We have nothing to lose but our paper chains

(Crossposted to Mah Rabu.)
As we collectively get ready to receive Torah, it seems an appropriate time to put up some thoughts on Jewish education. I don’t have children yet (and if my parents are reading this, no, I don’t have any immediate plans to), but I’ve been thinking about the Jewish education I would want to provide my hypothetical future children, and which elements of this would need to be provided in an organized setting outside the home. (From what I hear, once I do have children, I won’t have the time to think and blog about these things, so I’m doing it now.) Specifically, I’m interested in exploring models of organized Jewish education that are alternatives to Jewish day schools and conventional Hebrew schools.
If the existing day school or Hebrew school models work(ed) for you or your children, that’s just fine; I’m not trying to take that away from you (and I couldn’t even if I tried). I’m not suggesting that the models discussed in this post are right for everyone. In particular, I’m assuming that my children will be growing up in an actively Jewish home and an active Jewish community. I know this assumption doesn’t hold for all (or most) Jewish children, but maybe (or maybe not) it holds for your (current or future) children too. If you have thoughts on how to implement and/or refine these models, or you’re aware of existing programs already operating along similar lines, or you’re interested in participating in these sorts of things, please post in the comments. If you want to argue that day schools are the only conceivable option for serious Jewish education (not only in practice, but in theory), or that conventional Hebrew schools are just fine the way they are (or would be just fine after incremental inside-the-box improvements), please save your breath.

