Identity, Politics

Education is a Shandah

The King of Jewish philanthropy announced that modern Judaism has failed the next generation. In a wide ranging interview on Shalom TV, Michael Steinhardt railed on lackluster Jewish education, the truly sad state of American Jewish and Israeli political leadership, as well as younger Jews giving money to non-Jewish causes. I suggest reading the review and watching the interview.
While there is some truth in what he says generally, and we could improve modern Jewish education specifically, especially in making Hebrew School more interesting to the iPod generation, Steinhardt just jumps off and blames every ill in our community upon the system that he believes isn’t worth beans (proven by his lack of putting his money where his big mouth is).
Here is the core of the education critique:

“I think that many of the trends that we have seen – such as the fact that 55-60% of non-Orthodox Jews are marrying ‘out,’ such as the fact that only 15% of total philanthropy of Jews goes to Jewish causes – are reflective of that fact that non-Orthodox Jewish education in America has been, and continues to be, a shandah – an abysmal failure.”

That is it! The Education is at fault. Just like the lack of peace in Israel is the reason why younger American Jews aren’t connected to the state. Yes the reason there are “Jewish barbarians who have never experienced a Shabbat dinner” on your political buy in Israel Israel experience program is because the education system (which we all know needs work) has failed.
Could it have anything to do with the fact the preeminent Jewish funders have chosen to dump hundreds of millions into a 10 day crash course that caters to so called barbarians?
There is no question that new, innovative ideas need money to succeed. But so do the old ones.
Everyone can complain about the state of Jewish education, but not all of us have the ability to do something about it.
I look forward to the next generation of activist investor type philanthropists who complain about the problem, invest in it and work to fix it. But then again, they probably won’t donate to Jewish causes.
Editor’s note: Please also see a direct response from Ben Weiner at Jewcy: Stop Blaming Hebrew School.

24 thoughts on “Education is a Shandah

  1. Of course, I would question whether endogamous marriage and philanthropic dollars going to exclusively Jewish causes are appropriate metrics for the success of Jewish education. Don’t get me wrong, I think there’s a lot of work to be done on rethinking Jewish ed — that’s a big piece of what I do each day — but at the end of the day, my vision for Jewish education reaches a little higher than marriage and money.

  2. I don’t remember learning about the Holocaust or anti-Semitism in Hebrew school.
    I do remember a long bus ride after school to the synagogue, where I arrived tired and inattentive. I also remember getting “grades” in Hebrew school that would have made my father flip out had I earned those same marks in regular school.

  3. He has put his money where his mouth is. And has majority funded a Hebrew Language Charter School in Brooklyn. This is where he sees a potential future…
    You may disagree with him, KBH knows I do some times, but the man has consistently backed up his mouth with $. And quite often he hits the nail on the head when diagnosing a problem.
    You going to deny that formal Jewish education has failed the majority of those who got it? Kids who go to Hebrew school know nothing. Kids who go to day school know little. And I speak from experience…
    I think it would be much more valuable to listen to Steinhardt and take things from his words to agree with, rather than kvetch about the things that may sound a bit over the top.

  4. Right with David and dlevy, and feeling like we’re all stating the obvious.
    Something that perplexed me: “failing to distinguish Jewish values from Christian values” is problematic? The values of so many religions, and, in fact, of so many humanists, overlap; it strikes me that making an effort to find and emphasize differences is artificially divisive and smacks of superiority rather than serves to foster moral development. I’m probably getting the “superiority” vibe from the context (ONLY donate to Jewish organizations? Seriously? It’s not a mitzvah of equal quality to give to any organization with good credentials and a worthy cause?). I see no problem with teaching Jewish values, and perhaps the only way to demonstrate their “Jewishness” is through comparison, but still … something about this statement doesn’t sit right with me.
    Of course, I’m not Jewish, though I’m slowly infiltrating the culture (muaha). Am I missing something? Are there specific values that really should be distinguished? Is this simply a facet of anxiety over possible Jewish assimilation? Help me out here.

