Three-day Hebrew schools – or, as they are called now, supplementary schools – would appear to be a dying breed. But the jury is out on whether it is the total number of days, or of hours, that determine the quality of a religious school program.
The Jewish Standard spoke with local educators and supplementary school directors – those on the front lines of the battle to give our children “enough” Jewish education. While all agreed that the more days children attend such programs, the more they can be taught, the educators acknowledged that demographics, parental pressure, and the “declining priority” of Jewish education exert a powerful influence on synagogues, strongly affecting their schools.
Dr. Wallace Greene, director of Jewish Educational Services for UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey, said the question should not be “How much Hebrew school is enough?” but rather “What is the purpose of supplementary school education?”
He noted that, whether in two- or three-day programs, the time spent in supplementary school is so minimal, compared to the time spent in public school, that “students go through life with an elementary knowledge of Judaism.”
The effectiveness of supplementary education concerns many Jewish leaders. According to Jack Wertheimer, a professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary, “supplementary schools continue to enroll the majority of students receiving a Jewish education.”
In Wertheimer’s “A Census of Jewish Supplementary Schools in the United States: 2006-2007,” published by the Avi Chai Foundation in August, he notes that about 230,000 youngsters attend after-school or Sunday classes, generally one to three times a week. Conservative Jews generally prefer two- to three-day programs; Reform Jews opt more often for one to two days; while the Orthodox tend to favor more intensive Jewish education, particularly in day schools.
According to the report, most supplementary schools have small enrollments (many with fewer than 50 students), and most supplementary school students (57 percent) attend Reform movement schools. In addition, Conservative congregational schools appear to be shrinking as “the number of Conservative families with school-age children has shrunk.” Wertheimer also noted the rapid growth of Chabad schools.
According to Frieda Huberman, school services director of UJA-NNJ’s Jewish Educational Services, “Not counting the growing number of Chabad religious schools, which often meet only once a week and have liberal attendance policies/standards, there are 33 religious schools in our community.”
Of these, she said, only three maintain three-day programs: the Fair Lawn Jewish Center, Wayne’s Shomrei Torah, and the Jewish Community Center of Paramus. Two other synagogues – Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center in Ridgewood and Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley in Woodcliff Lake – recently abandoned their three-day programs in favor of what one educator called “enhanced programming” over two days.
“Principals are very frustrated,” said Greene. “It’s hard to justify [reducing the number of days] on an educational basis.” In the next few years, he joked, “we can expect to see bar mitzvah preparation online.”
Teaneck resident Dr. Robert Abramson, director of education for The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, pointed out that the three-day school was not always the norm.
“In the 1950s and ’60s it was not unusual to find four- and five-day schools,” he said, “but as suburbia grew, the trend moved to three-day programs. In the last 15 to 20 years, this began to change. People live farther away [from synagogues], and when both parents are working it adds a whole dimension. The question becomes, ‘Who’s going to pick up the kids?'”
Abramson added that “unlike in the past, where people tended to join synagogues in their own town, now shuls draw people from different towns,” compounding the transportation problem.
In 2000, the Conservative movement created what it calls the “Framework for Excellence” program, which, said Abramson, “basically was a decision that there are different ways to get to the hours.” Before that time, the Conservative movement required that affiliated schools run three-day programs for five years up to grade seven.
The USCJ educational director said that some 500 supplementary schools across the country are participating in the program. In northern New Jersey, said Wendy Light, the program’s education consultant, participants include Shomrei Torah in Wayne, Woodcliff Lake’s Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley, and the Jewish Community Center of Paramus.
Abramson pointed out that the Framework program “begins in kindergarten and envisions education going to high school – at least the same in number of hours” as the old three-day program.
“If it was up to me, every kid would have a minimum of day school education,” said Abramson. “But whatever it is, it should have maximum impact.”
Does anyone care?
In a previous publication for Avi Chai -“Linking the Silos: How to Accelerate the Momentum in Jewish Education,” 2005 – Wertheimer noted the aspirations of parents who send their children to supplementary schools.
He wrote, “We learned that while some are minimalists and mainly want their children to endure as they did in religious school or to learn just enough to celebrate a bar/bat mitzvah, a significant population of supplementary school parents has far more serious Jewish aspirations for their children.”
Wertheimer pointed out that many parents talk about passing Judaism and a Jewish connection on to their children, while others speak about Jewish literacy. “And still others aspire to ‘create Jewish memories’ for their children,” he said. “Some opt for it because it’s the best they can afford, and still others believe the combination of public and supplementary programs offers the best all-around education for their children.”
The role of parents was mentioned often by the local educators interviewed for this article.
Acknowledging that pressure to reduce the number of Hebrew school days most often comes from parents, the USCJ’s Abramson said that in addition to the demographic factors, some parents provide “philosophical reasons” for seeking fewer school days.
