After generations as the whipping boy of the American Jewish community, Hebrew schools have become the latest cause of the Reform movement.
In his Shabbat sermon at the Union of American Hebrew Congregations’ biennial conference here last week, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the president, said congregational schools “have fallen victim to the plague of low expectations.”
Yoffie’s sermon is usually viewed as the centerpiece of the biennial, where major priorities for the following two years are announced.
The last two biennial sermons have focused on adult Jewish literacy and revitalizing prayer services.
Both became major initiatives for America’s largest stream of Judaism, which boasts 914 congregations and 330,000 households across North America.
For many parents, Yoffie said, religious school is “the castor oil of Jewish life, a burden passed from parent to child with the following admonition: ‘I hated it, you’ll hate it, and after your Bar Mitzvah, you can quit.'”
Yoffie acknowledged that “a quality religious school alone cannot guarantee that our children will be Jewish.”
But since religious school serves “the largest number of children for the longest period of time,” it is “the key that opens the door to the grand adventure of Jewish learning and Jewish life.”
Yoffie called on Jewish philanthropists to create a “Jewish Marshall Plan for the religious school” and urged the Reform movement to invest in improving its congregational schools, which enroll 120,000 students.
But while money is important, he said, vision and commitment are more important.
“Faced with a hunger for Torah and schools adrift,” he said, Reform Jews must “mobilize ourselves for religious education as we have in the past for the State of Israel and the fight against discrimination.”
He announced the development of a new Reform curriculum called “Chai Learning for Jewish Life,” saying it offers a full course in Hebrew language, focuses on “text and celebration” and de-emphasizes “the Holocaust and history of Jewish suffering.”
He also called for increased teacher training and said the UAHC will exempt from temple dues to the movement all expenses related to teacher training.
In addition, Yoffie urged the following steps to revitalize Hebrew schools:
Engage lay leaders in the work of the religious schools, particularly in overseeing policy and evaluation;
Recruit and train synagogue members and parents to help teach, and make such work an “obligation of synagogue leadership”;
Require all religious school parents to attend school with their children at least six times per year; and
Impose standards — “flexible standards, to be sure, but standards nonetheless. Even the youngest children should know that Reform Judaism makes demands on us; it does not mean doing whatever you please”;
Yoffie emphasized that he supports Jewish day schools as well, an area that has boomed in recent years. There are 18 Reform day schools in North America.
But he noted that the majority of non-Orthodox American Jews do not — and likely never will — attend day schools.
Yoffie’s announcements were well-received at the biennial, generating frequent applause.
“He’s really nailed the problem,” Jane Jacobson of Congregation Havurah in Buffalo, N.Y., reflecting the views of many.
Paul Flexner, who recently staffed a task force on improving congregational schools for the Jewish Education Service of North America, praised Yoffie for making this issue a priority.
However, he said that improving schools will require a local as well as a national commitment.
Yoffie’s speech “raises the level of importance and significance of this agenda item on the local agendas,” Flexner said.
“By his making it the main thrust of the movement, he’s giving a push to the local institutions to say we better do something.”
Congregational schools have not yet attracted the kind of mega-philanthropic support that other Jewish renaissance efforts, such as day schools, campus Hillels and synagogue transformation efforts have garnered in recent years.
But Yoffie’s push for congregational schools comes amid several other national efforts to strengthen Hebrew school education.
JESNA is sponsoring a 50-person “think tank” this week to look at “critical success factors in congregational education,” develop “new strategies for advancing congregational education and creating a more dynamic system,” Flexner said.
The Conservative movement is also revamping its Hebrew school curriculum.
And the Experiment in Congregational Education, a synagogue transformation initiative operated out of the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, is launching a pilot project early next year in San Francisco and Kansas City aimed at improving congregational schools.
The experimental initiative is also working to help synagogues replicate the success of several innovative congregational schools.
Among the models are family programs that meet on Shabbat; Kesher, an after-school day care program in Cambridge, Mass. that incorporates Jewish learning and camp-like activities; and several programs in which students can choose from a choice of schedules.
Robert Weinberg, executive director of the initiative called Yoffie’s new focus on congregational schools “terrific.”
“The notion of putting more attention into congregational education is vital,” he said.