Identity, Politics, Religion

The impact of Hebrew School

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
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.

13 thoughts on “The impact of Hebrew School

  1. Hi Dan,
    I’m so glad you’re continuing the conversation. (And yes, there have been many conversations out there.) Just to clarify, I was not suggesting that Hebrew school is never a good choice . . . just that typical three days per week format may not be the ONLY choice, and that just because it’s what many of us did as kids it doesn’t mean we have to do the same route for our children. I think some of the responses about the alternatives out there were interesting. Like you, however, I do like the idea of Jews coming together for any kind of program. In other words, I liked the idea of some of the alternatives, but not the ones that meant kids sat at home alone and Skyped into classes.
    Your point about disentangling causation and correlation was important. We, for example, are a day school family who goes to Shabbat morning services every week and stays for lunch, too. For our family, what our kids do for a bar mitzvah, etc, will not be what makes much of a difference for their Jewish identity. They could have a bad experience with all that, but will have so many good experiences throughout the year that the impact would not turn them off of Judaism completely. I wrote my post because I hear so many friends who dread sending their kids to the standard programs here. My first thought was: There has to be something else out there.
    Sounds like there are more and more changes coming. I do think it’s time, not that I could tell you what DOES work aside from making Judaism a vibrant part of the home. What do people really expect from these schools anyway? It’s a strange situation where expectations are both too high and too low.
    Okay, I could go on forever. I’m actually working on a follow up to once piece of this all for the Forward so I will save the rest of my thoughts for that piece. Thanks again for the link back to my blog.
    Nina Badzin

  2. Jews who do kapores outscore (on average) Jews who don’t do kapores, by any measure of Jewish identity. Therefore, in this Yom Kippur season, we should make sure everyone has the opportunity to do kapores. The Jewish future depends on it.

  3. @Nina, Thank you for your reply. In some ways I’m responding more to your comment thread than your actual post. You made a critique of Hebrew School that was so common that no one even blinked. That said, I don’t think it’s good to say any program is better than no program. One of the fascinating parts of your comment section was the number of people promoting Chabad schools thanks to their friendly staff, low cost, and low commitment requirements. While Chabad schools vary a lot, my understanding of their basic model is to get as many people in the door as possible knowing that many won’t get much, but a few might be attracted to the Chabad lifestyle. This is contrary to what I consider a good model because it puts a lot of families in an environment where kids and their families are less likely to connect to Judaism outside of the classroom. Such connections happen, which is why Chabad runs these programs, but I don’t consider it ideal. Many non-Orthodox synagogue Hebrew schools also don’t do a good job at connecting students and families to Jewish life outside the classroom so this isn’t a Chabad-specific critique.
    I am also very much in support of new ideas and approaches. In fact, in addition to sending my kid to a synagogue Hebrew school, I’m very involved in a 4 to 5 day per week program where kids are bussed straight from school to an Jewish afterschool program. We merge the needs of working parents for child care with a fun and Hebrew intensive environment. There are a growing number of similar programs beyond the one I’m involved in. You can see a list of them at:
    I don’t know of any program using this model in your area, but I think one of my take-home messages is that the standard Hebrew schools do vary and there are good ones out there that might not be obvious from just visiting a website or even visiting a classroom. There are more out there that can change from ok to great if they have a supportive staff and a critical mass of families willing to work to improve the program.

  4. I just came across some responses to this post on JEDLAB ( ) complaining about my use of the “outdated” 2001 National Jewish Population Survey. I’d respond here, because I think this is a critique worth highlighting here too. I agree that those data are outdated, but that is part of the problem. Who is collecting data that helps better understand the impact of Hebrew school and the impacts of different styles of supplemental programs? The dogma of failed Hebrew schools is so pervasive that no one even bothers to collect data that might lead them question their assumptions. Some of the studies I linked to might have more recent data, but the researchers don’t even bother to run the tests to better understand how supplemental school participation interacts with other outcomes.
    On the specific critique of using 2001 data here, I use what exists and is publicly available. Also, the same anti-Hebrew school dogma existed in 2001 and they weren’t supported by the data then either. More generally, while a lot has changed in the past 12 years, I haven’t seen any data from youth groups, high schools, or Summer camps that even imply that the fraction of people who participate in these programs without participating in supplemental or day schools has budged. Does anyone know of Jewish teen youth groups with more than 5% of their members who joined without earlier Jewish education experiences?
    The one clear change in the last 12 years is that Birthright Israel has caused a jump in people without formal Jewish schooling who go to Israel. Still, the data on the benefits to this group are very unclear. I critiqued some Birthright statistics a couple of years ago and the published data showed hints that the people bringing the fewest Jewish experiences into the trip got the least out of it:

  5. Dan, I like your article and I also liked and commented on Nina’s post. I ageee that the comments back to Nina were fascinatiting. I feel like a comment stalker as I am sure I will keep looking at the replys to this post. Now feels like the right time to do something about it (it being Hebrew School). Let’s start by asking people to promise to only talk positive about our Hebrew schools, the teachers and the classes. Let’s see if we can change attitiudes of students by setting the example as parents. Kids really absorb so much of our attitude even if we think that we don’t show it. Then let’s work with our schools and clergy to make sure we are all on the same page. Meaning what does everyone want for the children. Just identifying as Jewish probably won’t be enough for most, is it marrying Jewish, giving to Jewish organizations? What does everyone want? Then we also have to commit to the education. If this can happen, even in a small way, maybe things would change. Meanwhile, I will keep stalking Jewish education posts and trying to have a good attitiude for my 4th and last child as we contiue on our Jewish journey.

