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Rethinking Hebrew School [part 1]: Bored Students, Bad Teachers; Can the ‘whipping Boy’ Be Saved?

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The teachers are incompetent and uninspired. The students are bored and badly behaved. The parents think their responsibility ends with car-pool duty.

You’ve heard the complaints a thousand times about supplemental — also known as Hebrew or congregational — schools.

These institutions — which struggle in just a few hours a week to impart the basics of Jewish tradition to youngsters — have earned the contempt of generations of American Jews.

And in the past decade, as Jewish day schools — in which children learn Judaic and general studies under one roof — have snagged headlines, increased enrollment and philanthropic dollars for their apparent contributions to Jewish continuity, Hebrew schools have become something of a communal whipping boy.

Many still resemble the above complaints. But around the country at individual synagogues, at central agencies for Jewish education and at a handful of foundations, efforts are under way to dramatically improve the much-maligned schools.

Some schools are switching to a more hands-on approach, bringing in problem- solving, independent learning and computers. Others are keeping the classroom pretty much the same, but adding parents to the equation. Enhanced training for teachers is another area being addressed.

In Los Angeles, for example, the Bureau of Jewish Education is encouraging schools to do soul-searching and standard-setting through a voluntary accreditation process. A number of congregations and communities are taking a more holistic approach, in which they are urging that the entire synagogue change to make the role of education more central.

The issue is also getting some national attention. The Jewish Education Service of North America, together with the Association of Directors of Central Agencies of Jewish Education, are expected to release a task force report on Hebrew schools this fall, highlighting some success stories and making recommendations for how other schools might improve.

And a session on “Re-envisioning Supplemental Schools” drew one of the largest crowds at a conference this summer of the Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education.

Experts say the new focus on re-envisioning congregational schools is partly a reaction to the recent spotlight on other venues of Jewish education, like day schools and camps.

But the re-envisioning discussions come also because — despite their bad reputation and declining share of the overall student pool — Hebrew schools are still where more than half of Jewish kids can be found.

Sixty-one percent of the estimated 470,000 American children enrolled in some form of Jewish education are in supplemental schools.

Among non-Orthodox Jews, the percentage is much higher, and the majority of Jewish education policy-makers agree that — while day school enrollment is increasing — a mass exodus from supplemental schools is unlikely to occur anytime soon.

“If we were to have our druthers, all our students would be enrolled in a more intensive environment, but the reality is that the majority won’t, ergo we need to invest significant resources into re-envisioning and re-engineering congregational schools,” said Chaim Botwinick, executive vice president of the Center for Jewish Education in Baltimore and a member of the JESNA task force on supplemental schools.

“When you close the doors, these are kids who will not opt for a day school,” said Botwinick, who, with JESNA, is seeking funding for a national effort to monitor, evaluate and spread the word about new models for congregational schools. “They will opt for nothing.”

Some day school advocates — most notably Chicago businessman and national day school champion George Hanus — believe that greater scholarship funds could vastly increase the number of American Jews attending day schools.

An experiment conducted by the Avi Chai Foundation, a philanthropy primarily supporting Jewish day schools, is currently exploring — among other things – – to what extent that assumption is true.

The experiment offers four years of day-school tuition vouchers for $3,000 each year in Atlanta and Cleveland for all Jewish students in grades 2 to 8 who have not previously enrolled in day school. By limiting the vouchers to second grade and up, the experiment is designed to draw in families that would not otherwise have chosen a day school.

Approximately 250 families have taken the vouchers, but the reasons for choosing — or not choosing — a day school are more complicated than the money, say the researchers.

“My sense so far, based on data collected and focus groups is that price is no doubt one of the issues, but it’s only one of the issues,” said Leonard Saxe, director of Brandeis University’s Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies and one of the researchers studying the Avi Chai project.

He said that just as significant “are the feelings about whether or not a day school will segregate your child from the larger American community.”

Another piece of it, he said, “has to do with your Jewish identity and to what extent is Jewish ritual and identity central to who you are.”

Parents interviewed around the country seemed to echo Saxe’s findings, with many noting their commitment to public school and multiculturalism.

Abby Stamelman Hocky, a parent at Beth Am Israel Congregation in suburban Philadelphia, said she had considered day school for her children but opted instead for public school.

Stamelman Hocky, who works professionally in the local Jewish community and is the chair of her synagogue’s education committee, said she and her husband are “philosophically committed to public education and all that represents, and to raising children in a world that is diverse.”

Anne Whitehouse, a parent at the Society for the Advancement of Judaism in New York, also noted a commitment to diversity in her decision to send her daughter to public school.

“Multiculturalism is one of the strengths of New York and one of the things I like about public school.”

Another factor for Whitehouse was the fact that her husband is not Jewish and although he had agreed to raise their daughter Jewish, he might not “be comfortable sending her to a day school,” she said.

Ultimately, say advocates for congregational schools, these schools need attention because unlike day schools, which generally reach an already committed Jewish family, Hebrew schools can make the critical difference for the Jewishly ambivalent, people for whom Judaism competes with other priorities.

“Kids get exposed to a whole lot of critical information” at Hebrew school and “it makes or breaks whether they will stay involved afterwards,” said Elizabeth Greenstein, program associate at the Nathan Cummings Foundation, which funds congregational schools.

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