Identity, Politics

Since When did Jewish Education Become Everybody’s Punching Bag?

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.

10 thoughts on “Since When did Jewish Education Become Everybody’s Punching Bag?

  1. Where to start?
    You misrepresent Horn’s article. She never advocates for homeschooling in isolation. As she concludes the piece, “Schools are vital, but at the end of the day, real education can’t be completely outsourced.” She is making the extremely important point that, even if kids get more raw knowledge in day schools, it’s learning by example at home that is critical. To me, this is the key point of Horn’s article. Does a child whose parents say they send their kid to day school so that they don’t feel guilty doing other things on Saturday have a better foundation than a kid in a Sunday school where Shabbat observance is a normal aspect of homelife? (And yes this is a real statement I’ve heard from a day school parent).
    Shmuly Yanklowitz’ piece oversimplifies the history of supplemental education, repeats the damaging fallacy that supplemental schools are populated by families are aren’t serious about Jewish education, mangles the statistical studies, and is ignorant of the many changes that are currently happening in synagogue supplemental schools and synagogue education systems.
    You say that Horn is raising a straw man by saying, day school isn’t needed in order to raise children who are Jewish and proud to be Jewish, but that is the exact argument being made in Wingen’s piece and she’s backed by a Jewish Education Project program to train commentators like her. Orthodoxy has adopted this “straw man” fully (isolating Orthodox families who aren’t in day schools and actively working to bring more public money in to fund religious day schools). There are several foundations and top education commentators that repeatedly state this belief. This is not a straw man position.
    It’s weird that you’re asking everyone to get along yet you write a piece that essentially says, some supplemental schools are ok, but if you’re serious about Jewish education you go to day school. To state the obvious education doesn’t end with high school graduation. Somehow, you went to supplemental schools and kept learning sufficiently to become a rabbi after high school. There is no question that kids who go to day school will graduate with more knowledge than kids who didn’t, but there’s little evidence that those who want a serious education day school is the only option. It wasn’t for you and it isn’t for many others.

  2. You know what I think is facile? A rabbi using language like “take a dump” when trying to make a serious point. I spent the rest of the post trying to decide what kind of Hebrew school would be comfortable with one of their teaching rabbis speaking like that in public.

  3. Objectively speaking, afternoon Hebrew schools have ALWAYS been terrible for Jewish boys. Things will never improve because they CAN’T.

  4. I spent an hour visiting Edah ( last spring. I saw young Jewish boys get off the school bus, select the correct brachot to say over snack, eat a big snack (outside), write Hebrew words in the dirt with sticks, and play in the creek with their teacher, while reviewing a Hebrew lesson and discussing several mitzvot tangentially related to creeks. Then they went indoors, where they counted the Omer, and reviewed what they had been learning about Shavuot. One hour, in the afternoon, with Jewish boys, in an organized Jewish education program. Almost no sitting down involved, but a lot of enjoyable learning.

  5. Home schoolers might be bright, committed and talented, but they also are teaching 7 other subjects
    This line suggests that you fundamentally misunderstand what Horn means by homeschooling. She’s not writing about actual homeschooling; she’s writing about students who go to public school, and get their Jewish education at home (whether in addition to formal Jewish education outside the home or not).

  6. I strenuously disagree with the characterization of Wingens’s piece as “thoughtful”. Wingens presents the same circular, correlation-implies-causation argument that we’ve been hearing for years.
    Nowhere does Wingens make any claims about the substance of day school education. Instead, her central claim (when she isn’t going Bob Sheffer on Horn) is that day school graduates are more likely than non-day school graduates to do X, Y, and Z. I don’t dispute the data, but I also suspect that Jews with mezuzot on their homes are more likely than Jews without mezuzot on their homes to do X, Y, and Z. To ensure the Jewish future, why not just send every Jewish household a mezuzah? It’s a lot cheaper than day school.
    Jews who send their children to day school are more likely to be more Jewishly committed in the first place, and this greater Jewish commitment is likely to lead to the documented outcomes even if day school does nothing. To the extent that Jewishly committed parents listen to voices like Wingens and Goodman, and are convinced that day school is the only option to produce Jewish commitment in the next generation (and therefore send their children to day school), this effect is magnified further, and day school becomes even more “effective” (as measured by the correlation between day school and Jewish commitment). But that says nothing about actual effectiveness.

  7. “One hour, in the afternoon, with Jewish boys, in an organized Jewish education program. Almost no sitting down involved, but a lot of enjoyable learning.”
    Get back to me in 2033 and let’s see how many of those Jewish boys are STILL counting the omer.
    “To ensure the Jewish future, why not just send every Jewish household a mezuzah?”
    Judaism is quite deficient in any Jewish home that does not have at least 1 mezuzah.

  8. I was there for an hour, but Edah has 20 hours each week of such programming (They are open 5 days/week, and each child attends at least 2-3 days/week). That’s more time for Jewish learning than is offered in many day schools. And yes, they are tracking outcomes for their students and their families.

  9. To ensure the Jewish future, why not just send every Jewish household a mezuzah?
    Imagine if we did. Or, rather, imagine if in every Jewish community a certain person was hired to go around making sure that all Jewish homes who don’t have a mezuzah get one. Someone who could help install it and talk to the family about the importance and meaning behind that mitzvah, and perhaps some others. That actually sounds like quite a positive effort I would be happy to donate to and rally behind.
    I really can’t say this would be a worse use of resources than is currently the case in my local Federation, which I’ve come to accept, reluctantly, and after many years of bitterness at incompetence and graft, as a kind of donor-funded jobs program for the Jewish polisci majors and ever-crusading busybodies in my community.
    Off topic, I know.

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