Hebrew school: How much is enough?


NEW YORK, Oct. 11 (JTA) – Michele Frankel of Fort Lee, N.J., wants her fifth-grade son, Roger, to get a Jewish education, but she also wants him to be able to go to baseball practice and complete his regular-school homework.

Her husband works every other Saturday, so Sunday mornings – often a Hebrew school day – is one of the few times the family can spend together. And she wants her son to enjoy and not resent Hebrew school.

As she struggles to balance her family’s different needs, she is relieved that her synagogue, the Jewish Center of Fort Lee, offers school once a week, rather than the two or three days most Hebrew schools require.

“More than once a week would be a little hectic,” she said.

Once upon a time, the afternoon Hebrew school was a three-day-a-week regimen, accompanied by Shabbat attendance. It has dropped over the years, according to a new report on congregational schools released by the Jewish Education Service of North America.

Facing pressure from parents whose work schedules make frequent carpooling tricky or who find religious instruction hard to squeeze into children’s calendars crammed with sports and music lessons, a number of schools – like the Jewish Center – are shifting to a once-a-week model.

While no statistics are available, schools that have opted for reduced hours say they are part of a growing trend.

Diana Yacobi, education director at the Jewish Center, which is Conservative, said enrollment at her school has jumped from 65 children to close to 200 since it began offering a one-day option three years ago.

Students also can enroll in a two-day track, something approximately half do, and Bar Mitzvah students attend more frequently and work additional hours with a tutor.

Yacobi’s school offered the once-a-week option because it was losing families to other once-a-week congregational schools and contending with poor attendance rates.

“The reality was people were attending one to two days a week anyway,” said Yacobi.

Giving parents a choice “lifted from the school the level of resentment traditionally there,” and has led to a drop in student discipline problems, said Yacobi.

“If you can do three days a week that’s fantastic,” said Yacobi. “If you can’t, you don’t have to jump ship.”

The secret, says Yacobi, who is pursuing a doctorate in education, is in using the time efficiently.

“It’s not once a week – it’s seven years, and we should be able to get something worthwhile done in seven years,” she said, adding that the curriculum is very focused and she works closely with the teachers to ensure the lessons are well-planned.

“There’s not as much content” as in a school that meets more often, but “what does happen should be a quality experience,” she said.

The question over hours and days reflects a larger debate over the goals of Hebrew schools’ and the extent to which they should more closely resemble formal education like day schools, or informal education like summer camps.

That is, to what extent should they attempt to inculcate students with specific skills and knowledge – something that is challenging with few hours available – or instill them with positive feelings about their Jewishness in hopes that the children will continue Jewish learning later in life?

Rabbi Steven Moskowitz, who directed a once-a-week Hebrew school at Manhattan’s 92nd Street Y before becoming rabbi of the Jewish Congregation of Brookville, a nondenominational synagogue on Long Island with a once-a-week school, aligns himself with the informal camp.

“We’ve clearly made the decision, and I don’t mind saying this bluntly, that the feeling we’re creating in the children’s hearts is more important than measuring a kid’s specific knowledge level,” he said.

“I’m sure that means that the specific knowledge level, if you compare the curriculum of a three-day school to our school there’s going to be a difference,” he said. “But the question open to debate is how much each child can absorb.”

Moskowitz wants to ensure that children don’t, like many of their parents, hate Hebrew school and he insists that if students enjoy school they will learn and retain more in the long run than if they do not.

“What’s more important than creating positive Jewish memories and a feeling that ‘Wow, it’s fun to learn about Judaism?’ ” he asked.

However, many are skeptical that once-a-week schools can accomplish much.

“At some point you lose the critical mass,” said Rabbi Robert Abramson, director of education for the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the umbrella arm for Conservative Jewry.

“The analogy I frequently use is if you’re in an exercise regimen that requires five days of training a week and you do two, you shouldn’t think you’re going to be two-fifths as good,” he said. “You’ll probably never run the marathon that way. The other analogy is with medication – if the doctor tells you to take an antibiotic for 10 days and you take it for seven, you just might not get better.”

United Synagogue requires member congregations to offer six hours of instruction per week, but the policy is not strictly enforced and is believed to be widely flouted.

Abramson acknowledges that schools need to respond to families’ busy schedules and difficulty getting to Hebrew school, but is reluctant to support a reduction in hours.

He also argues, that mastering Jewish skills – something that takes time – is an important part of creating positive Jewish identity.

“When kids know some things about Jewish values and have done some mitzvot,” they can “get excited about being Jewish,” he said.

A 1995 study by Hebrew University sociologist Steven Cohen found that all forms of Jewish education improve adult Jewish identity – except for once-a-week Hebrew or Sunday school. The study found that those who attend Sunday school score lower on standard measures of Jewish identity than people who had no Jewish education at all.

However, defenders of once-a-week schools argue that number of hours is less important than the overall quality of the program and the extent to which parents are involved.

Congregation Dor Hadash in San Diego opted for a compromise of sorts four years ago when the school – once a week by necessity because a large number of families live more than 45 minutes away and find frequent commuting difficult – felt there were “too many holes in the curriculum,” said its education director, Barbara Carr.

The school now requires 30 hours a year of “independent learning” for its fourth- to sixth-graders in the categories of religious services, outings, Jewish study, family life and the arts. Using the school’s ideas and suggestions, the students take on various projects such as seeing Jewish-themed movies, visiting a Jewish museum with parents or trying to keep Shabbat or kosher for a week if they do not already do so.

The projects are a mix of individual activities and ones shared with parents and family members. The students keep a journal about the experience and report back to their teachers on what they learned and whether it was valuable.

“We really want them to pursue things that interest them but also count curricularly,” said Carr, adding that the program “allows kids to explore areas supplemental schools normally don’t get into.”

Alana Pennington, a sixth-grader at Dor Hadash, said she has done most of the projects together with her family which is “fun,” she said. As part of the project, she read books about the Holocaust, went to museums, helped paint the synagogue and traveled to Israel with her mother.

Her mother, Berina, said the program enables the family to do “things on our own that are interesting rather than sending her to school for all these hours.”

The setup is an improvement over her own Hebrew school experience, said Pennington, which “wasn’t something I exactly looked forward to.”

The traditional model of Hebrew school, in which kids sit in a classroom several days per week, “doesn’t work with kids,” said Carr.

“We need to bend and allow not only them to learn but their families to learn.”

Recommended from JTA