By Rabbi Mark Asher Goodman
Just in time for back-to-school shopping and your first Hebrew school tuition ACH auto-withdrawal, two Jewish websites have let loose their bloggers to take a dump on traditional Jewish education.
First, Jordana Horn of Kveller and the Forward wrote this article about why Jewish home schooling is cheaper and better than day school at producing good Jewish kids. Then, Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz wrote this op-ed saying that basically Hebrew school is a waste of time, except for the donuts.
Both make some nice points. Rabbi Yanklowitz encourages greater experimentation and use of alternatives to the traditional Sunday-school-bar-mitzvah-prep model. Horn highlights the high cost of day school for the average Jew, which is not a new complaint. I’m all for both ideas.
Still, I have a brief response to both writers. I think I’m well qualified to take both on, because I am both the product of Hebrew school and a teacher at a Jewish day school.
First, picking on Hebrew school is just mean. It’s like ganging up on the slow chubby kid during dodge ball- we all know he should be better, but pelting him with a barrage of rubber balls isn’t going to help. If you want the problem to get better, you will need to spend a great deal of time and energy fixing the problems, not just calling for a drastic demolition of the whole system.
Second, Shmuly uses a pretty tired idea to launch into his assault, namely “I hated Hebrew school and didn’t learn anything, so that means all Hebrew schools are a waste of time and need to be torn down.”
This is pretty facile- “If I didn’t like it, it must be bad.” However, I went to Hebrew school, and I really enjoyed it. In fact, I stayed voluntarily until 12th grade. It helped give me the Jewish foundation that led me to becoming a rabbi and, more importantly, a lifelong learner of Torah. Hebrew school isn’t enjoyed by everyone, but then again, not every kid likes Algebra, and for that reason, we have humanities departments in colleges, and not just engineering programs. There has been a rush to judge education in this country in the past decade- many traditional public school systems have been torn down in favor of charter schools. Maybe this is good, but maybe not. Some think charter schools do more harm than good.
The same holds true for supplementary religious school education. You can have a very bad traditional Hebrew school, but you can also have a very good one. Shifting the community’s investment to the newest, hippest ‘alternative’ program is no guarantee of success.
Ms. Horn’s argument has a whole host of problems. Many were addressed in this thoughtful piece by Helene Wingens. I particularly like her point about Jewish day schools producing Jewish leaders. But I have more to say.
1) Ms. Horn uses the same kind of straw-man argument that Rabbi Yanklowitz uses. “I’m not against day school, per se. I just don’t think that day school is essential in order to raise children who are Jewish and proud to be Jewish.”
Um, nobody said Jewish day school is essential to raising Jewish kids. You’re talking to yourself, there, lady. Still, some (about 83,000 Jewish students) prefer it.
2) Horn makes a pitch for Jewish home school, with a focus on feel-good Jewish activities: Shabbat and holidays, sing songs, have teachable moments. That’s great, but a day school education is much deeper and more substantial than that.
In my school, a graduate who attends K-12 will be: fluent in modern Hebrew; have substantial knowledge of Jewish history over a 4,000 year period; be able to write a Dvar Torah using traditional and modern commentaries; can read a daf of Gemara; and knows the moral, Halachic, and philosophic rationales behind issues like capital punishment, abortion, and who-is-a-Jew. Plus we have Jews of every movement and background, something homeschooling can’t offer. My students are proud to be Jewish. And they come out knowing a heck of a lot, too; knowledge that deepens and enhances their lives as Jews.
3) There’s a big difference between amateurs and professionals, and the results show. When I go watch high school baseball, I know the players are talented and have some skills. But there is a big difference between high school ball and Major League Baseball. Me, I’m a professional. I spend years honing my courses, reading new books on each subject, going to teacher training programs, re-writing my lesson plans and analyzing curriculum with a fine tooth comb.
Home schoolers might be bright, committed and talented, but they also are teaching 7 other subjects, with no professional training. It’s bush league compared to what my staff are expected to know and do. Not everybody wants that level of seriousness in their Jewish education. But for those that do, day school is where it happens.
So please, people, before we sharpen our knives against our local Jewish education programs, let’s chill. Each method of education; day school, Hebrew school, and home school, has benefits; each could use some improvement and investment; and a healthy and diverse Jewish community needs all three to thrive in the 21st century.