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Hebrew School Daze

Hebrew School Daze

Are Jewish day schools undemocratic?


After seven years of thrice-weekly Hebrew school, I could haltingly read the prayers and had a vocabulary of about 100 words. That Hebrew verbs have past and future tenses remained a secret to me. When Lech Walesa was elected president of Poland, I wondered if we were related: I had been told lech achutsa (get out of here) so many times that I thought it was my name.

I was, in short, a fairly typical, if not terribly distinguished, product of the afternoon suburban Hebrew school.

If I had known as little French after one semester of high school as I knew Hebrew after seven years of Hebrew school, I would have been grounded for three months. Parental expectations of Hebrew school, however, were next to nil.

Apparently it has always been that way. On the Lower East Side, as depicted by Irving Howe in The World of Our Fathers, parents were content if their sons learned to recite kaddish for them. In the after school cheder, boys who wanted to be outside playing baseball, and an underpaid melamed (teacher) confronted each other in an atmosphere of mutual loathing.

The boys viewed their chief purpose in cheder as tormenting their melamed. And the poorly paid melamed was typically free with the ruler and whatever else came to hand to silence his unruly charges.

"I hated it, you'll hate it, and after your bar mitzvah, you can quit."

The more things change, the more they stay the same, as the French say. Eric Yoffie, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (Reform) got it pretty much right in his recent biennial address, when he described the typical parental attitude toward after school or Sunday religious education: "Many of our parents look upon religious school as a punishment for being young. ...It 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."'

The weaknesses of after school and Sunday school education are inherent -- resentful students who would rather be anywhere else, lack of content, and incompetent teachers. Yoffie nevertheless called upon his Reform brethren to breathe life into a system with a 100-year record of failure.

One can't blame Yoffie. He has to play the hand he was dealt, and he knows that only a minuscule number of Reform congregants would ever consider a more intensive Jewish education for their children.

What is indefensible, however, was Yoffie's attack on Jewish day schools. Nearly 200,000 Jewish children are currently enrolled in day schools. That is 40% of Jewish children receiving Jewish education. Those day schools constitute the best, if not only, hope for Jewish continuity in America. Every study shows that graduates of day schools, no matter what the school's denominational affiliation, are much more likely to observe Jewish rituals and holidays, and are far less likely to intermarry than those who do not attend day schools.

Nevertheless, Yoffie criticized Jewish philanthropists for their infatuation with day schools. Worse, he denounced all initiatives designed to lessen the crushing financial burden on day schools and parents through school vouchers, tax credits or direct government funding of the secular learning components.

Yet virtually every day school is in dire financial straits. Teachers are paid less and receive fewer benefits than public school teachers, and parents with large families struggle under tuition burdens of up to $70,000 a year.

Far from being too well supported by the Jewish community, the day schools are poor stepchildren. Less than 5% of Federation giving goes to day schools, and the initiative of Chicago philanthropist George Hanus to have every Jew designate 5% of his estate to defray the costs of day school education has not yet caught on with the wider Jewish public.

Yoffie's denunciation of those "self-interested" individuals who would destroy American public education hearkens back to the early days of German Reform, whose chief purpose was to show that members of the "Mosaic faith" were fit for emancipation. To that end, German Reform renounced any Jewish national identity.

Yoffie professes to be "ashamed" of his coreligionists who support school vouchers, just as German Reform leaders once saw their more traditional brethren as an embarrassment who would doom the push for emancipation.

American Jewry, said Yoffie, must not turn its back on public education, which provided the ladder on which it climbed to affluence. Day schools, or at least any effort to make them financially viable, he argued in effect, are un-American.

That charge too goes back to a day when American Jews were far less securely ensconced in American society.

The chairman of the board clarify himself: Only Jewish day schools are undemocratic.

When Sender Gross and Bernie Goldenberg, two of the founders of Torah Umesorah, first broached the idea of a day school with the Buffalo Board of Jewish Education, the chairman of the board labelled it "undemocratic and un-American." The next day the Buffalo paper ran a banner headline, "Parochial Schools Called Undemocratic." Only when the Buffalo archdiocese responded with a large ad listing all the Catholic school graduates killed in action did the chairman of the board clarify himself: Only Jewish day schools are undemocratic.

In fact, there is no credible evidence that vouchers or tax credits would destroy public education, which is better funded today than ever. At the same time, there is a good deal of evidence that those most benefited by a program of school vouchers would be inner city black children - i.e., those most badly failed by the public education system.

And there is something callous about Yoffie's condemnation of the "self-interest" of Jewish parents struggling under immense burdens to provide their children with a real Jewish education - something they view not as a luxury but as an imperative. Their self-interest is no more an argument against vouchers than the self-interest of teachers' unions is an argument for vouchers.

The American public schools provided many American Jews with a path to success, and for that we should be grateful. But affluence is not by itself a Jewish value, and that affluence has done little to assure the future of American Jewry.