  5. Jonah, I wonder whether the percent of material remembered from Hebrew school differs from that of public school? It seems to me that most information is lost over time regardless of the source. Is it possible that the problem lies with the learner rather than the school?
    I’m just playing devil’s advocate–not sure I really believe this.

  6. “failing to distinguish Jewish values from Christian values”
    I’m a practitioner of interfaith activities, and think that distinguishing values is a good way to show respect – for all traditions.
    It’s a uniquely American attitude to want that overlap, that broad agreement. I want to be accepted as a fucking JEW not as an easy to fit in follower of some random Abrahamic faith.
    As a Jew, not a Christian, I see ritual in every day life as essential. My heart is not circumcised – my dick is. This is important.
    My Christian friends emphasize forgiveness. The see ‘faith’ as a powerful force, less abstract that it is for me.
    I value what makes us different, and NOT the same.

  7. Birthright, Orthodox day schools, JDate and Chabad are working to keep the Jewish people continuing.
    Everything else is not.
    (BTW Charles Bronfman’s nephew Adam is helping to fund the JOI which encourages Jews to marry Gentiles-something I’m sure people here would like to help out)

  8. Sam,
    Its a good point but I think incorrect. We all (well most of us I guess) leave school with a baseline of knowledge. Even if just 2+2=4 and being able to read and write. Hebrew school grads that I know dont even know things like what the Talmud is, what Simchat Torah is, or even the names of the letters of the Alef Bet…
    I think one problem is we have no defined basic knowledge we want our youth to have. We do not guide our educators. We dont say “all 18 year old Jewish kids should know at least x, y & z. And so most dont learn a damn thing except that they dont ever want to learn anything Jewish again…
    Lots of work to do…

  9. I know that there are two Talmuds, and when the Mishnah was probably written, and my Alef Bet (though I don’t know what sound each letter makes–yet!), and what and when Simchat Torah is (though I haven’t celebrated it yet). Very few people would call me Jewish, but I have a fervent desire to know these things, and so I’m learning them. If Jewish kids wanted to learn these things, why then they could too. Perhaps the fundamental element of Jewish education needs to be not imparting facts (though that’s important), but instilling interest and passion.
    Though I must ask: what if a child genuinely has no interest in Judaism or Jewishness, despite everyone’s best efforts, and that disinterest continues into adulthood? What if it doesn’t resonate with him or her? Is this a “failure”? Does everyone born Jewish need to keep being Jewish–and why is my Halachically and culturally Jewish but religiously agnostic boyfriend considered Jewish by many but his culturally Jewish but religiously agnostic girlfriend considered Jewish by few? I know the construction of Judaism as a culture rather than a religion is relatively recent, but does that make it wrong?
    Okay, that last bit’s tangential and gets into the Big Obnoxious Questions of intermarriage and “who is a Jew,” so, um, ignore me being bitter.

  10. @Sam, Because if you rally want to be Jewish, you can be Jewish. It’s like being a doctor – you can be the best healer in the world, but unless you go to med school, do your residency and get a license, you are legally not permitted in the US to call yourself a doctor. Luckily, it’s a lot easier to become a Jew than to become a doctor – all you need is a dip in the mikveh and a beit din and a belief in no more than one, unified God.
    Nothing to be bitter about. If you want to be a Jew you CAN be.

  11. @Sam,
    Also the issue of why people want their children to be Jewish – well, of course people want their children to follow their belief and practice systems.
    A big piece of it is difficult to understand if you’re part of a majority – our numbers are tiny, and people are constantly worried about us disappearing. Of course, if one has trust in HaShem, theoretically, one shouldn’t be worried about that, since God’s covenant with us is that we won’t disappear but continue on to fulfill our mission (which, if we disappear we can’t do, which is another reason to not want one’s children to become not-Jewish).
    I will admit that I find it difficult to understand why someone who doesn’t buy in to the religious part of Judaism at all would have any problem with their child becoming a non-Jew. That doesn’t make so much sense to me, either.
    I suppose there’s the idea somewhere deep down, that maybe if the disinterested person hangs in there, then their children, or their children’s children, may return to the religious part of Judaism (I’ve seen it happen many times with the children and grand children of people who married out or converted to another religion – their children feel a strange pull towards Judaism, and they often become quite religious).

