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Reinventing Hebrew School

There’s one thing you can say about Jewish parents: They know what they want for their children. They want excellence, they want attention, they want warmth and they want preparation for what comes next. They demand it — and they usually get it, whether it’s for a baby yoga class or for an elementary school.

All of which makes the current reality of afternoon Hebrew school somewhat of a mystery. While there are good programs in some places, the overwhelming experience is shockingly mediocre at best. Perhaps more surprising, parents seem resigned to a system that too often offers inadequately trained teachers, poor classroom conditions, inflexible programs and stultified learning.

New Vision: Rabbi Joy D. Levitt sees a different future for Hebrew school. Image by Randi L. Klein

The Jewish Journey Project hopes to change this sad picture. It’s a collaboration among The Jewish Community Center in Manhattan, six forward-thinking synagogues and the 14th Street Y, and is supported by several foundations and funders, including The Gottesman Fund, Jim Joseph Foundation and The Lucius N. Littauer Foundation.

JJP starts from the premise that it takes a village to give children the tools necessary to participate fully in Jewish life. It also holds to the belief that meaningful programs must address the social and emotional health of the whole child. When we have completed the planning process, we will have transformed Hebrew school. We will offer a meaningful community for children in their synagogues, and exciting learning and experiential opportunities throughout the city and beyond, in museums and Jewish community centers, and in camps and gardens, food pantries and synagogues. Children and families will be given multiple options to move through their Jewish journey, based on their interests, schedules and learning styles. Our assumption is that when all of our community’s resources are engaged and when families and children have more choices, children will not only enjoy their learning experiences; they will be better citizens in the Jewish community.

But why has Hebrew school gotten to this sad state? Certainly it’s not because our product has no value. Judaism, in its texts and traditions, history and values, can provide a powerful and creative framework for children as they grow into adulthood. It’s not for lack of trying, either. There have been many change initiatives sponsored by communal organizations and denominational movements, several of which have managed to tweak the system around the edges but have been unable to radically improve the outcomes.

One problem may be the definition of the outcome we hope to achieve. While rabbis, educators and parents may be aligned in their hope for a child who feels connected to Jewish life, one who understands and lives its values and traditions, a closer look reveals something far less elevated. Parents settle for a “good bar/bat mitzvah,” while educators feel obliged to settle for children who don’t throw spitballs in class. Rabbis feel constrained to settle for the membership dollars that parents are required to pay to sustain both the synagogues and schools that subsidize them. It’s not that they don’t want more; perhaps they simply don’t believe that more is possible.

If the outcome for parents is a good bar/bat mitzvah, in almost all cases they get what they want, which may explain why there isn’t more pushback during the process. Children are generally well prepared (something that actually happens not from Hebrew school but from private tutoring) and stand in front of the congregation poised, capable and mystically transformed from child to adolescent before their parents’ eyes.

But the cost is too high — for the child and family and for our community. Not in financial terms; that number is painfully low. In fact, the system is so poorly resourced in its present model that it cannot possibly provide the level of excellence that parents ought to expect and that our community needs. But every hour of mediocrity that we provide our children is an hour of squandered opportunity to build a dynamic Jewish community. We all know the deal parents make with their children: Get to the finish line (bar mitzvah), and you don’t have to go anymore. And mostly, they don’t. For the price of a bar/bat mitzvah, we lose a child’s engagement with Jewish life for the foreseeable future, maybe forever.

At JJP, we’ll begin with children in third grade and take them beyond the bar/bat mitzvah. Based loosely on a scouting model, we will make use of innovative technology to enable children to move forward on their journey, as we track their progress and help them set goals, while engaging parents, as well. We’ll be responsive to different learning styles and different interests of children while identifying core learning objectives. We plan to open several pilot projects in Manhattan synagogues in September 2012, and soon thereafter begin adaptation throughout the country.

Revolutions are caused by the raising of expectations. We need nothing short of a revolution here: Our children deserve better, and our community requires better. It’s way past time for all of us — parents, educators, rabbis and the entire Jewish community — to start expecting the best and be willing to support the best.

Rabbi Joy D. Levitt is the executive director of The Jewish Community Center in Manhattan.


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