2016-06-30
When my ten-year-old son Joseph first told me he hated Hebrew school, I wanted to say, "Well, of course you do, buddy! You're supposed to." After all, I hated Hebrew school. Almost every Jew I know who went to Hebrew school-supplementary, synagogue-run Jewish education for kids who don't go to Jewish day schools-thought it was a waste of time. I figured our mutual animosity toward formal Jewish education would be a source of father-son bonding.

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?"

The idea of me teaching Judaism to my kids struck me as akin to our dog Chester teaching our gerbils how to play fetch. The perfect marriage of a bad teacher and challenging students. Given my own forgettable Jewish education, I simply didn't feel confident enough in my knowledge of Judaism to convey it to someone else.

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!

I recently got this one from my younger son, Gordon, age 8: "When you die, is it NOTHING or do you have a brain and a mind? Is there a heaven where you go and live?" He noted that the only people who really know the answer to these questions are those who've died but "if people are dead and there is no heaven and they have no brain, then they won't be able to remember what the question was. They'll finally know the answer to the question, but they won't have a brain to realize it."

Now I won't be about to foist that one off on the religious-school teacher. I'll have to answer it myself.

And then there's the really hard stuff-like arts and crafts. Maybe I can wrestle with life after death, but can I build a sukkah [wooden hut built for the holiday of Sukkot] out of popsicle sticks?

But what about Hebrew, the all-important language of prayer and the focal point of a boy's bar mitzvah, the coming-of-age ceremony? Unfortunately, I never adequately learned it in my Hebrew school days and don't see myself as qualified to pass it on. So I'm going to get around that by outsourcing the teaching of Hebrew to a Hebrew language tutor.

I've started the process of educating myself and preparing lessons. If it takes a village to raise a child, it's going to take the entire World Wide Web to help me teach my kids how to be Jews. As the editor-in-chief of Beliefnet, I have some assets that others might not have and I intend to take full advantage of them. I wrote to several book publishers about my dilemma and requested their "best books on Judaism." I'm warning Beliefnet's columnists that they may be getting some much tougher questions from Joe and Gordon than they ever got from me.

I plan to make this multimedia. I'm researching Jewish movies and music and software. I'm looking at incorporating volunteer service into our curriculum. And I think that when it comes to teaching Jewish values - helping others, for instance - we need not limit ourselves to Jewish sources. Gandhi and Mother Teresa and Jesus can teach us a great deal about tikkun olam [the Jewish concept of "repairing the world"].

Already I can see some real challenges.

So many of the figures in the Torah combine great heroism and nobility with grotesque behavior. Do I tell the kids about Solomon's many wives or David's decision to send a man to the front lines of battle so that his widow would be available for marrying?

The concept of Jews being "chosen" runs so contrary to what we're constantly trying to teach our kids about humility and equality. How do I explain it?

Hearing about Jewish persecution inspires me to try to be a better Jew in gratitude to the struggles of my ancestors. To kids, it tends to drown out the positive aspects of the faith and sometimes makes Judaism seem like a loser religion. How do I teach about persecution in a way that inspires rather than merely depresses?

And how do I make them proud and excited to be Jews without positioning it as "better than" Mommy's religion? This homeschooling experiment will drag me straight into the dilemma-so important in this day-of how to promote religious pride without arrogance or conflict.

Indeed, it's already become clear that my homeschooling experiment will force me to confront not only how to teach our kids but how Judaism itself ought to evolve.

My sense is that when it comes to religious education, each faith can learn from the others. What was so good about Amy's church Sunday school and how could Jewish education borrow from that? How can I turn the fact that my boys are Jews in an interfaith family into an advantage rather than a point of confusion?

We'll be continuing to go to services at a synagogue for the big holidays, but for the next twelve months Daddy will be the Sunday school.

In the course of the coming year, I will be writing regularly about my efforts to homeschool my Jewish kids, though I suspect that much of what I encounter will be of interest to any parents wrestling with how to convey religious values or heritage to their children.

In addition to showing the intellectual and emotional dilemmas that arise, I'll be giving you practical assessments of which books and resources worked well for me and which didn't.

I'll be tapping all the experts I can find-including you. If you have any suggestion on what has worked in providing a religious education to your child-whether you're Jewish or of another faith-please either post it in the "miniboard" next to this article or send me an email at: helpsteve@staff.beliefnet.com. Together, we should be able to give my kids a decent Jewish education. Along the way, I expect that I (and perhaps some readers) will also learn a few things about what it means to be a Jew, and perhaps what it means to be a person of faith in America today.