  12. “I will admit that I find it difficult to understand why someone who doesn’t buy in to the religious part of Judaism at all would have any problem with their child becoming a non-Jew.”
    Because to let a culture die out–now that would be a shandah!

  13. And on the subject of education and who is at fault. HOw many kids really love going to public school? Did we all really adore our math classes and ENglish classes? I don’t so much recall that being the case. Nevertheless, because our families and culture valued and insisted that we did it, we went, whether we liked it or not, and understood that in the long term it was something we needed to do.
    On the contrary, the majority of parents look at religious school with barely veiled contempt, puling their kids out for the most trivial things, allowing them to drop out in 8th grade (would you have much knowledge of the world if you dropped out of high school in eight grade?) and treating it like a form of hazing (I suffered and so will you; I’ve actually heard parents say things like this).
    In addition to that, there’s the problem of “I want my kid to have fun” which is the other extreme – parents who won’t suport a program if there’s any homework, or any rigor at all – they just want their kid to have fun. The limitations of a five hour a week program and the race to the bottom ( shuls competeing with Chabad and their extremely limited programs; more serious programs losing students to shuls where there’s only one day a week of study – despite studies showing that one day a week programs are actually worse than no school at all in terms of retention).
    There’s not a lot you can do with five hours or fewer per week, and parents telling you you’d better not give any homework. I also love it when those same parents get irate that we don’t teach conversational Hebrew – with all the money I’m spending, why can’t my kid understand the Hebrew and speak it? Well, that’s a great question. It grinds me too, but you can’t learn to speak a language in 5 hours, two days a week, plus have any other content taught, which means that at best your kid is getting one-two hours of Hebrew a week. Rather than attempt the impossible, most of us attempt to do the best we can and teach what prayers mean and how to connect tot hem,, how to read them, and then hope the students get interested enough at they’ll take Hebrew in college. Some do.
    There’s the money limitation – every shul has to have it’s own progam because that’s how shuls attract families. The won’t give it up and join together for the most part, because then they might not get enough members to pay their staff. Nearly all religious school programs are money-losers, though; few so much as break even. But our communities don’t really support them adequately – neither day schools, nor supplementary schools. If federations were allowed to stop funding birthright (which has no evidence that it does any good, but which was strongarmed into federations across the country) and would for heavens sake choose to stop funding more holocaust museums and the like, perhpas they could turn some of those funds to education. But the truth is that the Jewish community *doesn’t* really care about youth. If it did, it would look a lot different. It’s like the birthrate issue. If Jews really cared that Jews weren’t having enough babies, they’d stop proclaiming that women just need to have more earlier, and start providing some high quality childcare at low rates, and parental leave for Jewish professionals, not to mention adequate pay for their professionals ( there was a great article in the LA Jewish Journal a few years ago about Nursery school teachers and social workers in Jewish organizations having to take welfare to survive, because their salaries were inadequate). The basic line is as always: follow the money. That tells you what people really care about -and guess what it isnt REALLY continuity, youth or education. It’s just that we like to talk about these things. But I digress.
    Here’s some more problems with education:
    NO money for staff that have any knowledge -if shuls banded together and offered joint programs with multiple tracks (here’s a 31 for 31 idea, Dan) they could pay much higher quality teachers to teach every day and offer higher salaries and benefits. That would allow programs to be pickier about who they hire, and they could stop hiring people who know, literally, nothing (unless they get very lucky).
    I understand that kids are tired, that they’ve had long days already, that they aren’t able to concentrate by 4 o’clock. That they still have hours of homework ahead of them. But I believe that being Jewish is important – maybe one of the most important things in a person’s life: more important than growing up to earn a lot of money (God knows that’s not something I value, or I wouldn’t be in this field) or take great vacation or live in a huge house.
    Being Jewish is essential to carrying out a mission in olam hazeh to connect with God, to make the world better, to being a decent person, but also to a way of being and doing that is valuable in and of itself because of who it shapes us into, and because God commanded it and God loves and cares for us and so we need to be guided as our parents guide us, into being better not just as individuals, but as communities.
    BUt if we can’t commit time, money and offer ourselves in sacrifice and discipline to anything, than Judaism will not succeed, because Judaism is not, ultimately, about the individual -or at least not exclusively, and we live in a society that values the individual over all all the time. I do understand that sometimes the one outweighs the many (Kirk and Spock are both Jewish, remember). I’m not saying that we have to shut up and take one for the team all the time, but education CAN’T succeed without these things.
    The problem with education isn’t one things. Steiny isn’t wrong about part of the problem being the educators, but a big part of the problem goes much deeper than that – it’s the community, the parents and the society in which we are embedded.
    But a solution could start with more money and more time. Not to mention less territoriality.
    In the meantime, the school directors will struggle on to provide, for a very small fee, everything your child needs to know about God, the universe, ethics, Hebrew, and community. Wish us luck, will ya?

