After a lifetime of learning, Miriam Gray can still remember of the name of the teacher who inspired her to devote herself to Jewish education: Esther Portnoy.
For thousands of children, many now grown with children of their own, and hundreds of teachers, the person who inspired them is Miriam Gray. The veteran educator retired as Temple Emanuel’s principal in June. Her career spanned almost half a century.
As a child growing up in Paterson, Gray attended Hebrew school at Temple Emanuel. Portnoy was her first teacher, and, Gray recalled, "she had such a passion for what she was teaching. I knew I wanted to be part of that."
Miriam Gray, longtime Jewish educator, ponders the lessons she learned in a lifetime of teaching.
Gray was a constant presence at Temple Emanuel, which sent her to Camp Ramah when she was 13. As a high school student, she attended Prozdor, the Hebrew high school program at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. Already eager to share her knowledge with others, Gray taught a remedial reading class and substituted for absent teachers at Temple Emanuel while she was still in high school.
During her college years, Gray studied full time both at Montclair State College, where she earned a degree in speech pathology and theater, and at the JTS Seminary College of Jewish Studies. She spent a few years teaching speech and theater and returned to Jewish education when her first daughter was born. While teaching at the Fair Lawn Jewish Center, she returned to JTS for a master’s degree and principal certification. She spent 1′ years as the principal of the JCC in Paramus and 10 in the same position at Temple Emanuel in Woodcliff Lake.
Jewish Standard: How has Jewish education changed over the years?
M.G.: It’s different now. [When I started,] children weren’t so over-programmed. Their lives weren’t so regimented. Years ago, children had a number of interests, but they played sports or took music lessons to be well rounded. Now it’s all done to the nth degree.
J.S.: Is Jewish education still a priority for families?
M.G.: Jewish education is one of a range of activities. It is less of a priority for parents. It’s viewed as a family obligation. Parents want their children to have a Jewish education, but it’s not a passion in their lives. A mother will say, "My daughter can’t come [to Hebrew school]. She has dance lessons."
J.S.: What does this mean for Jewish educators and the Jewish community?
M.G.: As a result of parental pressure, schools are cutting back on hours. That’s a big problem for educators and the community. If you cut back [on formal education], something is lost. If you count up the hours that children spend in their Hebrew school careers, you’ll see that it’s approximately the number of hours that they spend in first grade. We’re sending out kids who have a 6-year-old’s knowledge, and expecting them to be committed to Jewish life for the rest of their lives.
I hope that educators see that cutting back is counter-productive. Schools are not providing a good product: children can’t express themselves Jewishly. I hope there will be a swing backwards. We have to do more.
J.S.: What can the community do to help children find ways to express their Jewishness?
M.G.: The community must provide better informal Jewish experiences for the children. We need more impressive informal Jewish experiences.
When we grew up, we had more opportunities for informal Jewish education. Today’s youth groups are not compensating for what children aren’t getting in school. Parents are not sending their children to Jewish camps.
Right now, our youth groups and other programs are not compensating for what kids are no longer getting in school. We need leaders who are passionate and creative. Right now, the only group with passion is the National Conference of Synagogue Youth. We don’t have adequate groups [in all sectors of the community] for kids to be excited about.
We need to build a sense of community where families find meaning for their lives in synagogues. When I was growing up, we were very engaged in what was going on. It was non-parochial. Our non-Jewish friends were equally committed to their churches.
Years ago, there was parallel education for parents and more opportunities for the entire family to grow. Today, the only program with teeth is the Melton School, but the tuition is steep, and it hasn’t reached the multitudes.
J.S.: The decline in the number of hours children spend in Hebrew school is a long-standing trend. Is today’s malaise a result of cutbacks that go back a generation?
M.G.: I wonder whether how much is the parents’ educational experience. Somehow we haven’t connected to them.
It’s tough to get parents to participate. I once ran a learning service for families in the top grades. The parents loved it, but they wouldn’t commit to coming to shul. They weren’t raised knowing that it’s Shabbos, so their children don’t have a feeling [of Shabbos] either.
I worry about it. I see kids who have no sense of what it is to say yizkor, because their parents don’t say yizkor.
J.S.: What do you want to tell parents about Jewish education?
M.G.: The home environment is critically important. Families need to make every Jewish observance interactive and enjoyable for their children. They need to learn the rituals of Shabbat and Jewish life and teach them to their children. If children learn [to light candles] at 3, that’s how their life will be.
Go to adult education. Study. Do it with other people. It’s always far more fun for young families to do things together.
Finally, approach Hebrew school with a positive attitude. Don’t tell your child, "It’s only two years and three days until your bar mitzvah."
J.S.: As you leave the field, do you have any advice for Jewish educators?
M.G.: Don’t give up the vision.
Educators have become jaded. But we need to find our vision, to know where we are going and what’s important, so that children can build theirs.