Monday, August 15, 2011

Reports of the Hebrew School's Demise Have Been Greatly Exagerated - A Parent Replies

Leslie Coff and I grew up together at Congregation B’nai Jehoshua Beth Elohim in Glenview Illinois. She recently tried to post a comment to a post in which I cite Benjamin Weiner in the Jewcy blog from January 2010 (there are few time limits on the internet), but it was too long for the blog platform to list it as a comment. So here it is. I have a few thoughts myself, but I will let all of you weigh in first.

You guys have absolutely hit home.

It is not that Hebrew Schools are at fault (my husband is a lovely man yet spent most of his Hebrew School years hiding behind the building at the lake), it is that if a Hebrew School were somehow inspiring, if we could really connect with the kids, then this would somehow connect them to the wider world of Jewish Lifestyle, Jewish Education and Jewish Joy?

Of course, as I am sure you have written before, Ira...Hebrew Schools these days are 'teaching to the test'. Children, after learning their Aleph-Bet, move into Shabbat liturgy/ prayers, all of which they are responsible for knowing the morning of their B’nai Mitzvah. No wonder kids 'quit' immediately afterwards. They have checked off the last box from their list and there is nothing connecting them with staying.

How is it that we, (when we were kids) in our three-hour-a-week language education somehow managed to learn to write sentences, to read poetry from Chaim Nachman Bialik out loud, to identify verb roots ("Ma Ha Shoresh??!!) and even to write small essays? (more on this later).

We, as a community, are also competing with children's other activities. Hebrew School is the same on the schedule (and mostly less important than) soccer. It is my feeling that what we are missing is connection....and of course, each child is different in their learning and interest and there has to be a widget to be able to use Hebrew School to light up many, many sets of eyes.

Not only are we, as American Reform Jews, struggling with this as a community...but for my husband and me, on a micro level, within my family. We have tried to instill a strong Jewish center into our children, into our home. We have lived in three different cities in different parts of this country while the kids have been school-age and have been active in each of our synagogues. Unfortunately, inspiration has never been a part of their education.  I am not sure quite why.

Our children, of course, have taken what we have given them to heart and mind each a different way, according to their personalities. Our oldest (perhaps with a strong need for a charismatic connection) is now affiliated with Chabad, dons tefillin and tzitzit. And yet, in college, failed to attend his Hebrew class.

He wishes to make Aliyah.
He comes home from Shabbos to discuss Gemarah with us.
He skypes his friends in Yochneam. 

Our next, a real scientist, is not interested in Birthright, not interested in OSRUI and found, after one summer, its spirituality uninteresting. He is interested in Judaism's history and philosophy. In every religious school class situation, his hand is always raised. He always knows the answer. Although he has a gift for language, Hebrew is not one he wishes to pursue, despite our living there as a family for a month. He feels a strong sense of duty to the Jewish people. Somehow he was never 'inspired'...or has not been yet.

Our youngest, recently a Bat Mitzvah, did not want to be Jewish in spite of our home situation, our involvement in synagogue and her multiple years at URJ's Camp Coleman in the North Georgia mountains. Since attending OSRUI in 2010, she wants to be Jewish, wants to chant Torah like her mom, wants to learn Hebrew, attend Hebrew immersion class, etc.

She was previously -- never inspired.

One days a couple of years ago I found myself in the office of our Temple's Hebrew School begging the administrator to let me do FREE Hebrew enrichment classes for the kids who had already attained the highest level of expected achievement AND for the next two months would only be coaching their classmates.

Let me clarify: my child was going to Hebrew School to teach other kids the prayers. To my request to teach Hebrew conversation: I was, much to my dismay, denied.

I do not believe that the educators are free and clear. I believe that the onus of inspiration is on them, as it is on every teacher to light the fires in the hearts and minds of the children. 

Kids can be engaged.
It is possible.
Yes, this needs to be reinforced at home.
Yes, understand that societal pressures (soccer!!!) play into the game.
If 'hooking up' is all that the kids want to do....teach them the words in Hebrew (okay, that was an exaggeration).

And yes, the kids are all different....and yes, they are tired and overdone by the time the synagogue Hebrew Schools get a hold of them and yes, it is hard.

But I am a believer and I believe there is a better way than just 'teaching to the test'.

Leslie Coff
Thanks putting up today's article, Ira. You obviously hit home with me.

Leslie Coff, MTOM, L.Ac. Dipl. Acu.