  14. I apologize if the following restates anything that KRG wrote above, but I can’t read that much text with no spaces, sorry.
    Anyway, I think it’s important to make a distinction between what is learned and what is retained. I learned BC level calculus in high school. I have a great AP score report to prove it. But today I couldn’t tell you what it means to integrate never mind actually do it.
    Kids learn plenty at Hebrew School, even at the very bad ones (and yes, there are many very bad Hebrew Schools out there). However, if what they learn is without the context of a life in which these skills are practiced, naturally they will forget the names of letters, how to read Hebrew, or what a lulav is.
    Yes, our religious education system needs fixing. You’ll note that Steinhardt isn’t really interested in religion or religious education — otherwise he wouldn’t be funding public Hebrew language charter schools. He’s interested in perpetuating Jewish culture, and it’s a little dicey to say where one stops and the other begins. Is it permissible to teach about lulavim in a public school? How much can we teach about them? And if Jewish kids only encounter them as cultural artifacts divorced from the experience of using them to make meaning, what good is being able to identify a lulav anyway?

  15. Of course young Jewish adults are going to give money to non-Jewish causes. They figure the Jewish community has already enough extra dough to blow on sending them on a 10-day international booze cruise.

  16. Folks, Birthright has only been around for ten years. Hebrew school education has sucked since at least the 70s. I know it’s all chic to hate on Birthright here, but really, blaming Birthright for our shandah of an educational system is absurd. More to the point, Birthright wouldn’t exist if our Hebrew school system worked.

  17. Siviyo and Rejewvinator both nailed it. Although I would add that there is some connection between the decline of extracurricular Hebrew school and the rise of day-schools.

  18. Birthright wouldn’t exist if our Hebrew school system worked.
    Birthright has NOTHING to do with Hebrew School. These are apples and asparagus.
    The Hebrew school system does work. It may not accomplish stated goals but it’s working at something. Many people don’t want Hebrew school to accomplish anything more than preparing a child to perform decently at their B’nei Mitzvah ceremony.
    The reality is, there is no consensus on what a successful Hebrew school would accomplish and look like. And the same goes for Birthright; no one can define what success looks like other than “we sent X amount of Jewish adults to Israel.”

  19. I was at a riotous Passover seder with people from all generations, zaydes to babies, and I was talking to a woman (a coworker at the day school I work at) who was there with her two teenage kids. She explained to me that her kids love Judaism, because they live Jewishly. Their Jewish education is a full, rich living of Shabbat and the holidays. That observance, full of real family memories, love, and real fun, is what keeps Jews around. Bar Mitzvah training is a pain in every reform or conservative kid’s butt, but celebrating the holidays (and I mean really celebrating) is what makes it important.

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