Altneu Non-Shul — The Sunday School for Jewish Studies

by Joel Grishaver

Started around 1970 by some Harvard professors, just about the same time some other Harvard faculty started the Harvard Hillel Children’s School (that morphed into Congregation Eitz Chayim), The Sunday School for Jewish Studies is a non-synagogue, parent cooperative, not for profit, way of providing a Jewish education and accessing a bar/bat mitzvah experience.

The school was featured in a recent article in the Boston Globe. The article described it as (a) a non-Synagogue and (b) cheaper way of providing a bar/bat mitzvah. The article centers on the fact that this “non brick and mortar” (non) institution that charges as little as 1/4 the cost of belonging to (and sending your kids to school at) a “brick and mortar” synagogue.

Here are the things I know.

[1] Harvard Hillel Children’s School (that I do know about) was started as a chance to provide an innovative, better, experimental Jewish education for a number of positively identified but “syno-phobic” Jews. It did a lot of pioneering work with adult education, family education, alternative education and a lot of the other frontier (for its age) areas of Jewish Education. For a lot of years it was guided by Rabbi Cherie Kohler Fox and her husband Dr. Everett Fox. The hallmark of the school was not its cost, but its ability to innovate. Much of that innovation was its ability to create community among a population that was considered fringe. That community ultimately felt the need to evolve into a synagogue.

[2] I had never heard about The Sunday School for Jewish Studies until The Globe article appeared. The little I’ve been able to learn about it on the internet makes it sound little different from the Harvard Hillel Children’s school at its prime. It is devoted to serving its students and its families. It has a social action vision of Judaism. It is open to all kinds of definitions of Jewish family. All this is to be praised!

[3] It is The Globe article that bothers me, not my understanding of The Sunday School. I have nothing against Jews creating independent institutions that meet their own needs. I have nothing against people choosing and creating alternatives to the synagogue. I do wish Jewish life was cheaper. What bothers me is the smug sense that this is a better way of providing a Jewish education because it has less overhead. The article provides no other way of evaluating the quality of the education offered at this school.

The article ends by quoting the father of a Bar Mitzvah, “He read it perfectly. I’d put his training up against any synagogue training,” Note: the standard was “his training” not “his education.” The author has a pretty classic misunderstanding of Jewish education. The school’s job is to “train” students for b’nai mitzvah. If the kid reads well, the school must have succeeded. It’s an economics equation. The school provides a product (“training”) for less money, so it must be a great deal.

[4] The article actually comes as a warning. The congregational school, that long believed that it has a monopoly on non-day school Jewish education, now needs to look over its shoulder. While we thought the major threat would come from “tutoring,” there are other alternatives on the horizon. Simply put, we are not the only way to have a bar/bat mitzvah. God’s creation of this world does allow for the rental of tents, the borrowing of Sifrei Torah and the photocopying of service booklets. If the only thing our schools offer is bar mitzvah training, we have a big problem because (a) we know that this isn’t a sufficient Jewish education, and (b) as this article teaches us, families can get a do-it-yourself b’nai mitzvah somewhere else.

[5] So here’s my final synthesis:

The article teaches us that congregational schools are not the cheapest Jewish education option in many cities. But we need to be the best. The research of Dr. Jack Wertheimer (Schools that Work: What We Can Learn from Good Jewish Schools) puts creating a nurturing Jewish Community, engaging Judaism at a high level, providing opportunities for experiential education, and valuing themselves and their students on the list of elements of high-quality Jewish schools.

As my friend and teacher, Rabbi Phil Warmflash, likes to point out, “The success of the synagogue school has as much to do with the success of the synagogue as the success of the school.”