A common complaint among rabbis and cantors is the poor Hebrew reading skills they encounter when sitting down to teach b’nai and b’not mitzvah students. How could these children have gone through five years of afterschool religious training and not be able to read a few lines of biblical text?
There are two major problems with that complaint. The first is the most obvious: If the students cannot read Hebrew well (or at all) after five years of supposed study, it is the system that is at fault, not the students.
The second problem, perhaps a bit less obvious but even more critical, is why Hebrew reading skills should be considered the benchmark by which to judge afterschool programs. Judaism is not about reading Hebrew, but understanding what being Jewish is all about. And reading Hebrew is not the same as understanding Hebrew. Even if a child can read Hebrew fluently, what is the point if he or she has no idea what the words mean?
The demographics in northern New Jersey notwithstanding, most Jewish children do not go to day schools or yeshivot, where they are immersed in Jewish studies. Even among those who do, reading comprehension is lacking in many. Understanding what Judaism is really all about is also lacking in many – too many.
That perhaps 50 percent or more of American Jews are unaffiliated with our communities is a testament to the failures of our education system.
The children are our future – Judaism’s future. If we do not teach them adequately, then we have no future. It is that simple.
And that is tragic.