Allow me to begin with a very audacious statement: One of the most detrimental entities to the existence of the Jewish people is embodied in the modern day “Hebrew School.”
I’ve heard more than once, either in jest or even in partial seriousness, parents saying “I dreaded Hebrew School as a child, and my children will now have to live through it as well.” Sounds like these parents are very dedicated to their children’s Jewish education. For, if not, what other logic can cause them to coerce an unwilling child to endure the same dread that they felt as children?
But, of course, any sensible person will see right through this flawed façade. And I therefore take the liberty to share with you three reasons that Hebrew Schools do more damage than good to Jewish children:
a) Hebrew Schools, while their original intent and purpose was to supplement children’s Jewish education, have evolved into a technique for congregations to force their families to maintain membership. The strategy is that by refusing to “Bar Mitzvah” a child if they do not attend Hebrew School —and what caring Jewish parent in their right mind doesn’t want their child to be Bar/Bat Mitzvahed— you’ve created a captive membership. In addition to forced membership, and exorbitant fees associated therein, surely playing a role the recent steep drop in “Bar/Bat Mitzvah rates,” it also causes parents of post-Bar Mitzvah children to completely disassociate themselves with Judaism after Hebrew School graduation.
b) The Jewish education level at most Hebrew Schools are extremely substandard, and are increasingly getting worse. In some instances, the Jewish part of Hebrew School has been completely overhauled to consist of little Judaism and religion, and the schools have transformed our rich history and heritage to a mere “culture.” And this leads into my third point:
c) Hebrew Schools have become a justified substitute for an authentic Jewish education at a Day School. Even the best Hebrew Schools —and the definition of “best” itself is controversial— do not come near to providing the level of education of an established Jewish Day School. In fact, some Day Schools excel in their general studies over local publicly funded schools.
The solution is not for all Hebrew Schools to be put out of business. After all, something is better than nothing at all. And there are definitely steps that can be taken towards improving the existing Hebrew School structure (e.g. congregations allowing for Hebrew School membership only, parents encouraging an interest in Judaism outside of school or synagogue settings, etc.).
However, in the larger scope of things, the only long term remedy is the establishment of Day Schools throughout our communities. Schools that focus not simply on “teaching” Judaism, but encouraging students to live and experience an authentic Jewish life.