Sunday, July 26, 2009

The point of teaching Hebrew is...?

It’s been awhile since I’ve last written. I’ve been focusing on the tachlis of creating a meaningful learning experience for my students – the kids who will be attending the religious school I’m running.

I’ve been obsessing on Hebrew lately. What’s the purpose of teaching decoding to kids? Remember, reading implies comprehension. My guess is that most kids, despite our best efforts, really don’t understand (or don’t care about) the meaning of the Hebrew they’re reciting. They just mouth the sounds: ergo decoding. At the risk of sounding really cynical, I’m going to guess that a large chunk of the parents who send their kids to a congregational school do it for one main reason – to prevent performance anxiety. They want their kids to shine at their 13-year-old-coming-out-party. Is this the really the point of what we Jewish educators are doing?

The other day, my friend Adrian Durlestor sent out the following tweet: “how far over prevailing synagogue suppl sch rates can independent jewish suppl school reasonably charge?” It got me thinking about the purpose of congregational schools. It’s certainly NOT supplementary. The idea that our schools “supplement” what our kids learn at home became irrelevant probably in the 50’s or 60’s. Nowadays Jewish education is contracted out to Jewish educators. And the failure of the “supplementary school system” is that successfully performing at one’s bar/bat mitzvah is the definition of a good religious school education for many of the parents.

Where did we go wrong? I’m not sure the answer really matters. These parents who grew up in the congregational school system of the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s are just passing on to their children what their experiences taught them. It’s more where we go from here - which is what I’m struggling with.

Do we teach Hebrew so that the kids can decode their Torah portions without error, or because the Hebrew language is that which defines the Jewish people? Remember – back in the 3rd century BCE (!) the Torah was translated into Greek by 70 rabbis for the Greek speaking Jews of the Diaspora. I wonder if back then they were having the same conversation we’re having now about Hebrew education. What does this tell us about the goals of teaching Hebrew? Where do we put our energy? What should be the focus of whatever Hebrew instruction we implement? Given the realities of the amount of time we have the kids, what should we be aiming to accomplish?

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Riding Two Horses At Once

On Friday night I went to my synagogue’s “Blue Jean Shabbat”, during which we all ate hotdogs, drank Sam Adams beer and welcomed the Sabbath Bride, who was accompanied by Uncle Sam, in commemoration of Erev July 4. A happily serendipitous confluence of celebrations: both spiritual and political.

When I was growing up, my mom would recite a Hungarian saying: “You can’t ride 2 horses with one bottom (in Magyar the word for the bodily part is “segg”, which is slightly more graphic, but you get the point). How do we American Jews/Jewish Americans manage this feat? How do we reconcile our affinity to both promised lands, the one in the east and the one in the west?

This concerns me in light of recent political events in the Middle East; the ramifications of which I fear will come to roost here. There has always been more or less a condominium of interests between the governments of Israel and the United States. When things weren’t so lovey-dovey, like during the period of Bush the First and the loan guarantees issue, these divisions were swept under the rug as much as possible. With Obama’s call for a true just peace agreement between Israel and Palestine on the table, and with Israel’s political leadership minimizing the centrality of the Jewish settlement issue in reaching said peace agreement, are we fast approaching some type of conflict that will be harder to hide?

How to we teach loyalty to a country and an idea (Israel and Zionism) when the practical policies of that land have the potential of running counterpoint to the stated policies and values of the U.S. of A? I’m referring not just to the issues of Jewish settlement in the West Bank but also pending legislation that would limit freedom of speech in Israel for non-Jews and their Jewish sympathizers. Which horse do we ride? More to the point, which Israel do we teach? What vision of Israel do we want the next generation to embrace – that of Shas or Avigdor Lieberman or Tzippi Livni or Gershon Baskin?

More practically, who decides which vision to teach? In the constellation of the American Jewish organizational alphabet soup, who is the arbiter of truth?

I offer no answers - just a lot of questions that we will all need to confront in the weeks and months to come as we move towards peace or war in Israel/Palestine.