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Jewish Education in America

Since the Pew report came out last year, several Jewish professionals and leaders have addressed the seemingly bleak future of the Jewish community in America. While some see it as inevitable, some as a process which can be reversed, and others yet think we are misreading the data, we must take into consideration the structure of Jewish Education in North America in order to understand the bigger picture. Why is it that for so many Jews, Judaism means so little? Where have we, Jewish educators, gone wrong?

While this is a topic broad enough to cover several articles and dissertations, let me try to summarize the issues we deal with:

1) Early Childhood education – all of us are moved by little children singing Jewish songs, celebrating holidays, being the “abba” or “ima” at Friday morning Shabbat activities in preschool. We save the chanukiot our children made, as well as the haggadot, Kiddush cups, and more. While a Jewish early childhood education is very important in building a foundation, if not followed by more education it will be lost in the long run. Singing Dayenu at the age of three does not lead to living a Jewish life as an adult, as much as singing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star does not lead on to become an astronomer.

2) Day school education – there is no question that day school education is an important indicator of Jewish commitment in the future. So why are we not all running to enroll our children in Jewish day schools? I can think of several answers, and I am sure you can too. A dual curriculum is not easy – it implies that a child needs to be in school twice the amount of time. Something will have to give: whether it is playing soccer after school, being in a marching band, or simply playing outside, if a child is to be in school form 8am to 5pm. Some parents are concerned with the over scheduling that day school represents. Many parents would not mind that if – and this is a big IF – it were affordable! For many families, the cost of day school education is out of reach. And while many schools offer generous scholarships, it still represents a hefty investment if a family has two or more children. Further, in many areas the public school system offers (free) high quality education, better than some of the day schools.

3) Supplementary school – while in the past supplementary education (Hebrew school, religious school) was quite effective, I am not sure we can say the same about the past 30 years or so. Parents have pushed synagogues to reduce the number of hours children must attend. This has led to many students being exposed to Jewish learning for a couple of hours a week, about 36 weeks a year. In the most successful schools, students are learning, are happy, and absorb Jewish teachings. But let’s be honest: how much Judaism can one learn in a couple of hours a week? Imagine how parents would react if schools decided to teach Math or Language Arts only a couple of hours a week (and with no homework). Synagogues are then focusing most to the education in preparing a youngster for a Bar or Bat Mitzvah service, which becomes the “end goal” for that family. Once the day comes and goes, the education gained is rarely relevant to the life of the teenager. Only a very small minority of students continue learning into their high school years and these certainly benefit much more from the education.

4) Camps – most research shows the impact of summer camp on Jewish identity. There is no question that summer camps of all movements are very successful in building identity and confidence in your youth. Why is that so? One of the main reasons for the success of summer camps is the immersion factor. Children live a completely Jewish life for a number of weeks. Everything in a Jewish summer camp revolves around being Jewish. Yes – there are sports, arts, hikes, games, and this is exactly the message camp sends: you can be like everyone else, do what everyone does, and be Jewish! While this might not seem such a revelation for most of us, it truly relays to children that being Jewish can and should be part of their life 24/7: when they wake up or go to bed; when they go to school; when they are outside playing ball, taking an AP test, or chatting with friends on Facebook. Programs such as Genesis and BIMA at Brandeis University achieve the same results for high school students. However, if this is not supported when they come back home, we give our children the impression that being Jewish 24/7 can only happen when you are in camp – it is a summer vacation “thing.”

New initiatives have been sprouting around the country bringing an interesting option to those who do not attend day-school. In a combination of afterschool care and Hebrew School, programs such as Edah (Berkeley), Jewish Kids Groups (Atlanta) and a few more, including Sulam (Brookline), offer five-day-a-week programs. These initiatives replicate, to a certain degree, the experience of immersion of summer camps, and allow for many more hours of Jewish education, when compared to the traditional Hebrew School. These programs have been successful in creating Jewish education that is both enjoyable and effective and might be the answer for parents who want the best public school education paired with strong Jewish learning opportunities.

5) Adult education – we have not been able to bring a larger number of adults to Jewish education. In many cases, it is purely due to the lack of time, as adults are constantly busy. In my opinion, though, this is crucial at this point in the development of the Jewish community in America - we must attract more adults to Jewish education. We must offer them courses in which different aspects of Judaism are discussed in both intellectual and emotional terms, in which they find meaning for the important life questions, in which they can see practical applications of Judaism in their daily lives. We cannot afford to lose a generation or two. We cannot afford Jewish apathy. Parents and grandparents are role models for the young. We need to bring back the smell of Shabbat, the joy of being Jewish, the connection to our past, if we are to create a bright future. Programs such as the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School, Me’ah, Wexner, and the new Pillars of Judaism, have been successful and have led adults to more involvement in the Jewish community. New online initiatives (I am personally involved in two programs that are opening in 2015) are going to allow Jews in smaller communities as well as those who are homebound to connect online, live, with other Jews around the country while at the same time having access to some of the best Jewish education programs available in America.

Jewish educators are constantly looking for ways to involve more people with Jewish learning. In a world where things are constantly evolving, we have an obligation to adapt to the new realities. A lot has been done, but there is still a lot more to accomplish. As we read in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers): “you are not obligated to complete the task, yet neither are you permitted to desist from it.”

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