After BARJ, two visions of Jewish education

After BARJ, two visions of Jewish education

In today’s paper, I write about what comes after BARJ, as three Reform synagogues plan programs for their high schoolers to replace the Bergen Academy of Jewish Religion.

While reporting the story, I spoke to a critic of the plans who was upset that the shuls weren’t using the problems with BARJ as an opportunity to send their kids to the Bergen High School of Jewish Studies.

The answer given me by one of the rabbis I spoke to was logistics. Travel to Teaneck would take too long — though a BHSJS supporter might note that BHSJS has two satellite campuses in Woodcliff Lake and Wykoff — and I’m sure many car-pooling parents would prefer their kids study closer to home.

But I think there’s another, more interesting disagreement lurking under the surface. It concerns the crucial but often ignored question of what constitutes a good Jewish education.

In one corner is the traditionalist camp, which demands for fluency in Jewish languages and texts. Jack Wertheimer of the Jewish Theological Seminary championed such an approach in Jewish Ideas Daily. “Putting the School into Hebrew School” argues for a rigorous academic approach, and it holds up as a role model BHSJS.

At the other extreme is a predominantly affective approach, in which building emotional connection and Jewish identity is the top priority.

As Rabbi Ruth Zlotnick put it to me, “Our kids live such pressurized lives. We want synagogue to be a safe place for them, a haven.”

In a world where Judaism is a voluntary choice, there’s a lot to be said for that approach. It’s also worth acknowledging that some kids find intensive Talmud study fun. (I was one of them). It’s great that BHSJS provides the opportunities for students who thrive in that setting. But I appreciate the considerations of the Reform congregations who think they’ll generate greater connection among more of their youths with a less rigorous program.

What do you think? Let me know in the comments, or by email at

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