    1. Leslie writes:
      Meaning what does everyone want for the children. Just identifying as Jewish probably won’t be enough for most, is it marrying Jewish, giving to Jewish organizations? What does everyone want?
      What about education? Is that even on the list?

  6. Leslie, I’m not sure we need people to speak positively about specific Hebrew schools. We do need Jewish leaders and donors to give more respect and attention to the form of primary Jewish education that the large majority of kids who get Jewish education attend. I’m not opposed to programs that try to rethink what supplemental education can be, like I said in my response to Nina, I’m heavily part of one such program. I still acknowledge that “standard” Hebrew schools are doing a lot of good and can be better even within their existing basic structures.
    I think parents need be positive about specific schools by to communicating with their children why they are being sent to Hebrew school and what they realistically expect their children will get from those experiences. When those expectations aren’t being met, being constructively negative is one way to improve a school and teach kids why something matters.
    As you also note, a good school needs the professional staff, parents, and students to listen to each other and improve. A synagogue that thinks their school is for the non-serious families and serious families will send their kids to day school (something I’ve sadly heard more than once) needs to have that attitude regularly challenged.
    Regarding BZ’s comment about specific education outcomes, a lot will vary widely by community. My usual response is that a community should be putting their kids on the path to being interested and able to replace the current adult leaders and members. For example, if a synagogue has Hebrew-centric davening, primary should learn enough to feel comfortable during a service and be given an understanding and a framework to be able to continue learning more.

  7. My usual response is that a community should be putting their kids on the path to being interested and able to replace the current adult leaders and members. For example, if a synagogue has Hebrew-centric davening, primary should learn enough to feel comfortable during a service and be given an understanding and a framework to be able to continue learning more.
    Wow, “Hebrew-centric” davening. Reaching for the stars, are we? I will attest that all my former jewish day school classmates were thoroughly proficient in Hebrew-centric davening as far back as 4th grade, and likely remain so, to this day. The number who still see their faith as something relevant to their lives, at least from my anecdotal experience… not so many.
    But why are we expecting more of the kids than the parents? 45 minute of “Judaica” class does not counterbalance a mainstream Jewish culture which values professional success (typically defined by financial earning power), American societal integration and assimilation, liberal politics and unitarian universalism above Jewish tradition (much less faith and observance).
    Again, based on my limited, anecdotal experience, I question whether socially engineering inertia in Jewish “continuity” by forcing many Jewish children to grow up together – which inevitably leads some of them to intermarry and send their own kids to day schools, again out of inertia rather than conviction – is truly worthwhile, much less sustainable.
    As opposed to nurturing life-long Jewish education in the community as a whole. If the same people kvetching about Jewish “continuity” spent a quarter of the time reading weekly chumash with rashi as they did watching Homeland or the X-Factor, we’d see quite the change in their and their children’s life choices down the line.

  8. As someone with an active, professional interest in education (though not specifically Jewish education), Victor’s concluding comment gets me thinking:
    If the same people kvetching about Jewish “continuity” spent a quarter of the time reading weekly chumash with rashi as they did watching Homeland or the X-Factor, we’d see quite the change in their and their children’s life choices down the line.
    What if those same kvetchers applied the weekly chumash to Homeland, and used this as a jumping off point to start a conversation with their children? What would Rabbis Hillel, Maimonides, or Zalman Schachter-Shalomi have to say about X-Factor? These questions sound flippant at first glance, but if parents wish to make Judaism relevant to their childrens’ lives, they need to integrate lived experience with Jewish teachings. Otherwise, Judaism becomes this ossified thing with no relevance or bearing on the hours experienced outside of Hebrew school.
    On an anecdotal level, yesterday in shul we read about the mitzvah of taking care of our pets before we sit down to eat. I remember learning this as a small child in Hebrew school during a unit about how Jews are supposed to treat animals. We were just beginning to read more complex texts (maybe 8 years old?), and there were pictures in our textbook of kids wearing yarmulkes feeding happy, smiling dogs and cats. It made a huge impression on me, and I’ve always observed this mitzvah, even during a dark period when I was disgusted with organized Judaism (this rejection came about directly from an Israel program, btw).
    Connecting student life experiences with educational objectives is pretty basic pedagogy. I wonder how current Jewish schools are with educational theory. Active, experiential, collaborative learning, etc.
    And, I agree with Victor. I came back to Judaism when I realized the problem wasn’t organized Judaism, but mainstream Jewish culture. Might not children also have a problem with mainstream Jewish culture, and wouldn’t finding the tools for challenging it within Judaism itself be an amazing discovery?

  9. @Victor, I’m mostly in agreement with you here. As I said in my original post, a supplemental school can be a positive COMPONENT of a Jewish education. Whether it’s a 3h/week school or a day school, Jewish education that ends at the classroom door has limited value. The value increases if it’s designed to support learning by example within the family.
    Like I said, my main outcome is putting kids on the path to being interested and able to replace the current adult leaders and members. The davening example is just one possible focus of a supplemental program. The skill focuses will vary by community and I don’t think one can realistically expect someone with a supplemental school education to have the skills to step into all adult leadership roles at age 14, but, as you note, making kids have the interest and desire to lead and continue learning is more important than whether they can proficiently daven by 4th grade.
    @Jenny, I also generally agree with you and wanted to add that your comment might be one strength supplemental schools potentially have over day schools. In the day school world, so much of Jewish learning and day-to-day experiences are abstracted in the classroom. In supplemental schools, kids are bringing in more experiences from outside the Jewish world. If flexibility and space are given for discussion, kids can initiate these real world connections. For example, kids in a Jewish afterschool program that I know self-initiated discussions on how to explain kashrut to their mostly non-Jewish classmates in public school.

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