As a Hebrew school teacher for many years, I’ve seen how these extra lessons can both challenge and enrich students and their families. Here are five suggestions to getting the most out of your Sunday or Hebrew school this year.
1. Commit to attending.
One of the greatest challenges for extracurricular religious schools is making sure they’re not “extra” at all, but a crucial part of students’ overall education.
It’s a struggle to find time in our busy schedules. The soccer tournaments scheduled during Sunday school, the nights of heavy homework that make it hard for kids to leave the house for weekday afternoon Hebrew classes. But kids understand very quickly what our priorities are. When we put off Jewish classes for convenience, we’re telling our kids that Jewish education is less important other activities.
Conversely, by resolving to put Jewish classes first – above sports, social engagements, even above extra homework and projects for regular school – we send a message that Jewish learning is important: that it’s central to who we are and what we stand for.
As Hillel taught in Ethics of the Fathers, “Do not say, ‘When I am free I will study,’ for perhaps you will not become free” (Pirkei Avot 2:5).
2. Demand excellence.
The other day a mom told me about her middle-school-aged son’s activities. He’s a serious musician, taking instrument lessons each week and performing in a youth band. In his competitive public school, he elected to study Mandarin and can already carry on basic conversations. Last summer, he even participated in a program for extremely bright children at a nearby research university, where he studied advanced chemistry and physics.
“And what about Hebrew school,” I asked? “How’s he doing there?”
“Oh fine,” his mom replied, “last year he learned to say the short prayer before reading the Torah in Hebrew.”
Parents expect great strides each year in “regular” school, but they are somehow content with a much lower level of achievement when it comes to Jewish studies. This double standard conveys something to our kids about how little we value their Jewish studies.
This year, consider making an appointment with your child’s religious studies teachers to discuss what will be learned in the classroom. Make sure you communicate to your kids that you expect them to master certain skills. And follow through: if you find your child isn’t thriving academically in Sunday school, take the same steps you would if they were failing to thrive in “regular” school. Consider hiring a tutor, talk to their teacher about work they can do at home, find someone knowledgeable to review difficult subjects with them.
In addition to helping your child, finding them extra help also sends the message that you value Jewish subjects, and want them to do well in them.
3. Make Jewish learning a family activity.
Author Wendy Mogul describes the “dry-cleaning” version of Jewish education: just like we take our clothing in to be cleaned – with little or no input from us – some of us drop off our kids once a week or more to be spiritually enriched – with no work required from home.
Kids can see right through this “outsourced” model of Jewish education.” If something’s not important enough to engage the whole family, why – kids question – should they value it?
Jewish learning is a central part of family life. Teachers can help us transmit knowledge, but the ultimate responsibility to teach our kids rests with us.
The Torah instructs us to pass its wisdom along to our children: “And these words shall be, which I command you this day, upon thy heart, and you shall teach them diligently to thy children” (Deuteronomy 6:6-7). For many of us, though, this seems a tall order. How can we pass along wisdom that many of us never acquired in the first place?
The famous sage Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki (Rashi) anticipated this problem. Commenting on this verse, Rashi explained it means that we as parents need to prepare, so that when our children ask us questions, we are ready to answer them.
This might mean taking Jewish or Hebrew classes of our own, reading books, or just talking through issues that our kids are studying along with them. Opening a dialogue with our kids about Jewish subjects shows them they’re not alone, that we value what they’re learning: that growing together Jewishly is an important family goal.
4. Come up with Jewish goals for the family this year.
Sunday school doesn’t have to be your family’s only forum for imparting Jewish knowledge. This year, come up with concrete goals for your family. Whether it’s reading a Jewish book and discussing it together, finding out the meaning behind a Jewish ritual you do, or improving your Hebrew, try brainstorming things you can learn together.
In addition to giving you something to share with your kids, exploring Jewish concepts as a family shows them you value their Jewish learning, and encourages them to stick with Jewish education.
5. Integrate your kids’ curriculum into your family’s life.
Finally, if there’s one wish I could make for my students, it would be for families to integrate the topics they’re learning about into their weekly routines.
The most motivated, excited students I teach are invariably the ones whose families use the tzedaka boxes they made in Hebrew school to set aside money for charity, who light candles in the home-made menorahs and Shabbat candlesticks their kids bring home, who talk about the ideas and concepts their kids are learning about in class.
View Hebrew school as a journey. Show your kids it’s a trip you’re committed to making along-side them as they learn more and grow.