I love being a Hebrew school principal. In 2009, I became the principal of the Hebrew School of Congregation Shearith Israel, the Polonies Talmud Torah School (I’ll write more about the school itself in a future post). At that time class sizes were anemic, with only 17 students in the entire school. Since then, enrollment has nearly tripled, to about 45 students. Over that period, I’ve given a lot of thought to Hebrew School education.
I’ve observed an almost frenzied effort across the USA to transform Hebrew Schools. The goal is to make them more effective at instilling Jewish values and ensuring Jewish continuity by making them more engaging, and hopefully more meaningful, to students. To do so, schools have moved toward an experiential model. By definition, that means that they have also decreased the emphasis on skill and content learning. The intention is to foster a deeper sense of spiritually and identity, unencumbered by the rigors of learning a foreign language and text study. This trend is inspired by the documented successes of summer camps, with their informal education model. Children return home from their summer experience with a new found commitment to and passion for Jewish life. Hebrew Schools have therefore taken their cues from summer camps in an effort to recreate their positive effect.
Unfortunately, these ‘Hebrew’ Schools, now called Religious or Supplementary Schools, often neglect the foundational elements of institutional Jewish life. Without a command of Hebrew reading (let alone reading comprehension or verbal skills), children cannot truly participate in synagogue life, making attendance at services more than unpleasant for them. Furthermore, Judaism is rooted in text, in the Torah. From its stories and precepts, emanate Jewish values. Through the study of Jewish History, we gain a deeper understanding of the Jewish experience and Jewish contributions. If we wish our children to understand our faith in a way that will allow them to engage in Judaism as adults, it is essential that we make them familiar with our essential texts, which includes much more than just the Genesis and Exodus stories.
If that were not reason enough to reconsider the current obsession with experiential learning, I would add that I’m not so sure that the experiential model works anyways for making children wish to attend Hebrew School beyond 2nd or 3rd grade. At the end of the day, as much fun (and engaging) as one hopes to make Hebrew School, even then it likely won’t be as much fun for children as watching TV or hanging out with their friends. On the other hand, when children are challenged academically, they will at least know that their time is valued, and they in turn will value attending Hebrew School. Especially, when they know that is is also important to their parents.
Finally, the success of summer camp isn’t just from experiential learning, but perhaps more so from the immersive Jewish environment of sleep-away camp. There, children sleep, play, sing, and eat in a Jewish environment. While the camps may not be Orthodox, they basically mimic the strengths of an Orthodox Jewish lifestyle, with its ongoing Jewish environment. Clearly, two or fours hours a week of Hebrew school cannot replicate the comprehensive Jewish summer experience, no matter how experiential the program!
Of course, the value of experiential learning should not be overlooked. Just as Hebrew Schools must not be superficial, they need not nor should not be bland or mechanical either. Surely, the substantive Jewish education that I advocate, will build a strong foundation of skills and knowledge, upon which can then be built a living connection. That living connection is where experiential learning enters, with experiences like participatory prayer services, artistic expression, songs, holiday parties, Shabbat dinners, class trips, etc. However, when experiences are not set upon a foundation, they tend to dissipate as children enter their high school and college years.
In the future, I will post about Hebrew School curriculum, in terms of what it should cover developmentally, as well as what quality Hebrew School materials are available to educators, and what is non-existent. For now, I will just say that the challenge with providing our children with the above kind of education, includes not only the dearth of materials, but also the difficulty with identifying educators that not only possess the necessary pedagogic skills, but also the Judaic education needed to teach beyond the introductory levels (including Hebrew skills beyond the basics). As a result, in many schools, teachers basically just end up teaching students what they know, which is essentially the same basic material (holidays, Hebrew reading, etc) year after year. I mention this challenge because it has likely played a role in schools shifting their emphasis to experiential learning, which does not require a teaching staff with as high a level of Judaic studies training (though it likely requires a staff with other types of pedagogy training).
I applaud the efforts and interest that Jewish educators, philanthropists and rabbis have directed toward the question of how to create successful Hebrew schools. We need to continue to consider and explore educational methods that can ensure that our schools succeed. Unfortunately, the answer to the old style ‘Hebrew’ school isn’t to abandon its focus on academic studies, but to enhance and refine that focus, and to then build upon it with positive Jewish experiences.