At the Society for the Advancement of Judaism on the Upper West Side, students in the Hebrew school are learning to paint murals on biblical themes. The children are having fun, say parents.
In response to intermarriage, the Reform Temple of Suffern in Rockland County is trying to strengthen the entire synagogue community with intensive family programs.
Some Hebrew schools are taking their students on tours of Ellis Island and the Lower East Side. They’re making mezuzah holders in arts class and volunteering at soup kitchens. Some build sukkahs rather than teaching about a sukkah.
These initiatives — where culture is the focus rather than literacy — are among the attempts by Hebrew schools to counter a reputation that has been increasingly maligned as day schools have emerged
as the Jewish community’s educational tool of choice.
Rabbi Michele Sullum, education director at SAJ, says the change to an “experiential” model evolved two years ago after the frustration of realizing that no one could read Hebrew.
While the vast majority of American Jewish children receiving a formal Jewish education — 61 percent, or 287,000 kids — learn to be Jewish at Hebrew schools, the number of those schools is plummeting.
In 1956, more than 95 percent of Jewish children attended an afternoon Hebrew school. Into the 1960s, the numbers were holding at 90 percent. In New York City, the percentages are now down to 33 percent.
The quality of these schools is plummeting, too. A recent national survey on these schools by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported that “the teachers are incompetent and uninspired” and that “the students are bored and badly behaved.” It also said that the schools “have earned the contempt of generations of American Jews.”
The numbers are more startling when broken down by denomination. No group has even 40 percent of its children in Hebrew school anymore. According to the 1991 UJA-Federation population study, only 2.7 of Orthodox children are in afternoon or Sunday school; 36.4 of Conservative children; 35.1 of Reform children; 20.8 of Reconstructionist; and 14.4 of children from families defining themselves as nondenominational. By contrast, 44 percent of all Jewish children in the New York area are receiving no formal Jewish education at all.
Michael Steinhardt, who has contributed millions of dollars to building new day schools, subsidizing educational trips to Israel and numerous Jewish continuity initiatives, says that afternoon Hebrew school “has been an extraordinary flop” whose “very structure of a few hours a week, when most kids have more appealing alternatives,” just doesn’t work.
On the other hand, the Nathan Cummings Foundation has committed itself to supporting congregational schools. “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, a Cummings program associate.
The very question of what to call these schools indicates the ambivalence surrounding them. Rabbi Manuel Gold, director of congregational school services for New York’s Board of Jewish Education, told The Jewish Week that “the bad word used to be ‘supplementary,’ which meant they were secondary. ‘Afternoon’ schools isn’t so good because some schools only, or also, meet on Sunday mornings. ‘Talmud Torah’ implies the old methodology that we’ve tried to get away from. ‘Hebrew school,’ well, we teach them much more than that. So we now call them congregational schools” because that’s where they’re most often located.
In New York City, according to the Board of Jewish Education, 90 of the 96 afternoon and Sunday school programs are operated by individual congregations, accountable to no one but the congregation’s board.
What’s more remarkable, though, is not the 90 synagogues that do but the synagogues that don’t. Without even including the hundreds of right-wing Orthodox shtiebels, there are 590 synagogues in New York City without any afternoon or Sunday school programs. Only six community centers in downstate New York have taken on the schooling responsibility that the neighborhood shul has largely abdicated.
Can the remaining schools create a literate Jew? One yeshiva principal recently told the Atlantic Monthly that some teenagers who have attended congregational schools for seven or eight years cannot read Hebrew as well as his school’s second-graders.
The BJE’s Rabbi Gold responds that “If you took a child in public school through age 13, it’s only the beginning of their knowledge of anything. Ask a student who’s a senior in [public] high school and see what they really know.”
He did acknowledge that “Our materials try too hard not to upset anybody. They try to not be controversial. We need to take greater risks at challenging our students to get more involved.”
Children are trained for bar or bat mitzvah, but not for overall familiarity with Jewish prayer or texts. The goal is no longer literacy but simply attitude, says Rabbi Gold.
“The students should know that being Jewish is something positive. They should identify positively with their Jewish learning experience, with a love for the holidays,” he said. “They should know that the study of being Jewish does not stop at 13 but is a lifelong experience.”
But is it a lifelong experience for even the teachers? A 1994 Mandel Foundation study found that 29 percent of Hebrew school teachers received no Jewish education after age 13, and only 12 percent earned a degree in Jewish studies.
For the greater part of the 20th century, congregational schools were an omnipresent urban necessity because most Jewish children went to public schools. They went just for the education but also to become good Americans. However, Peter Beinart in the Atlantic points out that Jews no longer feel compelled to prove their loyalty to the failing American public schools, and “supplementary schools have largely failed to produce graduates well versed in Judaism.”
Hebrew school graduates are twice as likely as day school graduates to marry non-Jews. Intermarried couples committed enough to send their children to Hebrew schools are creating more problems. Hebrew schools are increasingly populated by children who identify as both Jewish and gentile.
At the recent convention of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (Reform), Bruce Phillips, professor of Jewish communal services at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, said: “What we hear from Jewish educators is [the children] get confused about which religion is which. They get confused as to who is Jesus and who is Moses, causing problems for teachers and other students in the class.”
In response, one major corrective trend in Hebrew schools is toward teaching the entire family. Intensive family programs can also strengthen the entire synagogue community, said Michelle Shapiro Abraham, who helped develop a series of family courses at the Reform Temple of Suffern.
As to the experiential model, not all parents have had positive experiences. One Jewish educator who asked to remain anonymous says he sent his son to a Hebrew school in one of the city’s more prominent and wealthy congregations. After a few years there, though, the congregation cut back the hours of the Hebrew school to one day a week, which was insufficient.
“Hebrew isn’t easy to learn when you do it just once a week. There’s a lot to learn,” the parent said.
He pointed out that with the rush to day schools, most synagogue board members no longer feel the congregational school, increasingly for non-synagogue members, is worth the effort. According to the educator, “There is an increasing disconnect between the shul as a whole and the Hebrew school. The synagogue wanted, at great savings in cost, to do one of those family-based programs, but we wanted our son in a school setting where he could learn as seriously as he was learning in his daytime school.” That son is now in a day school.
The BJE’s Rabbi Gold admits that children cannot learn as much in fewer hours, but asks: “Does knowing as much mean as much? Did having rote knowledge really have an effect on children’s lives? We want schools who’ll convince children to remain Jewish.”
Julie Wiener of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency contributed to this report.