I have often joked that one needs a strong sense of self-esteem in order to be a Jewish Educator. Despite the ways we try to be creative, to build community and try to find a balance between a camp/school model, supplementary educators are faced with students who have good reasons not to be happy– even before they walk through our door. Most times, our students have already experienced a full day of school and have a night full of homework ahead of them. We compete with sports teams, play rehearsals, gymnastic classes, extra tutoring and even an unstructured Sunday morning of video games or TV. It’s hard to blame kids or their families for looking at Jewish education as just one more obligation on an already overloaded schedule.
Although this intense scheduling may be a more recent phenomenon, the negative feeling about Hebrew School is not. It seems that almost every year, a parent (often a male), comes into school holding on to his child almost as if to shield him from a blast. The parent asks “Is this going to be like it was when I was in Hebrew School?” As we pursue this further, we find that the parent’s negative memories are still fresh and continue to influence his feelings about Judaism. As importantly, they often influence how his child responds to Jewish education.
So despite our storied tradition of respect for learning and teachers, we find that in reality, Jewish educators generally have at least one strike against them before they even get up to bat. So, what can we do?
First, I think we need to acknowledge the elephant on the dining table. Sometimes we have not done our best when trying to educate our students. Getting high quality teachers for moderate pay and minimal hours is not an easy task. Keeping faculty long enough to gain the wisdom that only comes with experience is also difficult. However, we must celebrate the many gifted, devoted individuals of all ages who want to share their knowledge and excitement about Judaism with an often over-tired, under-enthused group of young people. We also must admit that given the attractive options for our students’ time as well as their obligations to school and homework, it’s going to be almost impossible to rank as one of the first priorities on most students’ to-do list.
Second, I think we need to be realistic about what we can accomplish in the time that we have. We come from a very literate three thousand year tradition. We have holidays, Hebrew, Torah, Midrash, Mitzvot and Middot. We have mysticism and prayer, ritual and ruach. As educators, we are like kids in a candy store filled with enticing goodies—how can we leave without at least sampling each one?
The above attitude is understandable, but in my opinion, is the root of much of our problem in both religious and secular education. We can’t teach everything, but we often try. So if teaching everything we think is important is an impossibility, what is it that children at each age should learn? There is no right or wrong answer to this question. The specific curriculum is not the key, but there is a method that may give us a better chance of success.
First, whatever we teach needs to be relevant to the student and developmentally appropriate. It needs to be experienced and explored. It needs to be examined in an environment of respect and acceptance. It needs to allow students to feel pride and joy in the practice of their religion. And most importantly, Religious school should do no harm.
If we can keep our students engaged in meaningful activities and help them explore the joyful aspects of our tradition, we have a better chance of leaving them with positive experiences that may prompt deeper learning as they age. Jewish learning can and should happen throughout a lifespan. We can never teach it all, but we should at least give students a positive start. Maybe someday, a parent will come in on the first day of school and say to me “I hope this is going to be as great as when I was in Hebrew School!” Then, I will know that against all odds, we are making progress!
Director of Mikdash Me’at/Assistant Educator
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