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Hebrew School Has Nowhere To Go But Up

About 40 years ago in Chicago, halfway through Hebrew school class, my teacher realized I was hiding under her desk, making faces at other students, trying to make them laugh. She sent me instantly to the principal’s office. The thing is, I was one of the “good kids” who rarely disrupted class and seemed genuinely interested. Boredom had gotten the best even of me.

True story. One of thousands like it. Sure, Hebrew school has produced some engaged and knowledgeable Jews, though frighteningly few. Many of us, if you ask us, cite a particular inspiring teacher. Or we talk about youth group or Jewish summer camp. As part of my work in the Experiment in Congregational Education, a national initiative of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion helping reimagine congregational education, my staff and I have asked hundreds of adults to name their most memorable Jewish learning experience. Almost nobody mentions Hebrew school.

It’s true that the majority of Jewish children who get a Jewish education do so in a part-time synagogue-based program. But study after study reports staggering post-b’nai mitzvah dropout rates. And equally staggering numbers of Jewish children never “drop in.” It’s a vivid picture of widespread dissatisfaction. It’s a shofar blast, a clarion call for change. So how did we get here?

When Hebrew schools originated in the 1800s, they met the needs of the time. They provided American Jews a way to do the patriotic thing — send their children to public schools rather than to Jewish school full time. Modeled after the public school in structure, Hebrew school was supposed to supplement what children learned by living in actively Jewish homes. Today the landscape has changed. As Forward writer Jordana Horn suggested in her piece “Who Says You Need Day School?,” unless parents exert intentional effort to create Jewish life in the home, many children absorb little of Jewish practice, Hebrew language or sacred texts from the atmosphere and rhythms of daily life.

And the odds are stacked against Hebrew school. Teachers are usually not professionals, time is severely limited, children arrive tired after a full day of secular studies and — the most fundamental problem — treating Judaism as if it were an academic subject to be studied about denies it any meaningful connection to children’s real lives. No wonder they are bored and can’t wait to get out. The world has changed and families have changed, but we perpetuate an industrial-age model of Jewish education aimed at cranking out a single product: b’nai mitzvot.

It’s become fashionable to write off all congregational education as if it all resembles Hebrew school of the past. Huge mistake. Over the past two decades, we’ve worked with educators, rabbis and lay people across America to create learning experiences that kids insist on being part of, rather than looking for any excuse to miss. These powerful innovative models are getting children out from under, and teachers out from behind, their desks.

How? Some congregations merge Jewish learning and Jewish living in real Jewish time; their families pray, eat and learn as part of a regular Shabbat community. Other congregations guide small chavurot in home-based learning tailored to the Jewish questions of the learners. Still others emulate the powerful, immersive, community-building experiences of Jewish summer camp. In others, teens study relevant Jewish texts, do social justice work in their communities and reflect on how values, actions and texts interact. And they all consciously build relationships. These are just a few of nearly 20 different types of new congregational education models around the country that look nothing like the Hebrew school I grew up with.

Science fiction author William Gibson once said, “The future is already here; it’s just not widely distributed.” Over the past 20 years I estimate that only 10% to 15% of North America’s roughly 1,600 liberal congregations have experimented with new models. We cannot afford to continue at that slow pace. It’s time for those who design and lead Jewish learning in every congregation, communal organization and grassroots effort to ask hard questions, imagine new possibilities, look at what other innovators have done and move forward quickly toward learning that makes a more powerful, more positive, more meaningful impact in the lives of Jewish children and their families.

We have to let go of school as our archetype of “real education.” To meet the challenge congregations must be like Nahshon ben Aminadav, who, the midrash says, walked head deep into the Red Sea just before it split. It takes an act of courage and faith to redirect (rather than divide) resources, to honor schooling’s past even while replacing it with bold innovations. In today’s atmosphere of declining membership, congregations have more to gain (and less to lose) by innovating than by maintaining the status quo.

Dr. Rob Weinberg is the national director of the Experiment in Congregational Education.


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