“They say, ‘The kids don’t learn much, so what difference does it make.’ And some are ready to claim that less time is just as good. But this is a rationale, not a philosophy.”
After noting increased competition for children’s time – for activities such as sports and music lessons – Greene of JES said that “it’s a question of priorities. Parents are not telling [children] what to do,” i.e., that Hebrew school is important. He noted also that many parents did not enjoy their own Hebrew school experience. “They were shortchanged themselves,” said Greene, “and want ‘less suffering’ for their children.”
Veteran educator Miriam Gray retired as Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley’s religious school principal in June, after serving the congregation for 10 years. This year, for the first time, the school has instituted a two-day program.
According to Gray, “the change was not an academic decision but rather a membership decision. Prospective members were polled and the membership committee reported that the synagogue was losing members and potential members,” she said.
“Jewish education is one of a range of activities,” said Gray. “It is less of a priority for parents. 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.'”
She noted that even with a three-day program, it was the equivalent of educating children at a first-grade level.
“When you give up time, you give up learning,” she said. “And of course,” she added, “in today’s world, no homework is allowed.”
The membership issue
Synagogue membership committees, like parents, have been instrumental in urging fewer days of Hebrew school.
“There’s a competition for synagogue membership,” said Greene. “If your synagogue requires two or three times a week and another requires only one and your child can still get a bar mitzvah, it’s a no-brainer.”
He pointed out that one local synagogue recently ran an advertisement saying that synagogue membership was not required to enroll one’s child in the congregational school. Nor is membership required for schools operated by Chabad.
“Chabad and the Jewish Youth Encounter Program [an independent Hebrew school in Bergen County for children in grades three to seven] do a phenomenal job but meet only once a week and take everybody,” he said.
The controversy over the competition created by Chabad schools is evident in a posting last year on the Jerusalem Post blog by Reform leader Rabbi Eric Yoffie and the rebuttal written by Chana Silberstein, educational director for Chabad at Cornell University.
Silberstein wrote on the Website Lubavitch.com that Yoffie “criticizes the willingness of Chabad to allow any child a bar mitzvah. He describes the norm of other congregations to require family synagogue membership and attendance in Hebrew school for a year or more before allowing children to be bar mitzvahed.”
Silberstein summarized Yoffie’s argument, noting that “he accuses Chabad of becoming a ‘purveyor of Jewish minimalism, lowering educational standards for our children and the community,’ teaching the lesson that ‘Judaism is not a serious endeavor and that even the most significant milestones require only a modicum of commitment.'”
But, wrote Silberstein, “Chabad’s willingness to offer all children a bar mitzvah stems not from lowering of religious standards, but from a refusal to make children the pawns in a game of institutional extortion.”
“The reason most temples demand certain requirements be met before allowing children to be bar mitzvahed has nothing to do with standards – and everything to do with increasing synagogue revenue,” she wrote. “The kids become hostages…. Parents are told that unless they ante up, their children will be denied this most significant of milestones. Some parents pay the ransom. Others leave the temple in disgust.”
While both opinions were unusually heated, many of the educators interviewed by this newspaper felt that Chabad schools are at least partly responsible for the current demand to reduce the number of days students are required to attend supplementary school.
Creating literate Jews
Whether in one, two, or three days, “people want their kids to have joyful Jewish experiences, get a sense of Jewish practices, know about the Jewish people, learn about some types of observance, and read the Jewish prayers,” said Abramson.
He pointed out that Framework program is premised on the belief that “a good synagogue school education should and can be a major influence in forming what a Jewish teenager knows (knowledge), knows how to do (skills), and wants to do (attitudes and proclivities).”
Abramson further noted the importance of family education programs and informal Jewish education, such as youth groups and summer camps. Wertheimer is also a strong proponent of these activities. In his study for Avi Chai, he contends that “a cluster of educational experiences can powerfully reinforce Jewish identity” and that “adults and their children mutually reinforce each other’s Jewish engagements.”
According to the supplementary school directors interviewed, family education programs are an integral part of their programs, with parents being invited several times a year to sit in on classes and learn together with their children.
Gray said she hopes educators will see that cutting back is counter-productive, noting that “schools are not providing a good product: Children can’t express themselves Jewishly. We have to do more,” she said. “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.”
In a recent interview in the Standard with Melanie Kwestel, Gray urged educators, “Don’t give up the vision.”
“Educators have become jaded,” she said. “But we need to find our vision, to know where we are going and what’s important, so that children can build theirs.” She stressed that “since we’re backing off on formal education, it’s important to offer more informal education, such as youth groups and camping activities.”
“The community has a lot of work to do,” she said.
Temple Beth Sholom of Fair Lawn was omitted from the list of supplementary schools offering three-day programs.