When I expressed this sentiment to my wife Amy, she was appalled. "What do you mean everyone hates Hebrew school?" she asked. "I didn't hate Sunday school."
You see, Amy is Protestant and while she didn't exactly adore Sunday school, she tolerated it nicely, occasionally enjoyed it and was certainly glad she went. She didn't understand why the same couldn't be true of Hebrew school.
Many of Joe's reasons for disliking Hebrew school had little to do with Judaism per se-e.g., the lessons don't vary much from year to year; the quality of teaching was spotty; and, most important, with all his other obligations, he resented having to spend Wednesday afternoon and Sunday morning in school. Some complaints went deeper. The understandable but increasing focus his teachers placed on Jews being persecuted left him uninspired. "Who wants to sit around and hear about being defeated all the time?" he said.
Amy suggested we take Joe and his younger brother Gordon out of Hebrew school. I resisted. "Hebrew school is an important part of forming their Jewish identity!" I declared. "I don't want to let my kids lose track of their Judaism."
It was an emotional reaction. Truth is, I've read the books by people like Alan Dershowitz and Elliot Abrams arguing that interfaith couples are doing what Hitler was unable to do: destroy the Jewish people. I was determined to prove them wrong by showing how an interfaith couple can raise good Jews.
So when Amy suggested we consider leaving Hebrew school, I imagined little Dershowitz and Abrams imps, sitting on my shoulders whispering into my ears, "Your ancestors are depending on you!"
Amy interrupted my indignant internal dialogue by pointing out that right now the Jewish "identity" that Hebrew school seemed to be forming in Joe was an antagonism toward all things Jewish. "How is that going to make him love Judaism?"
I conceded her point-and realized it never had occurred to me that there was any alternative to the woeful state of Jewish education in America. Almost every Jew I've ever polled on this issue has said their supplementary Jewish education was annoying, laughable, a waste of time, or terrible. While their experiences didn't turn them off to Judaism completely, Hebrew school certainly didn't seem to make the Jews I know more likely to attend synagogue, keep kosher, or marry other Jews. I'm not sure yet whether Jewish education is worse than Christian Sunday schools or supplementary education of other faiths. I'll return to this topic in another article.
Amy challenged me: "Why don't you teach them yourself?"
But each week I watched as Joe went off to Hebrew school at our Reform synagogue, his shoulders slumped, looking like he was going to cry. I noticed him beginning to say negative things-like about how Judaism seemed to be anti-Christian-and I started to think, if we stay the course, we will lose him. He will drift away from Judaism.
My sensitivity about this stems in part from the interfaith nature of our family. My sons are officially Jewish-we performed a conversion ceremony for them when they were infants. They go to Hebrew school, we have a big Passover seder, and we go to temple on the major holidays.
But an interfaith family is more like a marketplace of ideas than the typical Jewish household. In a purely Jewish household, even if you don't do anything religious, the kids are Jewish. Period. In an interfaith family, since they're often exposed to other holidays and practices, I feel as if I need to put more effort into making Judaism appealing, exciting, profound. The presence of a Christian in the household forces me to sell Judaism in a way I suspect I otherwise wouldn't do. And it's forced me to hold myself and Hebrew school to higher standards than many American Jewish families do.
That's why we decided to pull our boys out of Hebrew school, at least for this year, and-gulp-have me teach them myself.
This is terrifying. To teach my kids well, I'm going to need to teach myself. Part of why parents like dumping their kids at the synagogue-or the church-on Sundays is that they then don't have to wrestle with some of the questions kids might ask. Why does God allow terrorists to kill people? Ask your teacher!