Jewish Schools Aren't Making the Grade

I grew up immersed in American Jewish education. I rode the bus to my day school, where I attended Hebrew class and recited the Birkat Hamazon after meals. After finishing  elementary school, I started teaching and developing Judaic studies curricula for my synagogue’s Hebrew school. It was only then that I discovered how deeply flawed American Jewish education was. Instead of engaging young Jews, it seemed that it had been designed to distance them from Judaism and to foster misunderstandings within our community.

One major problem with American Jewish education is its overemphasis on religious teaching. Most Jewish day schools and synagogue religious schools focus on teaching students prayers, studying Torah, and reading Hebrew—often not to create a connection to the language, but to facilitate prayer and Torah study. This religious emphasis likely stems from the primary goal of Jewish day schools: preparing kids for their bar and bat mitzvahs.

But most young American Jews don’t feel particularly connected to religion. According to a Pew Research study from 2014, one-third of American Jews say that religion is “not at all important” or “not too important” in their lives. Forty-five percent of Jews seldom or never pray, which raises the question: how many people really use their knowledge of prayers after their bar or bat mitzvah? There are so many other ways to connect to Jewish identity—through a sense of peoplehood, spirituality, language, culture, and history, to name a few. Why limit young Jews’ connection to their Jewish identity to religiosity, especially when it hasn’t proven effective?

The ineffective format of many Jewish schools might actually lead to more disengagement. A 2011 study from the Foundation for Jewish Camp found that the best predictor of whether a person will continue to identify as Jewish into adulthood is Jewish summer camp attendance, because camps prioritize engaging, informal Jewish activities that create strong positive associations. I attribute much of my Jewish identity and passion for youth education to my own experiences at camp. Peulot (informal educational activities) provide a great model for exposing kids to complex ideas through games and discussions. In these activities, participants often sit cross-legged on the ground and are encouraged to question, discuss, and reflect on significant topics. Our synagogue schools, which often struggle with participation, should draw inspiration from this more informal, engaging format. Being Jewish in America is sometimes described as a “constant choice,” and it seems unlikely that young Jews will keep choosing Judaism when it is presented through dry lessons.

Even worse than American Jewish schools’ focus on religiosity is their lack of attention to intersectionality and omission of the diversity of Jewish experiences. Until two years ago, I had never heard the word Mizrahim, which refers to Jews of Middle Eastern, North African, or Central Asian ancestry. My day school education had focused almost exclusively on Jews of Ashkenazi origin.  Sephardic Jews, whose ancestors come from Spain or Portugal, were mentioned only occasionally in my classes. As a result,  I didn’t appreciate how much racial and ethnic diversity there was in American Jewish communities. From conversations with friends, I learned I was not alone.

This widespread lack of intersectional education leads to a limited view of the Jewish experience at best, and racism and microaggressions against Jews of color at worst.  According to the Pew study, the percentage of non-white American Jews is growing, which makes it even more crucial that we learn about the diverse experiences of our fellow Jews.

As in the general American education system, women’s perspectives are also lacking in Jewish schools. I’ve mostly learned about Jewish women’s history through explicitly feminist resources, such as the Jewish Women’s Archive. But self-identified feminists are far from the only ones who should be learning about Jewish women’s history. By not including the history of half of the world’s Jews, we miss out on our rich cultural vibrancy. We also miss the opportunity to hear about misogyny and efforts to combat it through greater inclusion of women in Jewish spaces, both historically and today.

The lack of representation and inclusivity in Jewish schools often manifests in dangerously simplistic conversations about Israel. Many Jewish schools focus on highlighting Israel’s cultural and religious significance to Jews...and that’s it. Certainly, it’s important for Jews to learn about our deep connection to the land of Israel. However, as Jewish children grow up, they must learn about the State of Israel as it truly is: a country that is beautiful and complex, necessary yet flawed, one that has acted as both savior and oppressor. This realistic portrayal of Israel must include an understanding of Palestinians and their own deep connection to the land—a connection that is very similar to ours as Jews.

Ignoring the Israeli-Palestinian conflict fosters polarization in the Jewish community. In my experience, Jews who aren’t taught about Palestinians or about Israel’s part in the conflict from an early age end up following one of two paths: The first is that when they eventually hear examples of Israeli aggression, occupation, and oppression, they come to believe that everything they learned in Hebrew school was a lie, that even feeling a Jewish connection to the land only contributes to Israel’s oppression of Palestinians. This results in misunderstandings of Jewish history and identity. Others who learn of Israel’s flaws later in life believe that these must be lies. After all, they reason, why would their Hebrew school educators have given them inaccurate or misleading information? Those Jews often come to believe that the Palestinian experience isn’t legitimate, and that supporting Jewish safety and liberation means believing Israel can do no wrong. These views often lead to anti-Palestinian racism and xenophobia.

 Both of these paths entrench the conflict through either/or ideas of the Jewish and Palestinian experiences. This leads to division within the Jewish community, and furthers a cycle of misunderstanding, oppression, and even violence between groups. Jewish schools need to combat this phenomenon and actively work to prepare young Jews to discuss the Israel-Palestine conflict with nuance and understanding.

Jews value education; we believe that it can change the world. We use education to fight antisemitism, in our work with social movements, and in our own expressions of Judaism through text study. Despite the problems above, I still believe in Jewish education and appreciate the one I received. But as someone who sees its value, I also recognize the ways in which it has fallen short. If we want the next generation of American Jews to feel connected to their Jewish identity, we need to rethink how we educate them.

 

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How to cite this page

Clubok, Rose. "Jewish Schools Aren't Making the Grade." 2 November 2021. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on May 24, 2024) <http://jwa.org/blog/failure-jewish-education-0>.