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Dear Hebrew School Teachers, I Want a Refund

Dear Hebrew School Teachers, I Want a Refund

Three ways I feel you let me down and how you can do way better.


Dear Former Hebrew School Teachers,

It’s been decades since I was a student in your Hebrew school and you’re probably wondering why I’m getting back in touch. Simply put: I’d like a refund. And if that’s not possible, a promise that you’ll do better in the future will suffice.

In the formative years of my life, whatever I knew about Judaism was taught in your school. And while I learned some things from you that have stood me in good stead, looking back I wish so many things would have been taught differently. Here are three ways I feel you let me down and how you can do way better.

1. Judaism isn’t about guilt.

“You’re not celebrating this holiday?” One of my lasting memories from your school is learning about Jewish holidays that my secular-leaning family didn’t celebrate, and then feeling so guilty at school when my teachers acted disappointed and disapproving. (I’m a Hebrew School teacher myself now and I try very hard never to make my students feel ashamed or bad - that’s just not the Jewish way.)

For me, so much of Judaism was about feeling guilty and that’s a terrible feeling to impart to a child. Instead, I wish you’d encouraged us to do more and take a greater part in Jewish traditions in a positive way. I wish you’d bothered to invite us to synagogue for Shabbat and holiday celebrations, and told us what to expect. I wish you’d explained how much fun celebrating the Jewish holiday of Simchat Torah is, or how much fun celebrating Purim can be. I wish you’d invited us to Shabbat meals and showed us how to bring the Passover Seder to life.

I wish you would have imparted the message that we are all vital links in a chain going back thousands of years, that each of us is an important part of the Jewish people.

2. Jewish wisdom is accessible.

How could I have gone through years of Hebrew School and not known that the Talmud is part of the Torah? Or the names of the Five Books of Moses? Or what the difference is between the Mishnah and the Gemara? You had us in your class nine hours a week for years, but somehow when it came to basic Jewish literacy, you blew it.

Even though we were all driven kids, used to pushing ourselves in regular school and accustomed to studying subjects like math and science and American history in depth, somehow when it came to Jewish subjects, we were supposed to be content with watered-down subject matter and partial information. We never got homework; we rarely had tests. Would it have been so hard to challenge us, and expect the same excellence in Hebrew school that our other teachers demanded?

I thought of you, Hebrew School Teachers, this year when I stood before my own Sunday School class, this time as a teacher. My students were all used to being high achievers in regular school and I was determined to challenge them in Jewish subjects too. “This year we’re going to study part of the Talmud,” I told them, and they cheered. Cheered!

How I wish you’d told us something similar. How I wish you’d tried to do the same with us and showed us how ancient Jewish wisdom applies to our lives right now.

3. Judaism really matters in our lives.

You taught us that Judaism was nothing but stories, pleasant homilies that had little relevance to our lives. You told us it was unclear whether the stories and history mentioned in the Torah even really took place: I distinctly remember one of you telling us what you called “the legend” of Hanukkah. I grew up surrounded by kids of other religions and ethnic groups who were all proud of their own histories, while I was taught to doubt mine.

How I wish that one of you teachers had stood up in our class and pointed out that the Hebrew language we were struggling to learn has been spoken by Jews for thousands of years - and then shown us examples of Hebrew writings through the ages. How I wish that you’d told us the Psalms in our prayer books were written by none other than King David, who captured Jerusalem and made it his capital after ascending the throne in 877 BCE.

How I wish you’d explained to us that each time we face east when we pray, we are facing Jerusalem, and the Western Wall which is the sole remaining structure from the Temple in which our ancestors worshipped God over two thousand years ago. How I wished you’d told us about the many precious archeological finds that have been made at that site that show the Temple was built and worshipped in for thousands of years precisely as the Torah describes.

It took me many years before I stood in Jerusalem myself, at the Western Wall, and finally felt the power of Jewish history, my history, all around me. I wish you’d done more to help me develop those feelings of pride and connection sooner.

A friend told me that he wanted to embrace Judaism and become more religious but that, ironically, his previous Jewish education was holding him back, making him doubt whether Judaism was worth exploring. On behalf of him, and myself, and the untold numbers of our fellow students who endured years of uninspiring Hebrew School, and as a current Hebrew School teacher myself, let’s pledge that we don’t repeat the mistakes from the past and that we aim to pass on the joys, excitement and wisdom of Jewish life to our children and students.

