The Reports of Hebrew School’s Death are Greatly Exaggerated

by Joel Lurie Grishaver

The word is on the street, “Hebrew School is useless.” While the forces that be have done their best to render the Hebrew School impotent by (a) dropping its hours below the minimum needed, (2) not providing it with sufficient funds, (c) not developing adequate training vehicles for staff, and (d) refusing to treat it with respect, the Hebrew school is alive and making a difference.

Let’s take a simple example. A Hebrew school that used to have an excellent reputation reports that a majority of its fourth and fifth graders are failing to retain the majority of Hebrew and Tefillah material they have been taught. Other curricular areas are being reduced to allow extra drill of “Hebrew reading.” The secondary result will be an expansion of the number of students who will receive extra tutoring to help them keep pace. In some schools a large percentage of the students are “on tutoring.” The next step for this process is logically on line tutoring. It is both cheaper and more flexible. From there it is just a short ride down the slippery slope to replacing Hebrew school with on-line learning. Irony here, is that the teachers are not to blame, the curriculum is not to blame, even the parents commitment is not to blame — the villain here is a compromise made with the devil by all of those parties. They’ve all made a compromise to lower their standards enough to please the lowest common denominator. It’s a cycle that seems to go round and round.

Given this vicious cycle it is important to keep our eye on the ball.

To dissect that ball, keep reading.

The ball is the list of things that Hebrew School, Religious School, Congregational School, etc. can do well:

Schools build friendships among Jewish kids. The connections built between Jews at Jewish schools are the structural elements of the Jewish future. This is true when kids are connected to each other. It is more true when adults are connected. It is most true when families are connected. Congregations who are building family schools are doing this. Congregations that are facilitating a direct connection between school and youth group are doing this. Congregations who are creating classroom community in many or all of their classrooms are doing this. And all this work moves them into the success category.

Schools where teachers make a difference in the lives of their students are successful. Places that are welcoming, where teachers listen and hear their students, who confront them appropriately, and who acknowledge the quality of their thinking and expressing of ideas, values, and insights are important. The teacher who is trusted enough to be privileged to hear a personal problem, or who says the right thing to build student esteem are making the world a better place. And this happens all the time. Would that it happened more.

Schools that get to real life issues and real life questions and make Judaism an important tool in the way that their students deal with reality — they go on the list of the impactful. When Judaism becomes a resource is answer the questions posed by ultimate issues or when it becomes a guide in resolving ethical choices the student wins and the school is a winner. When Jewish content becomes a way of coping with the reality of death or motivates involvement in human need the school that made that possible has made a difference. And, we should add, when students find prayer a important personal too for self actualization — we have made a difference. Lots of schools make these things happen. More should.

When a school gives a student a hands-on experience in redeeming the world, when tikkun olam becomes part of their world view, we have another check in the victory column. When students and their families commit to make acts of g’milut hasadim an ongoing commitment in their lifestyle — that earns a gold star. When learners make a difference in the world we have made a difference in their lives. That is our job.

And most of all, when students become teachers the school that made that happen deserves a standing ovation. Virtually all schools in this country have madrikhim and tutoring programs. Not all of them are great, but all of them begin the process. The more they create a sense of value in their participants, the more they provide training and learning, the more they enable the transition to real teaching jobs in college, the better they are. These schools move to the successful list.

When schools get their students to Israel they have also won for themselves a place in the victory circle. When this happens through congregational trips, good! When it happens because of an Israel curriculum, great! When it happens because of modeling and community values, fantastic! All hail those who make it possible with funding and encouragement. This is another criteria for victory.

These few paragraphs are by no means exhaustive, but they suggest one simple truth. Congregational schools are not to be judged by their teaching of Hebrew reading but by their contributions to the future of the Jewish people. That is a mistake that parents often make. It is an error found in some layer leader decision making. And it is place where too often Jewish professionals give up the fight. Hebrew, even Hebrew well taught, is a necessary but not sufficient part of the Jewish educational experience.