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The Problem with Jewish Education

The Problem with Jewish Education

Too many schools are teaching Judaism under a cloak of secularism.


When I enrolled my first child in Jewish day school almost 20 years ago, I was enthralled with the prospect that he would be educated “Jewishly.” I imagined that the wisdom of the Torah would illuminate his mind through a Judaic curriculum of Jewish history and Torah subjects. I believed that Jewish schools would reflect Torah tenets and values in their teaching methods, and that the esteemed rabbis and learned teachers of Judaism would transmit Torah with Torah wisdom. After all, this transmission survived thousands of years through most unfavorable odds.

I sadly became disillusioned as my children progressed through the system and I witnessed firsthand that our delivery of Jewish subjects in Jewish schools, was not only far from optimal, but decidedly not Jewish.

Follow the yellow brick road

Just as Dorothy and her hopeful crew followed the yellow brick road to find self-completion, Jewish day school students are skipping down a path of good intentions. The happy ending occurs only after Toto pulls back the curtain to reveal the Wizard’s true identity. He could only grant his petitioners their wishes once he relinquished his false bravado and delivered authentically from his heart. Similarly, our Jewish day schools mean well but are confusing educational objectives operating under a cloak of secularism. Jewish learning is most effective and impactful when the Jewish essence of humble core values and tradition are revealed and developed as the basis.

A secular education model is based on accomplishment, as it should be. When we go out into the work world, our salaries and promotions are based on how well we succeed in achieving stated goals. It is no problem if our kids understand that a “C” in math reflects average work. School requires children to be generalists and later to become specialists. Delivering a message of academic strengths and weaknesses is appropriate preparation for a career, and judging ability is consistent with the competitive work world.

But the purpose of Jewish studies is not to prepare our kids for the workplace. When you apply this model to Jewish studies, it is a recipe for disaster, or at best diminishing returns. Unlike the secular model of reward based on measurable, overt accomplishment, the goal of learning Torah is very different. In Pirkei Avot 5:26, we read explicitly, “The reward is in proportion to the exertion.” This idea of rewarding effort is further reinforced in Pirkei Avot 6:1, one of many references from which we derive that the merit of Torah study is awarded to those who learn for “its own sake,” meaning without any ulterior motive.

There is no value in comparing one to another when it comes to Jewish studies. Yes, there are skills to acquire, but ultimately the prize is happiness generated by internal growth, understanding of one’s mission in the world and connection to our Creator. “Do your best,” a parent says reassuringly to a child approaching a challenge.

Each according to his ability is what God wants from us. We don’t develop our Jewish selves through competition. The endgame is not to perform better than the next person. Jewish growth happens only through stretching ourselves, surpassing self-expectations and ultimately fulfilling one’s unique potential. What a different premise for an educational model that is!

It is no surprise then that the intended purity and accessibility of Jewish learning is compromised when Judaic classes are treated just like subjects on the schedule.  Fraught with the same frustration accompanying their secular subjects’ accomplishment-driven grading, students are learning Judaism in quite an un-Jewish way.

“Why are they grading us? It’s our lifestyle,” I overheard one high school student lamenting. Another chimed in, “I’m not very good in Gemara [Talmud], I get Cs.” Judge a high school student as average in a Jewish subject, and it will likely effect how the student views himself fulfilling his Jewish life and his Jewish mission. His self-esteem is at risk, and it’s unlikely he will view himself as a lifelong learner. His self-identity teeters as his confidence as a productive and contributing Jew diminishes. Some tragically transition from a positive Jewish identity in lower school to a negative sense of Jewish self-worth in middle and high schools. They resent that their grades in Judaic subjects can bring down their GPAs and limit their college options. Students instinctively recognize the discord between the inherent sweetness of Jewish learning and the bitter flavor that the system delivers.

How far we have come from the candy held out to the child learning the alef bet, that the Torah should be sweet to the distaste of a curriculum of subjects that are disconnected from its relevance, higher purpose, and source. We even limit the “A” student from reaching her highest potential. Shame on us that students who easily receive high grades in Judaic subjects are held back from attaining the highest levels of greatness because the system rewards achievement, not effort. Those students are at risk of being bored and frustrated when great potential is left untapped by a system in which they have satisfied requirements by uniform measures. And double shame on us that we put our future at stake by tacitly accepting less than optimal conveyance of an optimal curriculum.

How did we get here?

The honest answer is, I don’t know. We, the Jewish people, are the smartest innovators and primary thought leaders on just about everything. We have been at the forefront of meaningful movements throughout history, including civil rights, women’s rights and all kinds of reform. We are lauded as the greatest thinkers and entrepreneurs, effective in proportion way beyond our small numbers. And yet we have settled for transmitting our greatest assets, the Torah and our history, to our precious children by copying a secular model that weakens and attenuates core Jewish teachings and values. We fail when we allow any Judaic class to be “boring” and then wonder why kids are turned off. I am dumbfounded as to how we allowed this to happen and how we settle for such a compromised outcome.

