Religious School: The Traumas and Possibilities


It’s hard to learn while being pelted in the back of the head with erasers and pencils. Especially when the pointy end makes a direct hit.

That’s the first lesson I learned in Hebrew school. The second? Waiting, bracing for something to happen is often worse than the thing itself.

In this environment, it was next to impossible to concentrate on King David, the Maccabees, Soviet Jewry, Israel or even the Holocaust. Even in the best of circumstances, my pre-teen mind tended to wander off, stopping, say, at the exploits of Don Mattingly, the New York Yankees first baseman, or the wrestler Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat, chasing Randy Savage for the intercontinental title. And my Hebrew school was no ideal learning environment. Threats seemed more imminent and omnipresent than public school. I had to stay focused on surviving until dismissal. My actual life may not have been on the line, but to a 10 or 11-year-old boy, humiliation feels like a fate not much better than death. (Come to think of it, it’s not that different for adults. As we we’ve been reminded by the musical Hamilton, Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton chose to duel and face death rather than have their names further sullied.)

Mom and Dad: I know you just wanted me to learn a little about Judaism and have a nice Bar Mitzvah. You wanted to share your pride with friends and family. Sending your child to religious school was just what Jewish parents do (or did). You meant no harm! Yet right from the beginning, religious school upended my sealed little world. At nine, I thought I had the rhythms of life figured out, then, seemingly out of nowhere, I had four extra hours of school a week, had to learn a new alphabet, and was thrown into a room with boys who smelled blood.

I lived in a different neighborhood and went to a different school than nearly all the kids in my Hebrew school grade. I was an easy target. A bit of a dreamer and an oddball with little emotional armor. Sure, by the time I’d made it to Bar Mitzvah year, the bullying had largely stopped and I’d even become something approaching friends with a few of the boys. Still, I couldn’t get out of there fast enough. Not even a call from the rabbi, urging me to continue with confirmation class and seal my bond with the Jewish people, could slow my exit. (Note to younger self: the bullies had all said lehitriot (hasta la vista) to religious school and only teenage girls enrolled in confirmation class. Listen to your rabbi!)

So, given my experience, why, 30 years later, would I possibly send my two daughters, including my older daughter, who lives with ADHD, to supplemental religious school?

Well, for one thing, Judaism, amazingly, miraculously, has become central to who I am, even if I am constantly arguing with myself over what that means. Mom, Dad: something in that traumatic Jewish education must have planted a seed. Starting in college, I experienced a feeling that, by walking away from Jewish identity, I’d opened some kind of chasm in myself. Those thoughts eventually led to a life exploring the spiritual, communal and political implications of what it means to be Jewish, and a career working in the Jewish community. So, naturally, I’m compelled to pass on that sense of being part of something larger than oneself, that spiritual connection to the past.

At the same time, my Judaism is, too often, a solitary and intellectual affair. In many ways, I’m not much better prepared than my own parents to model Judaism at home. Simply put, my wife and I need help instilling a love of Judaism in our children. And, in an era defined by social media, isolation and lack of social capital, my children, my family, need to be part of a community.

Then, there’s the encouraging reality that supplemental schools have made great strides in the last 30 years. So many educators across North America have shifted the purpose of Hebrew school from preparing for the bar or bat mitzvah event to focusing on a meaningfully engagement with Jewish tradition. There’s a much greater awareness that, after children have spent a whole day at school, they can’t simply be planted in a desk for a few more hours and expect to copy the aleph bet. And, thankfully, there is much greater understanding about bullying today, and many educators play a far more active role in creating safe environments. (At least in the physical classroom; cyberspace is another story.)

Of course, some families who care about Jewish education choose Jewish day school. I’m glad that option exits, but it’s not for us. Though my wife and I have different thoughts about the role Judaism plays in our lives, we’re equally committed to a public-school education. Plus, there’s no way we could afford private school tuition for two! We believe our children need to learn to interact with people of all backgrounds in order to become their best selves.

