Like most rabbis, I get frustrated at what I wish we could accomplish in our religious school. I wish I could get parents to let the students use the skills they are learning in school–like kiddush and Havdallah–more regularly in their homes. I wish I could get a larger percentage of parents to bring their kids to Shabbat services. I wish I could get the funding we have been searching for to develop our Hebrew language retention program that would give teachers and parents who are not fluent, the tools to reinforce the vocabulary and grammar our kids learn with our two Hebrew specialists (but then forget by the next week because they don’t have enough opportunity to use it).
However, I am also encouraged by the advances I have seen over the last 10 years at my synagogue school:
* Almost every one of our Bnai Mitzvah can lead the entire Shaharit service thanks to our innovative tefillah curriculum. Most important, graduates tell me they feel comfortable as part of the Jewish community wherever they travel and that they have little patience for services that skimp on the traditional Hebrew liturgy!
* A growing number of students are making a personal commitment after Bnai Mitzvah to recite prayers before and after they eat.
* A growing number of students are expressing active interest in visiting Israel and lobbying their parents to visit. (The result: two congregational trips in two years, many individual family trips, and excitement already about our next trip in 2009.)
* Most of our last few classes of Bnai Mitzvah students have continued into Hebrew High School. I don’t mind this is largely so they can keep up with the friends they made during the year. Studies show that such friendships are a large indicator of marrying within the faith.
*Our own students have dubbed our program, “The Religious School That’s Fun to Go To.” It is not just the bagels and hot chocolate we sell every Sunday (though I am sure that helps), but also the fact that our teachers present a demanding curriculum in an engaging and creative way and my education director has initiated a number of very successful in-school enrichment programs.
These are just a few of the things I am excited about. I am sure other synagogue schools have similar advances.
Jane, writing on the Torah Aura bulletin board, is right when she says what we need most is for us rabbis and educators to believe in our religious schools. While money does not solve all problems, the biggest problem facing religious schools continues to be lack of sufficient funding to subsidize tuition and to support creative curriculum development and teacher training.
Sure kids will learn more in a Jewish day school setting, but, as Jonathan Tobin pointed out recently in his article in the Jewish World Review, most parents are either unable or unwilling to send their kids to day schools.
We need our congregational religious schools. And we should not sell them short. When we set the bar high, we might actually find (as I have) that our entire community will rise to those expectations.