Not All Hebrew Schools Suck

Joel Lurie Grishaver

Joel Lurie GrishaverI took a trip back east to work with teachers. I was reminded that the greater Jewish world lies about the Hebrew School experience. They call it “the drop off school” and denigrate the parents who make a solid commitment to fight their kids to get them there once, twice, or three times a week. It may not be all the commitment we want—but it is a hell-o-a -lot more than over 70 percent of Jewish parents (at any given moment) who don’t provide their children with any Jewish education.

These parents may tell their children: “I hate it and I went—You’ll hate it and you’ll go.” It is not everything we would want—but compared to all those who don’t say anything—it is a lot. These “drop-off” families are the ones who show up for our family education events. They become our partners, they work with us to create the best for their children. We don’t succeed with all of them—but we do succeed with a lot more of them than the families that don’t show up at all.

We all know that every Hebrew School teacher received lessons in torture from Torquemada. We know that Jewish children all have nightmares about having to read the seventh Hebrew line on page twenty-seven. But, back east, I saw a lot of teachers doing a good job. I saw them knowing and relating to their students. I saw them create their classrooms as a sacred space. And, I saw them have the expertise to know when to challenge and when to help.


The Mayan calendar falsely predicted the end of the Hebrew School in 2012. Jewish newspapers have been predicting the death of the Hebrew school and has run Hebrew school horror stories, including the Los Angeles Jewish Journal. The worst I have read was about a kid who was dragged out of his parent’s car, crying and convulsing, on the way into the synagogue.

But to be honest, the Jewish Educational Innovation Establishment has a vest interest in killing the Hebrew school so that they can replace it. If it isn’t bad, if it isn’t a failure, if it isn’t apparently dying of its own degeneration—it doesn’t need to be replace. And a lot of people are in the business of replacing Hebrew school.

So first of all you have the “it’s free and only one day a week” supplemental school system, Chabad, who is now, according to A Census of Jewish Supplementary Schools in the United  States, the largest denomination in the country.  There is the do it at home on-line school,  the Harry Potter Hebrew School method. And there is the do it with the families—and that makes us different Hebrew School movement  despite the fact that just about all Hebrew schools now have attempts (many successful) at involving families.

Then there is the ringmaster who keeps all these alternatives in the air, THe Lippman Kanfer Institute.

The congregational school offers a few things that these “innovations” don’t–access to a Youth Movement and a Summer Camp system. Learning opportunities for adults, post Bar Mitzvah kids—and an organic community that is about a lot more than a private ceremony under a tent in the backyard.

Let’s acknowledge some truths:

1.         Jewish Education is expensive. Jewish life is expensive.

2.         Not all (but not no) Congregational Schools offer quality experiences—just like the one I visited in New York.

3.         Technology is now part of family lives and needs to be incorporated into present Jewish learning experiences.

4.         That the Jewish teacher (and not just the rabbi) was considered a position of honor and esteem in the Jewish community and they can do some really important things like honoring each student, like building sacred communities, and establishing lifelong Jewish connections that transcend the school setting.

5.         The “process” and the involvement of learners in the system—that introducing the word “stakeholders” into the discussion—can dramatically improve the educational outcome.

The Rest of the Truth

While it is a time for innovation and reconsideration, while there are legitimate fiscal pressures, there are some destructive trends that are working to destroy the present system and insure its failure. There are exceptions to all of these.

1.         The closing of central agencies of Jewish education and therefore the removal of the only institution that cares about the success of teachers and works towards their betterment.

2.         The closing or scaling back of national institutions of Jewish Education—and the promulgation of the belief that Jewish education is no longer a communal obligation but should be moved into the marketplace.

3.         The foundation assumption that only the new is worth funding and therefore the lack of funds for that which is extant and successful, requiring the system to be constantly innovational and never pushing for continuity of process or staff. By-the-way, just about no grants, and that has become the funding process of necessity, will ever pay for staff—and that is a suicidal posture.

4.         The present need for congregations to fire seasoned and long term Jewish educators in order to higher hire? just graduated and without parallel experience assistant rabbis.

5.         The War on Time. While there is pressure from the “regular school” and while working mothers (almost a universal reality) don’t have the time to provide transportation—the downsizing of the learning time, contact depth, and relational ability of the Congregational School is majorly undermining success.

That which is being chronicled and predicted in the media about the congregational school is being insured by public policy. The leading Jewish “educational” thinkers fill their writing and lectures with a chronicling of failure and alternatives strictures—rather than working on improvement of the extant. For them—the Hebrew school is beyond saving.

Here is What I Know…

1.         Good to great work with Jewish families is already being done, including Shevet: Jewish Family Education Exchange.

2.         A few congregational schools are great, some are good, and, many good enough.

3.         No one goes into Jewish education for the money. All educators (and teachers) do it as part of a sense of mission. Many are good at it.

4.         Pilot programs and new models and experiments are useful—but the Jewish people are going to be sustained through larger schooling movements. Like it or not—the Hebrew school is going to be the primary form of Jewish education. The right question is: “How do we make it better?”

Back East

The school I visited back east is big on experiential education. The synagogue is big on work with families. This school has a commitment to every child’s esteem and success. They have too high a percentage of success—more than the statistics would ever suggest. But here is my big take-a-way: Every teacher has their own mission statement. They are not written. They would never call them mission statements, but each teacher (and they are not all the same) knows why they are in the classroom, has a clear understanding of what success looks like, and can vision each of their students succeeding. That personal sense of vision—supported and nourished by a good administration—makes for a great school. There may be horror stories here—because they always are—but none of them are true. This school does not suck.

What do you think?