Hebrew immersion preschools exist in a small but increasing number of locations. This just seems like such the obvious way to go. Thanks to the magic of language acquisition, exposing children to a Hebrew environment at a young age will result in much more bang for the buck than any later attempts. Any Israeli 5-year-old has better spoken Hebrew than any American Hebrew school graduate and most day school graduates. I lived in Israel for two (non-consecutive) years and completed the highest level of ulpan, and my Hebrew still isn’t nearly as strong as my (native) English.
A Hebrew immersion preschool need not have any explicitly “Jewish” content; it can just be the regular preschool content, but in Hebrew, and this will contribute much more in the long run to a child’s Jewish education than a preschool with Jewish content in the vernacular.
Early Elementary School
So the usual argument in favor of day school (among the less problematic arguments) is that day schools simply have more hours available in the week for Jewish education than Hebrew schools and therefore can accomplish more. The response is: “But what if there were an after-school program that met for more hours than a standard Hebrew school? Then this, too, could accomplish more.” And the response to that is: “But that would never work: with homework and other extracurricular activities, kids would never have time for this on top of a full school day.”
Let us stipulate, for the sake of argument, that this is true for older kids (which we’ll discuss in the next section). However, someone with whom I have been discussing this recently pointed out that the opposite is true for students in the lower grades: they don’t have so much homework, they don’t have so many extracurricular activities, AND if they have two employed parents (or an employed single parent) they have a few hours after school every day when they NEED to be supervised (whether with an organized after-school program, day care, or a babysitter). This seems like the perfect time in life for supplementary Jewish education that meets 4 or 5 days a week, since the children have to be somewhere for those hours anyway, and they wouldn’t have the resistance that (e.g.) 6th graders would have. This could also be entirely or partially in a Hebrew-immersion environment, which would solidify the language learning begun during preschool. That would also mean that this program wouldn’t have to be all “school” all the time, since other activities (or supervised free time) would also be teaching Hebrew.
The more formal elements of this program could include learning to read Hebrew, which would occur not so long after the students learn to read English. This would go much more smoothly than in Hebrew school, since it would be learning to read a language that the students already understand, rather than learning to sound out meaningless syllables.
Late Elementary and Middle School
These years are the core of conventional Hebrew school. Again, let us assume (as discussed above) that a student at this age who is attending public school full-time has limited hours available for formal Jewish education. Is it possible to achieve a level of Jewish education comparable to day school (or better), in an amount of time comparable to Hebrew school? I think so, iff those hours are narrowly focused on what can’t be done at home.
The fundamental assumption of the typical Hebrew school is that it is the only source of Jewish education in its students’ lives. Therefore, when it’s not teaching students how to sound out meaningless syllables, it has to teach Jewish identity, Jewish culture, Jewish rituals, Jewish values, etc., and it spends multiple weeks around each Jewish holiday teaching about the holiday. So I would cut basically all of that. As I said above, my children will grow up in an actively Jewish home (as I did). When I was a kid, we made paper chains for our sukkah at home, so I didn’t need to go somewhere else to make more paper chains or find out what a sukkah was. We lit candles on Chanukah, and had a seder on Pesach, and said kiddush on Shabbat, and made hamantashen for Purim. Similarly, my children will learn about Shabbat on Shabbat, and will learn about the holidays on the holidays, so they won’t need to learn about them on Sunday mornings and Wednesday afternoons too. With all of this removed from the formal supplementary school and returned to the home and to the Shabbat/holiday community, suddenly lots of time is freed up for other things.
To be fair, I should note that Hebrew schools aren’t all paper chains anymore, and there are innovative developments going on in many places. But I should also note that these innovative developments, while they may be serving their target populations well, are going in the opposite direction from what I’m looking for. This is because they are premised on the same fundamental assumption noted above, which is indeed an accurate assumption about most American Jewish children, and they make the best of this situation. And so they focus on informal and experiential Jewish education (i.e. what my children will pick up anyway even if they’re not enrolled in any Jewish educational institution), and on using the children as a hook to get the parents involved (not necessary in my case or my wife’s case).
So what would I do with all the extra time, if the children won’t be learning to gamble? Study Jewish texts. In the original. This is something that would actually benefit from a classroom setting, and doesn’t just get picked up by osmosis. With the Hebrew language background outlined above, I’m sure students will be able to develop the familiarity and skills with texts at least at the level of their (non-Orthodox) day-school peers in the limited time they have (which suddenly seems like much more time, now that they’re not doing anything about holidays, unless they’re studying Seder Mo’ed).
High School
I have taught high school students in a number of settings, and know that they have much more intellectual capacity than most Jewish high school programs (including camp and youth group) give them credit for. This is the time when they can be gaining the resources to make informed adult Jewish choices. If they are treated like “teenagers”, they’ll act like teenagers; if they are treated like adults, there is at least a chance they’ll act like adults. (Of course, adult education isn’t so strong in most American non-Orthodox Jewish communities either; if it were, I’d say just open it up to high school students.) I have heard of proposals to have high school students take Jewish studies courses at nearby universities for college credit; does anyone know if this has been implemented anywhere? With or without that option, the Beit Midrash Program at Ramah Wisconsin has demonstrated that high school students (and not only day school students) are capable of intensive text study; this sort of program could be adapted into a year-round version.

22 thoughts on “We have nothing to lose but our paper chains

  1. These are really super interesting ideas. I would love to send my potential future children to a Hebrew school that doesn’t start with the premise that they get no Jewish education at home.
    My parents also taught me to read Hebrew about the same time they taught me to read English. It’s been so incredibly helpful for my Jewish learning. And, hells yeah, let’s teach preschoolers Hebrew. That’s an awesome idea.
    Day school is great, and I feel so lucky that my parents were financially secure enough to send me until I was in 8th grade. But there were so few places for me to continue high levels of learning as a high schooler, especially as a woman. On the other hand, I’m very grateful for the education I received at my public high school, not just from my teachers, but from the diversity in the student body. I want my kids to be exposed to that kind of diversity, and that’s so much harder if they go to day school from K-12.

