There is no question that neither the Jewish day school nor supplemental “Hebrew school” model is succeeding when it comes to educating our kids to be informed, conscientious, proficient, identified Jews. The reason is simple: both day schools and supplemental schools are being called to take on an impossible role–that traditionally played by parents, extended families, and the local Jewish community.
Schools, after all, can be a place to convey information but they were never supposed to be the primary–let alone sole–place to impart identity, values, life skills, and an organic sense of what it means to live Jewishly. In most parts of the American Jewish community, however, our schools are being called upon to do exactly that–is it any surprise they’re buckling under the pressure?
The solution? Sadly, there’s no quick fix to this problem, but there are a few steps I think can help:
Family education. Programs that involve parents and children together help provide crucial Jewish knowledge to parents and empower them to take an active role in guiding their Jewish education and moral development. Children get to see that their parents value Jewish learning and learn from their parents’ example, just as they do when parents drop children off at Sunday school and then rush off to Starbucks or to the mall.
Immersive peer experiences. There is no substitute for the messages and reinforcement kids get from their peers, and placing them together in a Jewish environment is tremendously important for promoting identity and a sense of connection to the Jewish people. Possibilities include Jewish camping and Israel trips through youth organizations, schools, or programs aimed at college-age Jews such as Birthright or Otzma.
There’s no place like home. Clearly, there is no substitute for the lessons learned and experiences created at home within one’s family. The magic of sitting down together for a Shabbat meal, of baking hamantaschen, of a seder, of discussing words of Torah around a table–Jewish education needs to empower parents by giving them the skills necessary to create these organic Jewish moments for their own children that will become a part of their kishkes.
Obviously, none of this is easy to do. It involves engaging parents who may be ambivalent about Jewish education or practice, who may lack the skills to model Jewish living for their children, and who may have negative attitudes toward Jewish education from their own childhood experiences. It demands asking these parents what they want for their children and how the schools can partner with the parents to make it happen. It requires sustained attention and energy, with a focus on values as well as content and skills. The task is daunting, but the payoff is enormous.