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Jewish World Review June 4, 1999 /20 Sivan 5759

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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Local Heroes Wanted:
Taking Hebrew School Seriously

(JWR) ---- (
IF YOU WANT TO make most adult American Jews flinch, you need only say two words: "Hebrew school."

There is little doubt that afternoon and Sunday-morning supplementary schools are the black hole of American Jewish life.

Pre-Holocaust Eastern European Jewry had the cheder, where generations of Jews were drilled in rote recitations by generally poorly educated melamadim. Suburban America gave Jewish history the institution of the Hebrew school, whose failures have become symbolic of our continuity crisis.

The only difference between the shtetl's cheder and the suburban Hebrew school is that while one is but a dim memory of a lost world whose harsh edges have been smoothed over by a glaze of nostalgia, the other is yet with us.

The inadequacies of supplementary schools have given urgency to the contemporary day-school movement. While many synagogue schools are considered failures, full-time Jewish-education programs have proven largely successful and deeply rewarding for the children who have been lucky enough to have experienced it. That's why many of us believe that funding for day schools must become a Jewish communal priority.

The only problem with day schools is that not enough Jewish kids are in them. And they're not there for two reasons that cannot be wished away. The first is cost, which is a huge barrier. Increasingly, only the wealthy (and, conversely, the poor, who can get scholarships) can afford the high tuition at day schools.

Second, but perhaps even more important, is the fact that many - if not most - American Jews do not want to send their children to day schools, whether they can afford them or not. That's because the devotion of American Jews to the institution of the public schools is largely unshakable. Many have an unreasonable and, to my mind, totally wrongheaded fear that day schools promote sectarianism and do not prepare their children for higher education or for life in a multicultural society.

This leaves us with the fact that the overwhelming majority of American Jewish children receiving a Jewish education are getting it in a supplementary school. The Jewish Population Study of Greater Philadelphia showed that 18 percent of Jewish children attended day schools, while "59 percent were receiving or have received some type of Jewish education in a congregational school."

Ominously, the same summary of educational data noted that 22 percent "never received any Jewish education."

Thus, while a Jewish educational safety net to allow more Jewish kids to attend day school remains a communal obligation that we must take up, we are still left with the question of the fate of the thousands of Jewish students who will never pass through the doors of a day school. Improving the afternoon synagogue schools where for example, according to Jewish educational professionals, some 12,600 Jewish students in the greater Philadelphia area currently study, is not an option. It is an imperative.

The first place where synagogue schools can be improved is in their corps of teachers. As a graduate of a small synagogue Hebrew school myself, I know this is true.

Although I had a lot of fun during those years, I must confess that I learned precious little beyond the basics. We were given elementary Hebrew reading skills, knowledge of the synagogue service and a few chapters from the Chumash and little else.

For the most part, my teachers - among them the appropriately named Mr. Stern, the irascible Mr. Grossman (as far as I knew, they had no first names) and the always irritated Mrs. Sadie Geduld - concentrated on the difficult job of keeping us in our seats. They were typical for their profession in that those who knew how to teach knew little about Judaism, and those who knew about Judaism didn't know how to teach.

I have fond memories of those teachers, but the fact that I have subsequently devoted my life to Jewish journalism was in spite of, not because of, that school. I'd like to think they would be proud of how much Jewish knowledge I have acquired in the years since my time in their care, but, to be honest, it had little to do with them. I was the exception that proved the rule.

Today, many highly educated, committed and concerned teachers and rabbis labor in the vineyards of the Hebrew school, but too many are not of the highest quality. Given the poor pay, the onerous responsibilities, the sad lack of prestige accorded Jewish teachers and the absence of a certifying authority for such schools, what else could you expect?

So, it is no wonder that when the educational bureau of Jewish Philadelphia - the Auerbach Central Agency for Jewish Education - sought to recruit teachers for supplementary schools from all walks of Jewish life, they placed advertisements calling for "heroes."

Indeed, the task of controlling classes full of noisy pre-adolescents, many of whom don't know why they should learn about their heritage, is a daunting task requiring, if not heroism, then at least a healthy measure of intestinal fortitude.

The ACAJE endeavor, called Giborim - Hebrew for heroes - has a lofty goal: to create a program that will nurture a qualified and professional cadre of supplementary-school teachers. It is an ambitious goal, but the people at ACAJE are working to achieve it step by step.

Funded by a wise grant from the Federation, the Giborim program conducted its first training seminar for prospective teachers this year.

"We decided to look to the community," says Shelley Kapnek Rosenberg, ACAJE's Giborim coordinator. The result brought together a group of people from a variety of backgrounds, some with teaching skills, others with a serious Jewish background. Giborim attempts to bring out the best we have and guide them into the field of synagogue-school education. The long-term goal is to bring into being a group of community educators who can serve a variety of schools with distinction. This will be a position that Rosenberg hopes will "pay a living wage and has benefits - a full-time career" and not a part-time job.

That's a tall order, given the chaotic and non-uniform nature of synagogue schools as we know them. To make it a reality, ACAJE is planning a variety of measures, such as minicourses and institutes that carry continuing-education credits from Gratz College, a program of teacher certification under a community Board of License, and the establishment of a community-wide salary scale for supplementary schools.

Sharon Shore, a passionate and inspiring pedagogue who has taught at the synagogue school of Adath Israel in Merion Station, Pennsylvania, for nearly two decades, believes that supplementary-school education is just too important to allow its teachers to fail. She acknowledges that for all too many children attending these schools, Jewish values and practices are not part of their home life. Yet, says Shore, that makes it all the more important to let them know that "Judaism is the answer to the great ethical questions of life."

"We can't afford to have Jewish teachers who are part of the cult of mediocrity," Shore says.

She is right.

"Jewish education is a calling," ACAJE executive director Helene Z. Tigay told the first graduating group of Giborim. "You must know that what you do has an incredible impact on a child, his or her neshamah [soul] and their Jewish future."

At the heart of the problem is a culture that gives the teaching profession short shrift. Jewish educators have generally been underqualified, underpaid and ignored.

It's time to change that, and programs like Giborim are a vital first step. Unless we are prepared to write off the majority of our children who will get their only Jewish education from synagogue schools, we are going to have to find a new group of heroes to teach them.

JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.


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©1999, Jonathan Tobin