We survived every hostile community in which we thrived throughout history by maintaining a commitment to distinct ideals and lifestyle. In fact, we have thrived throughout the ages by putting the world’s offerings under the umbrella of Torah and prioritizing our tradition. When the Hellenists worshipped the physical, we stayed out of the sports arenas and modeled how to appreciate our bodies with morality and humility. When the Romans sacrificed the physically and mentally challenged, we maintained the sanctity of all human life. When the rest of the world proliferated child labor, we were not seduced by material gain at the expense of educating our children. It’s why on a recent trip to Asia, my husband was told that Koreans are studying our Talmud in their schools hoping to unlock the secret of our improbable sustainability and influence as a “small people.” And yet, comes the Industrial Revolution and we exchange our most powerful tools of creating a distinct identity in a shifting world for a foreign education model, which obscures our core wisdom.

Can we find our way home?

Day schools need to look introspectively and re-evaluate the mission of Jewish education. Rabbis and teachers need to demand that the sanctity of Torah subjects be upheld through a transmission system that is consistent with Torah ideals. Community leaders need to reject mediocrity and object to status quo models that aren’t designed to maximize the potential of each student. We need to shout from the rooftops that the Jewish souls we hand over to our schools are our future and need to be handled with the utmost care and properly cultivated.

We need to grab hold of the ideals that have sustained us and re-imagine Jewish education. That may mean a model that blends Torah wisdom with 21st century tools. God gives us incredible capability to discover how to absorb more, faster and clearer, and we should utilize those gifts to bolster Jewish learning. Let’s be clear with our goals for Jewish education and avoid vague mandates and meaningless public statements.

Jewish leaders must pave the way for collaborative efforts on achieving those goals uniformly throughout the more than 800 Jewish day schools in North America. We have the collective talent and creativity to reinvent the Jewish education model. We just need the chutzpah to say “enough” to settling for a feeble system that produces puny results relative to its capacity. In summation, avid support of innovative thinkers in the Jewish education field must replace support of the status quo. If we use our collective resources to urgently encourage innovators to come forward with new models for Jewish learning, we can uncloak our eternal wisdom and find our way home. It’s going to take more grit than three clicks of the heels of Dorothy’s ruby slippers, but when have the Jewish people ever been afraid of a challenge?

Isaiah (8:20), “For the Torah and for the testimony: If they will not say the likes of the thing, that it has no light.” If we speak for all of those who upheld our Torah and tradition for generations past and do not reflect the actuality of our Torah and tradition, then we have no light. It is time to turn on that light again.

This article originally appeared in the Washington Jewish Week.

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The opinions expressed in the comment section are the personal views of the commenters. Comments are moderated, so please keep it civil.

Visitor Comments: 18

(17) Donna, March 18, 2016 11:57 AM

Perhaps the Torah study could be positioned as a respite from the other required classes so that students are joyful when it's Torah time.

Another thought, if for some reason the Torah lessons must be graded, what about grading them so that Torah lessons can only help your overall grades but never hurt your other grades.

Wishing you the best in this endeavor.

(16) Anonymous, January 31, 2016 8:39 PM

Torah for Its Own Sake

Refreshingly honest and insightful. If Torah is just another subject we will not succeed in creating a generation that can stand up to the pressures of our secular society. Do I see a possible window of understanding here for the Chareidi world, and for those who learn Torah for its own sake, whether in Kollel or in a lifestyle that combines working and learning?

(15) Anonymous, December 27, 2015 2:44 AM

There must be change, but let's be practical

I don't think we should get rid of grades altogether, as there must be some sort of testing to ensure that the students are actually learning. Rather, I believe the current testing model should be modified. Much smaller tests should be given far more frequently. The key is that students should not have to invest a significant amount of time outside of class to succeed in their Judaic studies classes because that is when our heritage becomes school work, and the holy depths of the Torah become a nuisance. They should just have to pay attention and be engaged in class. Perhaps of equal importance is that Yeshivot must also put more emphasis on teaching students to understand and respect the Halachik process and its divine origin. That, I believe, is the main concern we should have.

(14) MESA, December 15, 2015 3:30 PM

There's another problem. There are those who believe in education for the sake of lucrative careers that they consider secular studies to be more important than Jewish studies. They give secular studies first priority because those are subjects that will get you into a good college and get you a lucrative career. Meanwhile, Jewish studies wind up on the proverbial back burner. Yes, we do need an overhaul. Thank you for great insights.

(13) Ada Jacobowitz, January 4, 2015 6:27 PM

great observations

Great observations.
As a student, at Maimonides in Boston, I don't remember emphasis on grades in Jewish studies. The Rav would often come and 'farher'/ orally test us but no grades.
Jewish studies should reach out to the individual child to help make him a strong link on the chain of tradition that reaches back to Avraham and Sara.

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