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Virtual Talmud

Doing our Home-Work

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.

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marcy arbitman

posted May 26, 2006 at 5:26 pm

I agree with everything you said. However, there is a Jewish day school in the Cleveland suburbs called Agnon. This year Agnon was one of three private schools to receive an award for excellence by a major SECULAR education foundation (can’t think of the name). My aunt and uncle were founding members and my cousins attended. They received excellent educations (Jewish and secular) and their home lives were exactly as you stated.

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posted May 27, 2006 at 5:46 pm

Good grief! I’m a church secretary at a Lutheran church, but this sounds like my argument with the Pastor about education programs within the churchbody the church is associated with. Lutherans have always had a great focus on education and have some wonderful schools (I attened a Lutheran college in my misspent youth) – not quite the same focus as Jewish education of course – the philosophies are very different – but similar in their focus on the need. However, they are suffering much the same problem – let the churches/schools educate our children in what it is to lead a christian life. Drop em off and run! I think it’s more an issue of how western culture has lost the sense of accountability for education. Children are basically raising themselves these days…not the family. We define everything through jobs. Your job is to be the student, mine is to support the family financially. I’ve done all that learning stuff and have more immediate needs to fulfill. Like buying you IPods and designer clothes. We’ve become a culture of separateness. No accountability to our connectedness, and it plays out in families and education, as well as every other part of our lives.

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Jessica Sacher

posted May 28, 2006 at 12:56 am

I agree with everything you said. Living Jewishly centered home lives is paramount to the foundation of passing on our heritage, faith, culture,and religious practice. You need to be shouting this message at all Jewish day schools and religious schools. Friday night is for Shabbat dinner, not pizza and a movie, and the latter happens all too often in the Jewish day schools these days. Jessica Sacher.Pacific Palisades, Ca.

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G. Jones

posted May 30, 2006 at 11:22 pm

I strongly disagree. Apparently you have not been in Omaha, Nebraska where I reside. The Jewish schools here are among the top rated in the country. But schools are only as good as their teachers, and ours are phenomenal! You can’t possibly know what a facility is like until you’ve been there, so I feel it is very unfair to lump all Jewish educational facilities together as not doing their job. What gives you the right to make that kind of statement? I work with Jewish schools and their student body, so I have some idea of what I’m talking about. We not only turn out kids with genius IQ’s, but also unusually talented ones. In one school for example, we have a three-year-old youngster who recites Dr. Seuss rhymes in seven languages. Most youngsters that age are barely conversant in English. So put that in your pompous pipe and smoke it. Or better yet, come to our city and see for yourself what I’m talking about.

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