  2. A couple of comments:
    -pre-school. My DS went to a hebrew immersionprogram. I thoght it was great. the problem: in this area, there were only two, now there’s one. Why? Because reading readiness in Kindergarten. Parents freak out because real language immersion slightly delays onset of acquisition skills in English. Of course, the irony, is it increases them over the long run: kids have better vocab, etc. But most parents don’t hear that – what they see is: my kid isno longer the top of the top of his entering public school class in this area, how can that be? We won’t enroll in an imersion program – out the window it goes. That makes it very dificult to run an immersion program of any kind – and Jewish parents seem to be particularly bad about this.
    elementary school: as it happens, I’m trying to start a program like you describe. There is resistance from aprents because elementary school kids are already , in kindergarten, being signed up for all kinds of things. There are parents who would be willing to go with and after school program though – as long as: there’s a focus on the experiential and not too much classroom time ( as it is,ids get very little exercise, and losing what little there is is really not great for them); parents don’t have to pick-up from school; and there are sports and homework assistance available. Is this possible? Well, I’ll let you know in a couple of years.
    -High school: the problem with high school is not the will of the teachers and programs, it’s that it’s very difficult to run a high quality program with 3 students. High school students are currently so overwhelmed with work that getting them to commit to anything, is extremely difficult. What probably needs to happen is to offer flexible hours – but that can only happen in an environment with lots of kids so that there’s a social element as well.

  3. I agree with all of your points but I think there is one huge gaping hole that was not addressed in the late elementary & middle school section: Bar/Bat Mitzvah prep. While tutoring for my specific portion was done outside of class time, a lot of our class time in my Hebrew School class was spent on prayers and the service. Kids will still have to learn to lead a service somewhere as well as how to lein. This takes some formal education and is not just fun/cultural/educational.

  4. Eric- we could have class on Shabbat, that sometimes includes sitting in on a main service and sometimes includes learning about tefillot, etc. That would probably teach students prayers better than any classroom experience.

  5. Two immediate reactions:
    A truly revolutionary vision!
    and then
    …a vision truly disconnected from reality!
    and then a pause
    and another
    I think that the reason why, programmatically, Jewish education is where it is “at” is because most folks are generally happy with the dosage, time commitment, etc. and are loath to experiment with models that might demand more thought on their part, more time when there is much less to be found during the week, more money (of which there is also much less) or might result in their children outgrowing their own household’s level of Jewish engagement … all very scary options for most folks who just want to get in and get it done, if you know what I mean…

  6. I’m glad to see this post and I’m on board with a lot of it. It does have commonality with the Talmud Torah Model and the Kesher program in Cambridge (and mentioned in the cross-posted Mah Rabu comments)
    One unique thing to consider is that this type of proposal doesn’t require a lot of people or infrastructure (though more infrastructure helps). 12 hours of aftercare a week can easily cost a family over $500/month. Get 4 kids together in a house for a class and you can pay a teacher >$2000/month for a part-time job (minus some class expenses). Work with a synagogue for curricular development or coordinating with other parents and the program is off and running for a single grade. If this informal model is followed, it’s one potential difference between the classic Talmud Torah and what is done today.
    I’m not sure I buy into the completely holiday free curriculum, because kids do need some less intense times and some of the standard programs are good breaks. That said everything can have multiple purposes. Sukkat decorations are a great chance to write signs in Hebrew and learn brachot. In higher elementary grades, assembling ones own haggadah is a great place for text study of what is or isn’t included in traditional and modern versions.
    One curricular weakness in your list is that, in addition to holidays and “identity,” history is unmentioned. There are many aspects to history, but it’s more material than will be covered by merely living in an observant home.
    Also from 6th grade on, chevruta study with some joint classes can be very powerful in some situations. If both people are engaged, a peer can challenge a student much more than a teacher. One of my former synagogues had the b’nai mitzvah students give high quality drashot. Part of the drash creation experience was studying their parshot in pairs.

  7. I’d love to send Levi to an immersion preschool but there isn’t one in my city. I bet there aren’t any outside of NY, LA, Chi and maybe Cleveland.
    Good business idea. If some enterprising Israelis wanted to come set up shop in SF they’d do really well! People are beating down the doors of the immersion K-8 schools here that exist for Mandarin, Russian and Spanish.

