Hebrew Schools Aren’t a Placebo

by Josh Barkin

There are people who say that supplementary Jewish education — that enterprise that often goes by names like “Hebrew school,” “Sunday school,” “religious school,” or “Torah school” — is a failing proposition.

These people are wrong. Hebrew schools are not failing. They’re just a convenient straw man for people who believe that day schools are the answer to everything that plagues American Jewry. If only they could get funders to commit more money to day schools, rabbis to recommend that their congregants go to day schools, and major movements to put more emphasis on day schools.

Let me be clear: I’m a product of a day school education. I think day schools are wonderful, and that they are deserving of Jewish communal resources. But that’s not enough for these people. They think that we should support day schools not because those schools are great in their own right, but because Hebrew schools are failing. This is a silly tactic, akin to cutting off your nose to spite your face. Supplementary education and day schools can co-exist, and those people who suggest otherwise should be ashamed for suggesting an end to Hebrew schools.

George D. Hanus is one of those people. And George D. Hanus is wrong. He argued in an article entitled “The Great American Jewish Placebo” that Hebrew schools are failing, and the only way to save American Jewry from itself is to make sure that every kid in America has access to a day school education. The commentary can be found in this week’s edition of World Jewish Digest.

Recently, I’ve been reading a lot of the World Jewish Digest. We’re apparently on their subscription list here at Torah Aura (though we definitely didn’t pay for a subscription, I don’t think), so every few weeks an issue of the newspaper (or magazine?) shows up in our offices.

I’ve been reading a lot of the World Jewish Digest recently because of late they’ve been talking a lot about Jewish education. Jewish education is our business, so it behooves us to stay well-read on the issues. So I’ve been reading, even if the source is the World Jewish Digest, a publication whose name suggests an international following, but all the advertisers are from the Chicago area and most of them are promoting (a) Jewish day schools in the Chicago area, and/or (b) right-wing causes, especially concerning Israel.

In their last issue, the cover story was a poorly-written feature story entitled, “What’s Wrong With Hebrew School?”. In it, the author provided lots of anecdotal evidence that children don’t like going to Hebrew school, then offered some (out-of-context and poorly explained) statistical data from the usual Jewish demographers, then announced that Hebrew schools are failing. (She then went on to discuss a number of supplementary school programs — which she admits are actually the norm not the exception — that are doing really great things.) This article bothered the heck out of me (I wrote about it extensively on my personal blog).

Now, in the most recent issue of the World Jewish Digest, George D. Hanus waxes poetic about how Hebrew schools are actually a placebo that tricks American Jews into thinking that they’re actually doing something to educate their kids Jewishly, when in fact they’re having a detrimental effect. Hanus cites the previous issue’s article, and also speaks at length about Steven M. Cohen’s data that suggests (shockingly!) that kids whose only Jewish education is one-day-a-week supplementary school are more likely to intermarry, and thus, according to Hanus, destroy the Jewish people.

Hanus is wrong for a number of reasons.

First, he’s twisting the survey data to say something it doesn’t say. He writes,

“according to a new study by Steven M. Cohen, the likelihood of intermarriage actually increases among students wgo attend once-a-week Sunday schools, and attending congregational school — two or more times a week, for less than seven years — hardly decreases that percentage… It is time to declare Hebrew and Sunday school a placebo that is failing our community.”

According to Hanus, Hebrew schools fail kids who only go once a week, and who only attend for a couple years, so therefore its time to declare them a failure.

Don’t be fooled. Hanus is either totally misunderstands the data, or he’s deliberately twisting it to fit his own needs. (I don’t know the man, but I suspect the latter is closer to the truth.) Here’s the deal: He left out the word only. The study says that kids whose entire Jewish education amounts to one-day-a-week Sunday school or to just a few years of Hebrew school are more likely to intermarry. This is a silly straw man. Nobody thinks that kids are going to have a strong Jewish identity if their entire Jewish life amounts to just a little bit of Hebrew school. The people who run supplementary schools certainly don’t think so. That’s why they promote camp, Israel trips, and youth groups. Supplementary schools are effective when used as one part of a larger arsenal. Declaring Hebrew schools a failure based on this data would be like saying, “Surgeons who use rubber gloves — and only rubber gloves — during surgeries tend to be less effective surgeons.” Well duh. I don’t know about you, but I want my surgeon using scalpels and sutures and medications and anesthesia and all that good stuff. Hebrew schools weren’t designed to work alone, so of course people who are dumb enough to use them alone end up with a less-than-desirable result.