Jewish leaders should stop worshipping at the wall separating church and state, and stop trying to be more pious about that separation than the US Supreme Court.

Let them focus their energies instead on the preservation of a 3,500-year tradition.

January 5, 2002

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Visitor Comments: 18

(17) Anonymous, September 23, 2008 11:58 AM

too much sitting and driving in the car

My son is in Hebrew School one sunday morning and one Wednesday afternoon for a total of 3 1/2 hours of class time and two hours of driving to and from Hebrew school. He is bored out of his mind and frankly I feel sorry to see my active son confined to the car or a classroom seat. I know that this viewpoint is not very popular, but I wish we could contain it to one day a week and make it more fun. I want him to have positive feelings about learning about Judaism, but I have to say that while he is proud of being Jewish, he finds learning about Judaism boring. I wish that afterschool Hebrew programs could provide learning that was more active and involved dancing, singing, painting. It would certainly be thinking more about the needs of our active youngsters.

(16) Reb Zisha, September 22, 2008 11:27 PM

No school is enough by itself

I wish I had the money to, among other things, conduct a full-scale study to correlate Jewish identity (however you define it) to the amount of Jewish education attendance one had AND the level of home observance/identification. My thesis: you can put a kid in the finest yeshivah, but if nothing happens at home, that kid will be lost. Put a kid in a 2-day/week afternoon program, and if there is Yiddishkeit in the home, even that little formal schooling will be enough. But too many Jewish parents STILL would rather turn out soccer players and gymnasts, and not feel that they are keeping their little darlings separate from the wider culture. Parental ambivalence leads to future ambivalents. Shanah tovah!

Dee, November 17, 2015 5:55 AM

Reb Zisha, you are so right!!!

The best advice for parents

(15) Anonymous, November 14, 2002 12:00 AM

Hebrew Schools are in a no win situation

I taught in most of the Reform Synagogues in Manhattan and I was also a principal in a Reform Hebrew School. I also spent a year at Hebrew Union College, until I left and eventually became religious. I wanted nothing more than to make my students love being Jewish, but their parents wanted them to learn to say the four questions at the Passover seder and not to ask too many questions. When a child is sent to a program to learn, as long as he does not learn to much, how can you expect them to enjoy what they are learning. One year I almost got kicked out of my teaching job becasue I dared to tell a student that it was wrong for a Jew to have a christmas tree. Another time when a father came in complaining becuase his son wanted a Christmas tree, I asked him if he had a menorah at home. Of course, the answer was no.

Now that I have six children of my own, I tell tell you with an absolute certainty that by the end of 7th or 8th grade, my daughters learned more Torah in Yeshiva then any Reform Rabbi knows at the end of his 4 years of graduate school. I know that I had problems helping them with their homework by about 5th or 6th grade. I could not tell you about my sons because I never learned Talmud so I was unable to help them sooner.

The depth of learning that is aquired in a good yeshivah is so moving that it is almost imposible for a secular Jew to understand.

In case someone might think that Day School students learn only Hebrew, my daughter got a 1410 on her SAT, and at the age of 18 she is several months away from completing her BA.

Of course there are bad days schools, as some of the other comments pointed out, but the majority of them are really good. If a non religious parent chooses to send a child to a religious day school, it is not the fault of the school if the child feels conflicted. As I said before, it is very hard to teach something if the parents do not want the children to learn it.

As I mentioned, I am now Orthodox. I wear a wig, live in an Orthodox comunity, and believe very deeply. I consider myself to be very religious, but I have come to accept (and even rejoice) the fact that my children are more religious then I am.

When my child comes home from school and tells me that I am doing something wrong, it is very easy to get defensive and say, "different people do things different ways", but I have learned to take the time to listen to what they have learned, and to grow with them.

I am extremely grateful to the various schools that my children have attended, and I am proud to say that I have always paid full tuition for my children even if I couldn't go on vacation, or buy fancy clothes. It is our privelege to support our children's schools, and I look forward to supporting our grandchildren's schools and so on.

(14) Kate Gladstone, August 22, 2002 12:00 AM

Hebrew Day School killed my Judaism

I had the type of Hebrew Day School education that Jonathan Rosenblum seems to recommend. I studied hard, and generally got A's. However, what I saw, heard, and learned there has driven me away from any love for God, Judaism, the Torah, Israel, etc. - particularly when I saw the vast hatred and repulsion that the staff and students of the school demonstrated, not only for the non-Jews who surrounded us in the neighborhood, but for non-observant Jews including my parents who chose (at great expense, and for reasons best known to them) to send their child to a Hebrew Day School although the practices and ideology of this school set me (beginning at age 5) into direct and irresoluble conflict with my parents' "bagels-and-lox-with-bacon" version of Judaism at home. If other Jewish adults have had experiences like mine (and if their Jewish schooling, like mine at a Hebrew Day School, similarly provided no way to deal with home-versus-Hebrew-school conflict of behaviors/beliefs), perhaps this could explain why only 5% of adult Jews choose Hebrew Day Schools for their children.

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