Laughing Until I Cried: Hebrew school
My father always insisted that Hebrew school was vitally important, and certainly more important than secular school, which seemed ridiculous. Regular school had its moments of strangeness—why did we spend much of third grade learning how to knit, or take at least three field trips to cemeteries? Hebrew school, on the other hand, involved more regular strange occurrences—although I also learned how to read Hebrew, had some amazing teachers, and learned some excellent songs.
I was renowned for laughing until I cried at Hebrew school—which I mostly outgrew, as I got older. However, it is hard to blame my younger self when our teachers had us do things like try and make a driedel out of canned goods, and the parsha of the week class was cancelled due to lack of interest and replaced by classes that, among other things, tried to impart Jewish values through movies. I also once received a report card from a teacher that I had not had that semester (but had during another time that year), noting that my class participation was poor (it was as if I wasn’t even there!)
In one of the least scientific surveys of all time, I emailed a list of questions about Hebrew school to several friends, almost none of whom responded. Most of my friends are extremely Jewishly engaged despite their Hebrew school experiences, not because of them.
While I was working on this blog post, everyone in the entire world wrote an article about Hebrew School or Day School. I feel like the major non-anecdotal points on this topic have been covered at length recently, but that looking at individual experiences still adds depth to examining a system that might enroll as many as 240,000 students—many times more than the approximately 83,000 students enrolled in non-ultra Orthodox Jewish day schools.* Hebrew school is a more realistic option for many families—both in terms of time, financial commitment, and geographic accessibility.
What were the positive impacts Hebrew school had on people? One friend, who I will call Nick, says his experience was fine, but he also pointed out that his mom let him skip Hebrew school pretty much whenever he wanted. He is pretty traditionally observant—he keeps kosher and observes Shabbat according to an Orthodox interpretation of Jewish law —but he wants his child to go to part-time Hebrew school rather than day school even though that’s a minority decision among his peers.
Another friend, whom I will call Michelle, talked about how her Hebrew school experience has allowed her to stay strongly connected to Judaism after she became an atheist. She said “…I will never forget that our really serious, really smart, really devout rabbi came to our class one day and talked with us about the idea of God. The part I'll never forget was when he said, ‘It's OK if you don't believe in God. Sometimes I don't, either.’ Since about ten years later I came to identify as an atheist Jew, I think that statement rang in the halls of my consciousness for years afterwards.” She plans on sending her son to humanist day school as soon as he turns two.
Sometimes Hebrew school was problematic because teachers were out of touch with students’ lives. Michelle said, “Most ridiculous, easy, was the teacher who decried the evils of intermarriage. The best students in the class were all products of intermarriage.” Similarly I remember Jewish rituals being discussed as if we all observed them, and other Jewish practices being discussed as though none of us observed them, which was not necessarily true and which I found somewhat alienating.
How did going to school influence people’s future Jewish practice? One friend said that when she was in Hebrew school she thought her future Jewish practice would consist of hiding during the bathroom to escape Friday night services, and later eating sherbet from the punch bowl at the oneg. She said her college experience and having grown up in a Zionist youth movement, which included going to summer camp, being a counselor at summer camp, and spending a year in Israel, all had a larger impact on her Jewish identity and practice—which given the large numbers of hours involved and the positive nature of those experiences, makes a whole lot of sense.
A friend I will call Rob said that he valued Judaism because his family did, not because of his “miserable” Hebrew school experience. “It was important to my family that we do Jewish things, so it was important to me. It wasn’t just two times a year.” Rob had a particularly horrific Hebrew school experience. When his teacher asked the class to draw pictures of enemies of the Jewish people, two people drew pictures of Rob. Because of that and similar experiences occurring over many years, he said “I didn't believe Jews my age had anything to offer me in terms of building Jewish community together until [my wife] brought me to [an independent minyan] when I was nearly 26.” Better classroom management skills might have made a huge difference the Jewish choices he made as a young adult.
I am glad that the debate about how to best educate Jewish children is happening, and that new kinds of Hebrew schools, such as MoEd are opening and discussions are being held about how day school could be made more affordable. Perhaps if Jewish communal funding priorities shift to echo my father’s belief that Hebrew school is the most important thing, more attention could be spent on curriculum development, training more teachers so they could be as awesome as some of the teachers I had, and, of course putting a wall clock in every Hebrew school classroom in America, so no watchless child would have to suffer as I did, not knowing how many minutes they had left before they could go home.
*According to JData, half of the Hebrew schools in the country submitted enrollment data into their system, for a total of 117,595 children. If those schools are representative, the total number of children in Hebrew schools might be around 240,000. This compares to 83,519 children enrolled in non-chassidish and yeshivah-world schools in the 2011-2012 school year.