The problems with Jewish education

Here are the problems with Jewish education, according to Rabbi Manuel Gold, a plenary presenter at the CAJE conference.

(First, a little biographical info: Gold grew up Orthodox and graduated from Yeshiva University. But he later received Conservative rabbinical ordination and then worked as a high-level educational official in the Reform movement.)

  • Congregational presidents: often don’t know how to do their jobs, are not in adequate contact with congregants or professionals working in their congregational schools.
  • Rabbis: often view themselves only as teachers’ supervisors and often pull rank on their educators when a congregant has a problem with the Hebrew school.
  • Parents: often don’t have a good idea about what is bothering their children about Hebrew school.
  • Schools: “We believe that if a school is going to be really successful it has to take on the best of secular education,” Gold said. But Judaism doesn’t lend itself to tests, attendance requirements, report cards and homework. While certain skills, such as Hebrew, might need to be taught by standard pedagogical methods, Judaism, he said, needs to be taught through experience. “What are the SATs in Judaism?” he asked. “There is no equivalent.”
  • The kids: not the problem. “The most difficult kids in your schools are going to become the teachers and the religious school directors and congregational presidents,” he said. “We have to be careful not to fail our kids because we don’t want them to fail in Judaism. We have to be able to deal with them as individuals and not kick out the problem children.”
  • Bar mitzvah: For many parents, Hebrew school is only a vehicle to get a kid through the bar/bat mitzvah ceremony and is dropped as soon as the ceremony is over. Parents often only are concerned about the bar/bat mitzvah because they don’t want their kid to be embarrassed at the ceremony. Kids pick up on this, Gold says.

    “They know their parents are concerned as soon as they ask the question, ‘How are you doing in your bar mitzvah studies?’” he said. When the kids answer that they are not doing well, the parents become even more nervous and often make the following deal with their kids: “If you do well, you don’t have to continue with Hebrew school after the bar mitzvah.”

  • Teachers: need to validate their students. Remember, says Gold: “There is no wrong answer, every answer is on the road to being right.”
  • Content: How do we teach kids that they can view Jewish content in different ways and see the different possibilities that exist?. If you don’t understand the text, read through it again and contemplate it. Learn how to deal with the substance of the matter, he said.

In the Q & A period after Gold stopped speaking, one teacher asked Gold what he thinks teachers should do about the biggest problem with Hebrew schools: the kids. They don’t care, they don’t attend school, they misbehave and they send text messages on their cell phones during class, the teacher said.

Gold’s answer? Whatever you do, don’t kick them out of class. Make them stay.

(The Fundermentalist wonders whether it’s wise to tell teachers that the worst punishment they can levy is making their students sit through their classes.)

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