Wednesday, December 9, 2009

One Way or Another

I just read a depressing column in last week’s Forward ( It was written by Rabbi Irving Greenberg and it was entitled “There is No Alternative to Day Schools”. In the piece Rabbi Greenberg spelled out his case for massive funding for Day School education, declaring that that there is no other alternative in the fight against assimilation. He calls for the organized Jewish community to “muster its will to live and step up to pay the price – whatever it costs – for the highest level of Jewish education for its young.” Great sentiments. I agree with Rabbi Greenberg. Unfortunately, the solution he is proposing marginalizes most American Jews. That’s why it’s sad.

The majority of those getting any Jewish education in the U.S. do NOT attend Day Schools. Most of them have chosen the path of Congregational education. There are a lot of reasons, cost being just one. The point is that this is where most of the kids are and, I believe, where they will be in the future. So to declare that the Jewish Community needs to invest its education resources primarily in Day Schools ignores the reality of American Jewish life.

Congregational schools (Hebrew Schools, Supplementary Schools, whatever you want to call them) have gotten a bad rap over the years - in some cases deservedly so. Many of us “of a certain age” recall with shudders our Hebrew School experiences. Ironically, some of us have chosen, davka, to work in Jewish education to make it better. That’s the point. There are many Jewish educators in North America who are working very hard to recreate the Congregational School, reformatting it if you will. We’re experimenting with technology, experiential education, off-site learning, service-learning, camp-like experiences. You will find us at conferences, or in the cloud on Twitter and Google Wave. Those of us who work in Jewish education and are affiliated with Synagogue schools understand that the reality of the Jewish community is expressed in its diversity. There is no ONE way. We need to reach the kids however we can. This means that Day Schools, by definition, are definitely NOT the only alternative.

The organized Jewish community (i.e. federations) doesn’t seem to get this message. They are proud of the amount of money they give their community Day Schools, but when asked about how much they give to synagogue schools, in many cases the sound of silence reigns supreme. Amending Rabbi Greenbergs dramatic call, I believe that community organizations must “muster their will” to promote ALL Jewish education, embracing the diversity that is the strength of Judaism. It is time for synagogues and other non-Day School entities to have a seat at the community table when the discussion turns to funding the education of the next generation.

I’m not sure if Rabbi Greenberg will ever see these words. If you do, Rabbi, please understand that I wrote them with only respect for you and your message. I hope that you can understand that the future of Judaism that is embodied in our young people is rooted in more than one type of learning. During the Pesach seder we embrace the four sons, reveling in how they come to us with different questions (even if we don’t like the way they are asked), looking for answers that speak to them. We must remember that they are our children. We cannot turn them away.


  1. Well said, Peter, although I might take your challenge to the conventional wisdom a step further, and argue that even congregational supplementary/complementary schools along with day schools are not a broad enough mandate. There is now a whole generation that is making its Jewish community in places other than the synagogue (even online) and we need yet other, newer, non-synagogue-centered models of Jewish education to be supported by the community as wkek, if we are to truly embrace all Jews.

  2. Peter, great blog entry - and good to see it picked up by others on other social media.

    There is another way to frame the dilemma and the depression.

    Why should the (dis)organized Jewish community unless it is able to prove its value and worth?

    So therefore the onus is not on the community but on congregational schools to up the ante, raise the bar - whatever the metaphor is that we want to use)- then people will have no choice but to stand up and take notice.

    Or - if congregational schools cant improve (and as a whole they surely need to) then let's find other ways to educate our youth.

    We shouldnt forget one thing - synagogues were never designed to be schools. why should we have ever expected an institution that struggles with what it was initaialy set up for (religious and spiritual connections...) to be proficient in something that is even more complex and totally different from their original and intended purpose?