I’ve read a lot of chatter online lately about Jewish religious education for our children and we need to talk. According to the research, our way of teaching is virtually ineffective in strengthening Jewish identity for our children as they become adults! What are we to do? How can we buck the trend? What can we learn that would change this?
I circulated among the religious school families the first article in a series about the topic. It posited that kids enjoy and enhance their Jewish identity through camp, and so we should bring camp to religious school. This sparked a lively conversation on line among the families.
Other articles responded, and one cited a study, The Impact of Childhood Jewish Education on Adults’ Jewish Identity: Schooling, Israel Travel, Camping and Youth Groups, which found that
Relative to those with no Jewish schooling, there are no consistent, positive impacts for in-marriage, ritual practices, and attitudes toward Israel associated with attendance at supplementary school for 6 years or less or at Sunday school for any number of years.
The study tells us that the education we offer at our religious school will have virtually no impact on our children’s Jewish identity as adults!
The criteria they use are:
- the in-marriage rate
- how many friends are Jewish
- ritual level (do you light candles on Friday nights?)
- synagogue membership
- whether being Jewish is important to you
- whether Israel is important to you.
These might not be the best definitions for success of a religious school, although whether being Jewish is important to you does seem to be a basic. I might also have asked about living a life of Jewish values, or working for social justice, or observing holidays with families.
In its conclusion, the article sets forth some potential reasons:
Several explanations may be operating here. Alternatives include deficiencies in basic structure, teachers, leadership, and/or curriculum. Another possibility is that such schools tend to serve youngsters from families with relatively low levels of Jewish engagement, reinforcing their relative distance from conventional Jewish life.
Can we control for quality of teachers and leadership, for the curriculum? We keep trying. Could our parents imagine sending their children to religious school two days a week, knowing that such an increase in time actually offers a significant strengthening of Jewish identity?
Another article challenged the first one, drawing a clear distinction between religious school and Jewish camp or travel to Israel: the immersive quality of camp or travel: playing, singing, breathing, eating, sleeping Jewishly, the overall sense of living Jewishly – is very different from two hours once a week, thirty weeks a year. We all know we learn languages better when we are immersed in them. Learning Hebrew 45 minutes a week is just not enough to engender the love for our lashon kodesh, holy tongue, or even master the basics. However, I just read an exciting article about how to make learning Hebrew both more fun and more effective, which I have shared with our teachers for discussion.
As the spiritual leader of the congregation, as the religious leader of the religious school, what am I to make of this for our community? The school staff will continue to work to upgrade our skills, our toolbox, our techniques, using state of the art curriculum, trying to discern what we think are the most important aspects of being a Jew for our kids to learn.
The partnership between family and shul is critical. Can we up the ante, both at home and at religious school so that the two hours our children spend at religious school is only the tip of their Jewish iceberg (sorry about mixing metaphors)? What would that look like? We don’t live in a major Jewish population (or even a minor one, for that matter). We are, for the most part, what our kids have—home and congregation, for their Jewishness.
How can we use best practices to make every experience count to mold their Jewish identity?