Why We Can’t Give Up on Hebrew School (And What to Do About It)

In Operation Shylock: A Confession (1993), Philip Roth paints a powerful and not necessarily positive picture of his Hebrew school experience. He shares its mediocrity and irrelevance—but then suggests: What came of it was everything (312).


I’ve always been taken by the fact that Roth attributes his Jewishness to Hebrew school. His Jewishness is, of course, profound. The flyleaf of Operation Shylock quotes Genesis 32: “Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until dawn.” In other words, Operation Shylock is a wrestling with Judaism. And much of Roth’s body of work, of course, is the same, the kind of creative and life-long exploration that we want for any Jewish adult. Roth may have been religiously secular but he was also deeply, deeply Jewish. Is Roth saying that all of this came from Hebrew school?


There are many ways to answer to this question.

  1. Of course he wasn’t. Roth’s own work (A Plot against America, for example) is a tribute to the richness of the Jewish environment of his childhood. Hebrew school was not the only factor generating his Jewish connection.
  2. But it was a part! And with its challenges, it still provided a powerful foundation. “What came of it was everything”—the ritual of going to Hebrew school, the learning he did, the community he built—these taught him that he was both of America and different, that he had a responsibility to learn and celebrate. His Jewishness is, indeed, rooted in that classroom, however shabby it was.
  3. And yet, it may be true, but also not good enough. Particularly in the world today, where Jewish learning competes with every other activity in the marketplace for families’ time, where education is becoming increasingly complex, where the world is becoming increasingly complex, the purpose of Jewish learning too needs to be well beyond that omnipresent, overused, and somewhat elusive “Jewish identity.” We need so much more from Hebrew school.


Childhood is a process of becoming. We want our children to become curious, empathetic, competent, independent, confident, community-minded, kind, creative, forward-thinking—so many things. Their Jewish experiences should help them become these adults. Their Jewish experiences should help children and families thrive, as people and as Jews.


Perhaps Roth’s Hebrew school experience helped him become some of these things. We’ll never really know. What we do know is that Hebrew school was built in the paradigm of school—knowledge driven, with butts in seats, separate from the project of life. That is not a model that can rise to today’s environment.


Throughout North America, enrollment in typical Hebrew schools is decreasing, but new Jewish educational options are emerging, in synagogues and out, sometimes powered by Federations, to replace the Hebrew school paradigm. And while we lack systematic research tracking enrollment statistics and the impact of these new programs on families, all anecdotal evidence tells us that:

  • These programs are bursting at the seams;
  • they are attracting families who otherwise cannot find a place for themselves in Jewish life; and
  • families and children are having fun, growing, and becoming.


The rest of this blog post describes this revolution. What do we do about Hebrew school? We are architects—we design a new landscape.


1.  Build diverse and layered options.
Just as careers are not linear (millennials aren’t going to work at companies for forty years, retiring with a gold watch) neither does Jewish education follow one path anymore. 


Any community needs a range of options for families across the Jewish demographic spectrum, answering different childcare needs.


This range of options has an additional, critical bonus: A student and family may enroll in multiple options, giving them a layered experience. No one Jewish educational experience offers all that any child needs to grow Jewishly—multiple options offer complementary types of learning and deepen what’s happening for students and families. A student’s sense of self becomes more complex and rooted with more and more diverse experiences.


2. Experiment with structure: Create new, non-institutional Sunday and weekday programs. Weave it together with after-school care. Support independent student journeys.

To attract new populations, programs with new shapes and structures need to be developed, outside of the typical Jewish institutional structure. New populations will flock to Sunday morning programs that look like camp and weekday afternoon programs that look like school aftercare. Families with complex schedules and no institutional homes will appreciate the opportunity to support their children’s Jewish explorations through scout-like badge collection and independent project-based learning.


Federations should incent (financially) and otherwise support the development of these initiatives. With a community’s development of an initiative in each of these areas, families have true choice, and families with different needs can find a program that matches their needs and values.


Examples: Atlanta’s Jewish Kids Groups, Berkeley’s Edah, Washington DC’s Moed, New York’s Jewish Journey Project.

3. Use camp as much as possible.

People love camp, and it does good. It offers authentic opportunities for Jewish living. It helps kids grow into independent, kind adults. It creates opportunities for “self-authorship,” for campers to develop their selves and write their own stories, all the while building competency and confidence.


We need more support of kids to go to overnight camp—and, we need new models for shorter camps that can engage many more kids from middle income families. Day camps should be exploding with enrollment and can be deeply Jewish experiences. Family camp experiences should be plentiful, a rite of passage. Retreats should be built into every Jewish educational framework. Just as Federations incent new initiatives, they can support the development of camp models that can engage many more people.


