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).
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.