‘Hebrew School’ 101: The history and future of supplementary Jewish education

A recent study of Jewish education from the Collaborative for Applied Studies in Jewish Education (CASJE) found a staffing shortage in the sector that educates the largest number of Jewish children — those who attend public or non-Jewish schools and learn about Jewish practice, culture and history in synagogues or other settings. The shortage  likely stems from a distorted “folklore of failure” that pervades the communal conversation about this sector that requires fresh thinking, Miriam Heller, director of the school of education at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, told eJewishPhilanthropy.

How many Jewish children actually receive their education in these schools?

Nobody knows, said both Arielle Levites, CASJE’s managing director, and Rabbi Jennifer Goldsmith, the managing director of congregational learning and leadership initiatives at The Jewish Education Project. A study conducted by Jack Wertheimer for the Avi Chai Foundation in 2006-2007, which put the number of students in supplementary schools at 230,000, offers the most recent official numbers, Goldsmith said. The Avi Chai study included only synagogue schools, and no alternative models such as the outdoor program provided by the “Adventure Rabbi” in Boulder, Colo. By contrast, in the 2018-2019 school year, there were about 292,000 students in day schools and yeshivas, also according to Avi Chai. In October and November, The Jewish Education Project will conduct a new study on this subject, with data available in 2022, Goldsmith said.

Are these the schools that used to be called “Hebrew Schools?”

Yes. That term first gained currency because teachers ideologically committed to the revival of spoken Hebrew dominated part-time Jewish education in the early 20th century, according to a CASJE report, “Let’s Stop Calling It Hebrew School,” by Netta Avineri, Sarah Bunin Benor and Rabbi Nicki Greninger. However, students attended those schools as many as 12 hours a week, and those hours decreased as Jewish families moved to the suburbs and began to offer their children a wider array of afterschool activities. The expression is used today because many schools still focus on the acquisition of the Hebrew alphabet, but not an understanding of the language, in order to prepare for a bar or bat mitzvah, Avineri, Bunin Benor and Greninger found. However, they are also called synagogue schools, religious schools and congregational schools. Researchers such as Wertheimer and those at CASJE use the broadest term — “supplementary schools.”

Where does the “folklore of failure” come from?

Whether or not the school is called “Hebrew School,” many parents have unrealistic expectations about how much Hebrew their children can learn in their limited time in the supplementary school classroom, Heller said. Others aren’t quite sure what they want from supplementary school. The administrators and educators need to help parents answer this question for themselves, Heller said, noting that she trains her graduate students in how to have these conversations. “The Jewish community has not taken enough time to engage parents about what they want.”

How do the teachers feel?

They’re often frustrated, as well, said Rabbi Jennifer Goldsmith of The Jewish Education Project. “Many of our educators don’t want bar and bat mitzvah to be the focus of their work,” she said. “They want to help students thrive and be the best people they can be.” Also, the professional demands on supplementary school teachers are quite high despite the fact that the position is usually a part-time job: Administrators want a child-friendly personality, content knowledge and pedagogical skill. “The real challenge is that there simply aren’t enough people who have the right talents and skill sets and disposition to deliver those dreams and models evenly and sustainably,” Heller said. This plays a role in the staffing shortage, along with the perception that work as an educator in day schools or camp enjoys higher status in the community, she added.

What are the bright spots, then?

Not all communities are struggling. Some, such as those in the New York suburbs or others that are sufficiently affluent to pay high salaries or are situated near graduate programs or seminaries, don’t struggle to maintain their staffs, Heller said. More broadly, alternative approaches to Hebrew education have gained traction around the country, including a focus on spoken Hebrew before reading and an integration of Hebrew instruction with movement, according to the “Let’s Stop Calling It ‘Hebrew School’” report. Some schools are addressing the challenge posed by the part-time nature of the work by creating full-time educator positions, Goldsmith said. Others have developed new models, such as the Jewish Enrichment Center in the Chicago area, a program that integrates Jewish education with after-school care, Heller said. Rabbi Elana Perry leads the Jewish Education Collaborative in Atlanta, which launched in August 2019, to help supplemental Jewish schools envision and implement new programs. Perry’s program also tries to connect the synagogue programs to other local institutions, such as camps and the PJ Library chapter, which distributes free Jewish books. That makes sense, Heller said, because supplementary schools don’t work in isolation and shouldn’t be judged that way. “Think of Jewish education as a tree,” she said. “We’ve invested in the roots — early childhood. And the branches, like camp. But the trunk is the supplementary school. If you don’t tend to the trunk, how are all the other pieces going to stay together?”

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