Yours Sincerely,
A Former Student

March 10, 2018

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Visitor Comments: 10

(10) a concerned Jew, March 20, 2018 8:05 PM

Afraid of Parent body - it's an old story

Unfortunately, many teachers in schools preach what the parent body of the students want to be taught and what they don't want taught isn't taught. That's one answer. In addition, many teachers themselves didn't know much better either. So your points are very valid, but it's not why they didn't do what you propose, rather it's to suggest that those that do know the truth - should be bold enough to teach it. Once they are teaching it, it should be taught in a vibrant and visual way, where possible. Today with so much information available on the internet, so much can be easily prepared and then shown to inspire the students. Expose the students to the wonders of G-d's creation. May I suggest that you see - a great ongoing Aish educational program. Hatzlacha.

(9) Anonymous, March 19, 2018 5:30 PM

Some fallacies about Hebrew School

I taught in various Hebrew schools, as well as being the principal of one. I never participated in any of the above accusations, but I can say without a doubt, that the Hebrew School model does not work. In the first place, except for maybe the first grade, which is usually comprised of third graders in secular school, the students simply do not want to be there. They resent that their friends are going to soccer practice, or have the luxury of being home by three o'clock. This is apparent in their behavior, not to mention that by three o'clock they are wiped out. Yes, Day School has a longer day, but the students are there all day, they don't have to transition to another school to learn something they are clearly not interested in. When I taught in the beginning, I met with the students three days a week two during the week, and one on Sunday, which was usually reserved for project making. In that time, there was so much to cover, and very little time. Students, already restless, wasted time by not paying attention. I employed many games and art project to keep the students interested. Did not always work. The days were cut down to one day a week and Sunday. What can possibly be accomplished in such a short time? Children of Bar and Bat Mitzvah age were especially difficult. Not only are they antsy to finish Hebrew School, for them rather than Bar and Bat Mitzvah representing the beginning of a new stage in life, it represents the end. The end of Hebrew School and the end of Jewish learning. Some continue on to Hebrew High School but not many. If parents do not want to send their children to day school, I really don't know what the answer is. I suppose it will remain this half-baked version of a Jewish education and that's sad.

(8) Canuck, March 14, 2018 1:16 PM

Horrendous socioeconomic discrimination in Hebrew school.

All my 3 kids (now adults with kids of their own) were discriminated against in Hebrew day school because of our relatively poor economic status. I won't go through all 3 cases, but here is 1 example--my oldest son--let's call him Jim. In grade 8 he was ridiculed & taunted non-stop by his classmates, because he wasn't wearing the latest expensive clothing styles. Some of those students would also pass by our little working-class bungalow, & the next day report on what a poor shack (actually they used a more vulgar term) we lived in. None of the teachers ever intervened. When my wife & i approached the principal about all this, he told us Jim "has a personality problem & he'll be picked on no matter which school he goes to." Finally, in the first month of grade 9 (when the abuse became intolerable), we transferred Jim to a regular public school in the neighbourhood. And guess what? Jim did not encounter the least iota of abuse! In fact, he was extremely popular, made many great friends (mostly Gentile but also Jewish), & from grade 9 through 12 Jim enjoyed the time of his life.

(7) Leah Bleiberg, March 14, 2018 12:09 PM

thoughtful and heartfelt

Yvette, thanks for this thoughtful and heartfelt article. My parents didn't send me to ANY Hebrew school and I didn't know an alef from a bais until I went to Shor Yoshuv and learned from the amazing Freifeld Family, they should all be g'bencht. After reading your article, I realize it may have been a bonus to not feel the negative attitude I hear from most who went to Hebrew school and at least learn it RIGHT the first time, albeit late. Thanks for sharing.

(6) Anonymous, March 13, 2018 10:29 PM

start small

You are talking like an adult, not a kid just starting to learn. Exposure is good, but don't expect a kid to grasp/understand everything at once. For myself - there is stuff I learned in school - when I finished - I found the library and continued learning.

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