So, we chose Hebrew school. And rather than wait until fourth grade, we started both our girls earlier, wanting attendance to feel a natural part of their lives, to not be a total shock.

The first year of religious school things went well for our older daughter: art projects, theater projects, songs. The second year was a different story. One Sunday morning she declared that she hated Hebrew school. Then she said it the next week. And the week after that. She’d gotten into arguments with a classmate. She had trouble sitting still. She felt little connection to her teacher. She was beyond bored. She would have rather focused on Pokemon, ninjas, the Boston Red Sox (painful for me as a Yankees fan) or just about anything other than Judaism.

Oh no, I thought. It’s happening again.

Admittedly, during a year of change in our older daughter’s life, our attention had lay elsewhere. We were not focused on her religious education.

Believe me, I know that parents, especially parents of special needs children, do not need more thing to be hyper-vigilant about. We could use just one activity where we can drop off our kids and forget about it for two hours. However, one thing that I took from this experience is that if we’re not communicating regularly with religious school teachers and education directors, it’s less likely our kids will thrive in this setting. I’m not talking about hounding or taking an adversarial tone. Rather, parents should aim to be communicative, understanding partners.

At the same time, religious school directors should take a proactive role in monitoring special needs students (all students, really). And while the IEP (Individualized Education Plan) is designed for a very different setting, it can provide tangible suggestions on how to improve the religious school experience. In our case, we made the very difficult decision to switch synagogues and enroll our children in a program with far more resources to offer. Now, there are multiple classes for every grade, so if she’s not clicking with a teacher or a particular student, she can be moved to a different class.  We also began the year with an IEP-style meeting with the education director and our daughter’s teacher in which we described her attributes and challenges. Based on her IEP, the director made several suggestions, including that our daughter should sit closer to her teacher. My wife and I successfully advocated for the use of a “wiggle” cushion in class. (The idea is that the cushion helps satisfy the brain’s needs for stimulation in order to better concentrate on the tasks at hand.) Seemingly small things can make a difference.

I’ve also tried to set an example by, in a way, going to religious school myself, attending Torah study sessions and studying the Amidah with the rabbi. (Hear that, my childhood rabbi? I’m not a hopeless case.)

Are either of my daughters jumping up and down on Sunday mornings? Of course not. They get in the car without major meltdowns and seem relatively content at pickup and not just because it’s over. And they’ve enjoyed major communal gatherings. It didn’t hurt that the Simchat Torah service was followed by a dance party.

There’s a lot that still needs to be resolved. How much will we emphasize Hebrew with my older daughter, who uses all her mental energy to get through the regular school day? On the one hand, I know how much Hebrew really is the passport to Jewish civilization. On the other, I also know how learning it once a week can be a route exercise devoid of meaning.

And then there’s bullying. Whether at public school, camp, or religious school, when one of our children has been hurt, physically, or verbally, we haven’t hesitated to insert ourselves, to let the counselor or teacher know, or ask for an intervention. The stakes with bullying are just too high, our kids too ill-equipped, to ask them to fend for themselves. We are working with my daughter on her response to bullies, trying to equip her with the skills and armor she’ll need when confronted. At some point, we’ll simply have to take a less interventionalist posture. Maybe by the time both girls have turned 30?

So, I’ve been fiddling with this piece for a while and gone back and forth on whether this ending belongs in this story. If you’re still with me, I’m sharing it because it feels relevant.  One of those boys from Hebrew school class wound up as a high school teammate. I never knew if he’d thrown an eraser, but I recall him being part of the chorus of malevolent laughter. I didn’t warm to him at first, even gave him a hard time. Somehow, he became one of my closest friends through college and beyond. We explored much together, including the landscape, fauna, and history of South Africa. A practitioner of meditation, he modeled what it means to be a spiritual seeker.

Perhaps Hebrew school had many valedictory lessons, among them being anything is possible.

Bryan Schwartzman is an award-winning writer who lives in suburban Philadelphia and works for Reconstructing Judaism. He and his wife, Amy, are the parents of two daughters.

More from The New Normal here.