each day. Take this soccer dad, a high-powered investment professional: “Between Hebrew school and regular school and there’s the after-school programs a couple days per week, they have a schedule that makes my schedule look easy. I just go to work!”

I always thought that the purpose of any religious instruction was to foster a sense of community and to learn about the religion itself. Indeed that is the case for many, according to Hebrew School directors. At the Conservative congregation of Neve Shalom in Metuchen, NJ, some children are the only Jewish children in their daily classrooms, so Hebrew School offers them an opportunity to make Jewish friends.

Like many other synagogues, this year Neve Shalom is changing its school structure from three days per week to two. According to Education Director Hazzan Sheldon Levin, the change is driven by parents — especially younger ones — who “are looking at lots of activities for their kids, and three days per week doesn’t fit with the futures they envision for their kids.” While the number of days is decreasing, the overall number of weekly hours of instruction isn’t, as Sunday classes will now be three hours and children will be expected to do some independent online learning.

The Reform synagogue Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley, Mass., also offers flexibility for busy families. The magnet congregation of over 1,100 families, with 400 children enrolled in the Hebrew School, is large enough to offer scheduling options. On Sundays, two time slots are available — to accommodate either soccer games or a family sleep-in. Similarly, the choice between Tuesday or Wednesday classes means that come spring, kids can switch days of the week if their sports schedules call for it. Senior director of Jewish Living and Learning Dr. Judy Avnery explained that, initially, these choices were driven by the logistics of such a large congregation, but now they support families and their complicated schedules, which appears to keep many coming back.

My son is only 19 months old, so we haven’t had to face these decisions yet. One thing I learned is that many options exist for religious instruction and you can likely find something that will work with your family’s priorities, if you are willing to do your own research.

How do you manage your family’s schedule and Hebrew School — and would you ever consider private Hebrew tutoring? Share your experiences in the comments below.

Hilary Levey Friedman is a Harvard sociologist and you can read more about her and her work at www.hilaryleveyfriedman.com.

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The Rise of Private Hebrew Tutoring

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