Thanks to the beginning of the school year, there has been the usual crop of published opinions regarding Jewish schooling options. The general consensus of opinions regarding Hebrew schools seems to be that, “the investment in money and time exceeds the perceived value of the education and the experience.” I’m highlighting one blog post, but I think its author stated the current dogma well. In 55 comments now posted, no one without a professional connection to synagogue schools stood up for Hebrew schools. Elsewhere online, I read a statement from a well-regarded researcher who has delved into this topic, “Let’s accept the finding that Jewish schooling 4-5 hours a week before Bar/Bat Mitzvah does little good — even as camps, Israel travel, youth groups, day schools, and post-Bar/Bat Mitzvah schools show positive effects.”
These negative views paint an awfully broad brush, depicting a whole class of programs–some very good–as uniformly horrid. As a parent, I see for myself how a good Hebrew school is a positive component of my child’s Jewish education. As someone active in my Jewish community, I’ve had the opportunity to meet master educators much older than me, and I’ve noted how many of these master educators were graduates of Hebrew schools and Talmud Torahs of an earlier era. As someone with some professional training in statistics, I’ve looked at the numbers, and I believe there are serious problems with some of the widely cited studies that purport to show that Hebrew schools have no good impacts.
What I see is that good Hebrew schools provide a path to a wider range of Jewish experiences. This makes it hard to identify statistically the unique impact of Hebrew school. The researcher I quoted above compared Hebrew schools to other forms of education as if the impact of each could be separately identified. Yet few research reports I’ve seen highlight the interactions. For example, some prominent studies of Summer camps either treat schooling during the year as a confounding variable or just divide formal education into Day School or Other. One study that did publish this data semi-directly is the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey Jewish Education Background Report. Using tables 1 and 3 in that report, it’s straight-forward to calculate the percentage of 18-34 year olds who participated in youth groups, attended Summer camps, or visited Israel, by the type of their formal Jewish education during the school year. Here is a table showing the percentages:

Day School Supplemental School Sunday
School
Other None
Youth Group 40% 40% 17% 0% 3%
Summer Camp 40% 31% 18% 8% 4%
Israel Trips 41% 41% 12% 0% 6%

The majority of kids doing these activities also go to Hebrew schools, while the 31% of this sample ( table 1 ) that was not involved in any formal Jewish education was barely represented in these other activities. Children who didn’t attend day school or Hebrew school weren’t involved in Youth Groups, Jewish Summer Camps, or Israel Trips. Thus, we CANNOT compare the impact of Jewish Summer camp to the impact of Hebrew school. There is no way to compare the impact of Summer camp or youth group compared with the impact of Hebrew school if the same kids do both. The statistical term for this is multicollinearity. Simply put, saying that Summer camps or youth groups work and Hebrew school does nothing is assuming that kids magically drop down from the sky into Jewish Summer camp–and they don’t!
A good Hebrew school needs to impart some knowledge of Judaism, give kids the awareness and interest to continue Jewish learning, and build skills for participation in Jewish life. A good Hebrew schools also builds relationships with Jewish peers. Kids who form friendships in Hebrew school and whose families come to synagogue on Shabbat hang out together after (or during) Shabbat services. They go with these Hebrew school friends to Jewish Summer camps. They see recent b’nai mitzvot coming back to lead services and participate in synagogue events. The Hebrew school class becomes a youth group, and friends in Hebrew high school.
Of course it’s difficult to disentangle correlation with causation: kids in families that bring them regularly to synagogue and to Hebrew school are more likely to care about the quality of the Hebrew school and to plan on sending these same kids to Summer camp, on Jewish teen trips, etc. However, as any parent will tell you, children’s interests don’t always match their parents plans. Good Hebrew schools can give kids experiences to make them want other Jewish experiences. If policy makers want Jewish kids to attend Jewish Summer camps, youth groups etc, the first step is connecting them to Jewish communities. Hebrew schools are still a huge part of this picture.