February 17, 2016

The State of the Obvious 

Joel Grishaver

koren_matovu_062909_380pxHebrew School is supposed to teach Hebrew. For a short period after the 6-Day war and in sporadic occurrences Hebrew Schools have tried “Modern Hebrew.” Now Hebrew has mainly meant “Prayerbook Hebrew.” The most recent, most successful, and currently popular of these modern Hebrew programs that came out of Cleveland (thank you, Nechama and Lifsa) is called Hebrew Through Movement and is pedagogically sound. However “Prayerbook Hebrew” is still granted the most favored nation status and there is a logic to this.

Once there was a battle between the Sunday school (the synagogue) and the Talmud Torah (community education). This war was ultimately played out between urban communities and the suburbs. Synagogue won the suburbs, the Conservative movement allowed driving on Shabbat, and non-demoniacal cross-communal education was driven out of business. Modern Hebrew (and hardcore Zionism) lost and the conjunction between Hebrew school and bar/bat mitzvah was established, leading synagogues to believe their own claim that Hebrew school really was to prepare for bar/bat mitzvah.

A lot has happened to that Hebrew School over time. Chuck Berry is retired, and the rest of the fifties, for the most part, are dead. Hebrew schools, as the survivors of the fifties, don’t remotely look the same. But “prayer-book Hebrew” has remained a major concern. While it is still called “Hebrew School” it is a sub-context of religious school or religion school and its Zionist connection has for the most part been dismissed along with most of the Israeli teachers who dedicated their lives to it.

For a long time, the major activity of Hebrew school was reading Hebrew aloud (fifth seat, fifth line…). The wisdom of this can be questioned, but it played to parent assumptions and clergy prejudice, and it seemed both organic and achievable. Today, as part of a former-student parent revolt that is amplified by the new zeitgeist, Hebrew schools are under attack and their future is uncertain.

Hebrew Schools represent a contract in which Jewish parents turn over their children in exchange for the synagogues providing a coming-of-mitzvah ceremony. The commitments have changed and this is certainly not a one-size-fits all partnership, but basically, the school gets extra time to work its influence into the student body while the child is entitled to one coming of age ritual. Yes, some money exchanges hands, too. Neither side either demands or promises Hebrew as an outcome. For the synagogue, the best part of the deal used to be pressured membership, and now is extra time for friendships and relationships to gel. The truth is, there are now way too many ways for kids to get “mitzvad” without the synagogue so what is being sold needs to be new. Just like in-marriage doesn’t work anymore at all, “mitzvah” isn’t a strong hand against two-of-a-kind.

This means that we are now conjuring a whole new kind of Hebrew school—if there is to be a more than a one-time-a-week commitment. There are a few trends out there, and “not attending” seems to be leading the pack.