Then, Hanus chooses one interpretation of that data, and falls victim to the fallacy of causation. This is the chicken-egg argument. Hanus assumes that because of this high intermarriage rate, Hebrew schools are the cause. This is silly. Isn’t it possible (maybe even more possible) that the kind of people who make the lowest commitment to Jewish education are the ones who are already predisposed to intermarry? In other words, it makes more sense to infer that the folks who only go to Hebrew school for a couple of years (and who are involved in no other sort of Jewish education) are also the folks who don’t ever light shabbat candles at home, don’t keep Passover, don’t sing Maoz Tzur, and… here’s the kicker… don’t send a strong message to their kids that they disapprove of intermarriage. Why is Hebrew school to blame? Blaming Hebrew school is like the guy who eats only twinkies and smokes three packs a day blaming his doctor when he has a heart attack. Living no active Jewish life and then blaming Hebrew schools when your kid marries out is just as ridiculous.

Second, Hanus doesn’t read the fine print in Cohen’s study. The stats on the correlation between intermarriage and Hebrew schools are based on data gathered as part of the 2001 National Jewish Population Study. If you check with the NJPS (which you can do by clicking here), you find that the survey participants were all people over the age of 18 in 2001. That means that to get the intermarriage data, you’re dealing with people who were already in- or inter- married in 2001. In the United States, the median marriage age in 2005 (based on survey data taken the previous year) was 26.7 years for men and 25.1 for women. So that means that the data Cohen uses is based on people who were already at least 25 years old in 2001, which means the youngest ones who only went to a few years of Hebrew school were probably out of Hebrew school (at around age 13) by 1989.

So even if you accept Hanus’ assertion that the data suggests that Hebrew schools aren’t good, the data is really saying that Hebrew schools weren’t good 17 years ago.

If the stats on the success rate for heart surgeries were really dismal in 1989, should doctors decline performing heart surgeries today? Of course that would be silly. That’s because a lot has changed since 1989. Doctors are a lot better at performing heart surgeries. (I don’t actually know anything about heart surgeries… I was just getting into the doctor analogies.) And get this revolutionary statement: Hebrew schools are better today than they were in 1989. Shocking, huh?

Third, Hanus has decided that the sole decided of whether or not a Jewish school (or a whole educational system) is effective is the rate at which its graduates in-marry. I won’t even get into criticizing the traditional Jewish establishment for being totally and completely obsessed with intermarriage. The new school of Jewish sociologists, demographers, polemics, and religious leaders have already covered that topic ad nauseum. (If you’re not familiar, start with Rushkoff’s Nothing Sacred.) Hanus’ obsession with inter-marriage is also problematic from an educational perspective. It is silly to judge the effectiveness of any educational endeavor on one single criterion. Schools should be judging themselves on sets of organic, holistic, and cohesive measures. I know that this might be hard for Hanus, a business-minded real-estate developer. But look around. Single-minded educational policy — like No Child Left Behind — doesn’t work.

Fourth, Hanus is not an unbiased observer when it comes to this issue. In fact, he’s a zealot for day schools.

As I said before, I have no problem with day schools. I went to two of them myself. My fiancé was once a day school teacher. When we have children (hold your horses, Mom), we very well may send them to day school.

Also, I have no real problem with George D. Hanus. He’s a well-meaning guy, a hard working entrepreneur who puts his money into really worthy causes. He’s a philanthropist with a vision, and even if I disagree with his vision, I have a ton of respect for the man. So this is not meant to be an ad hominem attack.

But here’s the problem with George D. Hanus. It’s hard to take his journalistic commentary — let alone his interpretations of difficult demographic data — seriously. He’s not some Jewish guy just writing about an issue he thinks is important. This is a guy who thinks that Jewish day schools — and, more specifically, the funding of Jewish days schools — is the most important issue facing American Jewry. He’s on the record about his cause here (gotta love the headline) and here and here. All he talks about is Jewish days schools. He’s on the board of an Orthodox day school. This guy eats, sleeps, and breathes day schools. He’ll talk to anyone who’ll listen. And since all the Jewish newspapers in the country have already run commentary pieces by him on this issue, the only place he can turn now is the World Jewish Digest. Guess who the chairman of the World Jewish Digest is? Wait for it… George D. Hanus.

As Jewsweek (a now-defunct online Jewish news outlet) once put it, “George Hanus is a visionary – and sometimes his vision is a little blurred.” He’s been yelling at the top of his lungs about getting people to pledge money to help cover the cost of day schools. The plan “barely picked up steam.” So now he’s running around calling Jewish leaders “the Grand Illustrious Council of Wise Men of Chelm,” and says that “rabbis and Federation leadership seem oblivious to the obvious.” He’s beginning to sound like Chicken Little.

I think Hanus is actually the one who’s “oblivious to the obvious.” He is so single-mindedly driven to put kids into Jewish day schools that he can’t see all the other interesting (and successful!) Jewish educational programming that has sprung up of late. He can’t see that supplementary schools and day schools can co-exist in harmony, and that Jewish camping and youth groups provide important identity-building functions.

Hanus thinks everything other than Jewish day schools is a placebo. He’s been so busy screaming and yelling that he doesn’t realize he’s put all of his energy into a single miracle drug, a panacea that’s supposed to solve everything. That kind of attitude is bad for medicine, and it’s bad for Jewish education.