  8. Alana: Parents freak out because real language immersion slightly delays onset of acquisition skills in English.
    Dan M: I think that the reason why, programmatically, Jewish education is where it is “at” is because most folks are generally happy with the dosage, time commitment, etc.
    sarah: People are beating down the doors of the immersion K-8 schools here that exist for Mandarin, Russian and Spanish.
    I was wondering if the parents who might freak about delayed English skills would similarly freak out if the immersion program were in a more “useful” language like … Spanish or Mandarin. Seems that the key to success here would be finding enough families that consider Jewish literacy “useful” enough to devote those kind of resources to it. And it seems to me the resources are not so much time or money – all after school and enrichment activities cost time and money – but the opportunity costs of not doing sports or drama or whatever else you could put the kid in after school. (Middle-class kids start to get scheduled and programmed at a pretty early age.) Judaism would have to be important enough to invest in like this.
    I like these ideas a lot, and I’d like to think you could get enough families to make this work, though in areas with smaller Jewish populations, transportation could be a logistical hurdle and overcoming it might involve a lot of cost.
    And agreed with some of the other commenters that, particularly with younger children, you’d want a combination of experiential learning, holiday/culture/history and literacy, but with a program that meets every day, I think you could fit that in. The main problem I see with the Hebrew school model is that it meets once or twice a week and you’re teaching language in this really artificial way – sounding out letters that don’t correspond to words that have actual meaning for most of the kids – that guarantees progress will be very slow. In that context, all the holiday stuff doesn’t leave much time for other learning. In a different learning environment, you can make room for both.

  9. Kids will still have to learn to lead a service somewhere
    How about in camp, or shul? By emulation?

  10. IE – BZ-style education would have to involve involved parents and families to a very high degree, and this involvement would presumably have parents teaching children to sing songs, lead services, read hagaddah, etc.

  11. Dan:
    I disagree that things are where they are at because that’s what people want. It’s what people are willing to accept/commit to/find available/find convenient. We simply haven’t made a compelling case for people to want more. It’s easy for us (and I’m a professional Jewish educator) to blame it all on the clientèle. We have continually refused to stand our ground, and have backed down with each successive wave of parents wanting us to do more and more with less and less time. We’re all banging our heads against the wall trying to figure out how to give the parents what they say they want, instead of honestly telling them we can’t give them what they want because it doesn’t work. We have to convince them to ascribe the Jewish education of their children greater value. At the same time, we must then create a Jewish education that the students find relevant enough that they won’t spend every single moment complaining to their parents. (On the other hand, as I have often told parents, due to social norms and pressures, students will often say negative things even about something they like-so often our task is to inculcate a secret love.)

  12. Amen 1000%. As a parent who sends one kid to a JCC preschool and another kid to public and religious school this sounds great.
    It sounds like your vision is geared towards non-day-school students and while we’ve made the decision for a various reasons (some practical, some of out of thinking home and synagogue are the most important places to teach our kids Judaism) to send our kids to public school, most parents who care that much about Jewish education just send their kids to day school. It will be interesting to see if, with economic pressures, there’s more interest in alternative programs – in fact I think we are starting to see that.
    I’m not sure exactly what is meant by “immersion” preschool or if “bilingual” might be a better model, and I’m not sure why an immersion preschool would specifically not have Jewish content. But in any case, my kids could have had a lot more Hebrew in preschool and still learned plenty of English.

  13. Sarah,
    I was going to point you in the direction of the hebrew immersion preschool at Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, CA, but trying to pull up that link, I found something else instead.
    They are forming a 5 day after-care Hebrew school! If this idea excites you and you are a professional Jew looking for a job, it looks like their director search is ongoing:
    This is a model that some families really want and it’s great to see it being revived. Also, anyone who says these types of Jews programs don’t happen in the Bay Area, particularly Berkeley, are walking around with their eyes closed. The large Israeli population along with many observant Jews brings programs like this to life.