4. Incentivize change and growth in synagogue programs.

In the best circumstances, synagogue school no longer looks like school. It feels like camp, it’s project-based, it’s a maker-space, it’s mentor- or family-focused. We have significant anecdotal evidence (and some empirical evidence) that these programs can expand enrollment, raise retention, and help children and families have more robust and more positive experiences with Jewish learning.


This change is particularly hard for synagogues with long traditions around their religious schools. We are comfortable with what we have; inventing something new brings uncertainty. We’re unhappy with decreasing enrollments in our programs and afraid of letting go of the good we are still facilitating. Federations can support growth in synagogue programs by providing funding for change, building a communal culture of experimentation, bringing experts and those who have achieved in this space to teach in their communities, writing about educational change initiatives, talking about change in public forums, and creating opportunities for stakeholders to talk through their work. Communal stakeholders need information about new models while they also need a reason to try them that’s bigger than their reluctance to let go of what they know.


These resources present some of the new models:
Thinking and Rethinking Supplementary Religious Education: A Look at Nine Models, Phil Jacobs (Covenant Foundation)

How Teaching Models Are Evolving in Afternoon Schools, Adina Kay-Gross (Covenant Foundation)

Upending the Grammar of the Conventional Religious School, Isa Aron (academic article)


5. Provide truly extraordinary, sophisticated leadership experiences for Directors of Education.

Directors of Education—especially those inside synagogues—are managing significant stakeholder expectations (clergy, Board, parents); they are trying to experiment with new models and convince their stakeholders of the worth of this experimentation; they are working with a teacher model that is almost always challenging. (The intense daily life of an educator, and what to do about it, are well outlined here.) They need support to build their leadership skills, to lead their programs with real vision, to assuage fear and doubt, to hold uncertainty, and to detail the promise of something else. Federations can invest in leadership experiences for directors of education, helping them to see their work as larger than themselves and helping them become more confident with managing change. These kinds of experiences should include work on their visions of education, helping them to develop definition for their educational programs, to create an inspiring vision that their programs work to achieve, and to articulate a case that can compete for families’ time and resources.


6. Professionalize the teacher corps.

One of the greatest challenges to the religious school paradigm has been its reliance on part-time, (typically) untrained teachers. Some synagogues have tackled this challenge by developing an approach to school that lets them employ full-time (or close to full-time) teachers. In other cases, schools—and, most notably, in Houston, led by Federation—have developed sophisticated mentoring programs rooted in the principles of the Mandel Teacher Educator Institute. Mentoring helps part-time teachers see their work in Jewish learning as collaborative, iterative, creative, and full of potential for more. Mentees have an opportunity to get better as teachers, and mentors can strengthen their own craft while receiving some kavod for their work. The web of community gets stronger as teachers build personal connections.


We don’t need to give up on the most important resource in our religious schools. Moments of student growth happen in interactions between students and teachers. They are mentors, leaders, counselors, cheerleaders, and role models. Federations can learn from Houston and initiate their own support of teachers.


7. Incentivize change around the bar/bat mitzvah.

Some families continue to seek the bar/bat mitzvah experience, and they’ll enroll in whatever they need to in order to make that happen. Other families also want it—but the hoops are too great, the barriers too high. But the process can be streamlined and made more meaningful. If a new approach can add value to families’ lives and allows them to build up to the moment, why not find it, strengthening this as a true and meaningful rite of passage for more families.


The Union for Reform Judaism led a process where synagogue leadership gave significant thought to the bar/bat mitzvah process. They have a catalog of work and programmatic innovations that can be resources to others. Federation can work with the URJ facilitators as teachers in their own communities or can provide resources for similar change in synagogue and non-synagogue programs. Grants and training can help reimagine the process and project.


8. Build parent community.

Friends motivate participation. So much of our work today is leveraging existing social networks or helping people connect or build new ones. Friends validate participation, they support it, and they serve as reasons to show up. Too often, we see our target participants as children only; we exclude parents and families. But particularly with younger children, parents make participation decisions. If parents have friends at any event, they’re far more likely to go.


Federations have started to embrace peer connector initiatives for PJ Library and other populations. What if we launched room parent initiatives for elementary school education programs, in and outside of synagogues? What if those room parents were responsible for making connections among parents, ensuring that people who were absent got a check-in text and that no parents remain anonymous throughout their children’s career in Jewish learning—and that it’s not their children’s career, but their own as well? Federations can bring the concept of peer connector to Jewish learning programs for families with school aged kids, helping to make the building of parent community a top priority throughout our work.


These eight priorities are about redesigning a ritual in North American Jewish life. It will take us time to get it right. It won’t be easy. It will take our own courage, capacity to fail, and grit. But it isn’t impossible, and it is all—the incentivization and support of change, the building of community culture and capacity, the deep collaboration with partners—central to our work as Federations, particularly if we are serious about Federations’ responsibility for creating pathways for mass numbers of Jews into Jewish life and community.