I found Rabbi Grossman’s stories of the successes in her synagogue’s religious school inspiring, even as I found the criteria she used to evaluate success perplexing. Our synagogue’s religious school–a thriving and engaging school run by a dynamic education director–has just finished an envisioning process that invited first the education committee and then congregants (both with children in our religious school and without) to explore what they most want their children to learn in our school. Certainly our committee members and congregants listed many of the same goals evident in Rabbi Grossman’s post: comfort with Hebrew and prayers, knowledge of the holidays and Jewish history, connection with Israel, and other worthy curricular goals. But what was most striking to the professionals and lay-leaders who carried out this envisioning process were the more elusive qualities that topped the list: a feeling of connection with and belonging to the synagogue community, a strong and proud Jewish identity, a sense of ethics and tikkun olam (social justice), a love of Judaism and a commitment to engaging the world with their Jewish values.
Sometimes our religious schools become so focused on hammering content into children that these higher goals–the qualities parents want us to help cultivate in their children–get lost. Now don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with a religious school that just brought kids together to eat bagels. But it wouldn’t be transmitting the knowledge and skills necessary to perpetuate the next generation of Jews. Often teachers and education directors fall prey to the limited number of hours in a week they have to teach, and try to cram in every last fact and vocabulary word at the expense of their child’s love for and appreciation of what they are learning.
Now I’ve heard from education directors and even from day school administrators that these qualities–Jewish identity, character, a sense of belonging–are the parents’ responsibilities, and it is certainly true that parents have an important role to play in either promoting or undermining these qualities in their children. But in a world where many Jewish families look to synagogues for both content and values, it is vital that religious schools consider fostering these qualities as part of their core mission. If not, we will be letting down the next generation of American Jews.