  14. Sounds great!! I am a bit concerned with the “israelification” of American Jewish education in a model that privileges spoken hebrew in the ways you model does.
    I would love for my (future) kids to learn hebrew through immersion (since that is certainly the best method for deep and serious language acquisition), but I want my kids to learn hebrew as a lashon kodesh, not a zionist vernacular. I’m not sure how to reconcile those two things (other than Charedi day school, which is not an option for oh so many many many reasons).

  15. CoA, there was a Hebraist movement in the US which was not neccesarily “Zionist”- surely we could agree that spoken Hebrew as a “Jewish” language is as good as any other “Jewish” language, and that it’s useful in that it facilitates the shift to literacy in Jewish texts more easily.

  16. Totally agree with Amit. I’ve traveled all over the world and Hebrew has often been the only (or, sometimes, best) way of communicating with other Jews, from Botswana to Egypt to El Salvador. And knowing modern Hebrew made it a gazillion times easier for me to learn Talmud, liturgy, etc. than for my peers who didn’t know modern Hebrew or who just knew Biblical Hebrew as taught in a classroom.

  17. Amazing. That’s the Jewish education I want for my (theoretical future) kids – Hebrew immersion and text study in the original. I might throw in a volunteering / Jewish social justice piece, which I think benefits from peer reinforcement, but it’s true that I can and will do that at home.

  18. Tritto to Amit. While I haven’t traveled as far as Rooftopper Rav, I have used Hebrew to communicate with local Jews in Brussels, Florence, and Istanbul.

  19. Erica writes:
    I agree with all of your points but I think there is one huge gaping hole that was not addressed in the late elementary & middle school section: Bar/Bat Mitzvah prep. While tutoring for my specific portion was done outside of class time, a lot of our class time in my Hebrew School class was spent on prayers and the service. Kids will still have to learn to lead a service somewhere as well as how to lein.
    I left out Bar/Bat Mitzvah prep intentionally. In the sense of preparing to become a “son/daughter of the commandments”, all of Jewish education (inside and outside the home) should be contributing to this. But in the sense of preparing for one specific day, I think it is unproductive (indeed, counterproductive) from an educational perspective to spend much time focusing on this.
    There is much to be said about the rights and responsibilities that should accrue upon coming of age (and perhaps this should be a topic for another post), and it is appropriate to have a celebration and/or have an aliyah to the Torah in recognition of this momentous occasion. Separate from that, it is appropriate for any member of a Jewish community aged 13 and up to lead services and/or read Torah if s/he has the skills to do so. These could even happen on the same day, but there’s no reason they have to, and certainly no reason this should hijack years of Jewish education.
    I do agree that it’s valuable to learn how to lead services and read Torah (in preparation for being an educated Jewish adult, not in preparation for a one-time event). And I agree with Shoshie and Amit that it’s best to tie this to an ongoing Shabbat community, and participating regularly in Shabbat services.

  20. Marc writes:
    It sounds like your vision is geared towards non-day-school students and while we’ve made the decision for a various reasons (some practical, some of out of thinking home and synagogue are the most important places to teach our kids Judaism) to send our kids to public school, most parents who care that much about Jewish education just send their kids to day school.
    This may be empirically true now about “most parents who care that much about Jewish education”, but for many of those parents, the reason may simply be because they don’t see a viable alternative, and there’s no viable alternative because most parents who care that much about Jewish education just send their kids to day school… and it’s turtles all the way down. It reminds me of this video that John Cleese recorded for the Lib Dem party (in which he notes that 1 in 2 voters would vote for the Lib Dems if they thought they could win…).
    So the population I’m trying to reach isn’t primarily the current population of non-day-school students (many of whom are happy (or at least their parents are) with the Hebrew school status quo or with no formal Jewish education), but is students who aren’t born yet or aren’t school-age yet, whose parents haven’t made the big educational decisions yet, but aren’t thrilled with any of the standard options. My goal in blogging about this is to bring these parents and future parents out of the woodwork, so that they realize that there are many more of them out there (like Cleese’s would-be Lib Dem voters), an important first step to creating new alternatives.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

The reCAPTCHA verification period has expired. Please reload the page.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.