Rethinking Jewish Education

Michael Zeldin From

Reform Judaism, Spring 1995

Reprinted with permission.

Three widely-held assumptions about Jewish education may be more misleading than enlightening

A few years ago, I attended a meeting to plan a Jewish teacher-training program. In the course of our discussions, a professor of Education from a local university warned us not to introduce teachers to any complex ideas. “After all,” she said, “they’re only schoolteachers!” When the meeting ended, a shocked graduate student complained to me, “When my mother used the term ‘schoolteacher,’ she meant it with reverence. But this professor denigrates the profession, and she devotes her life to training teachers!” The student knew that the professor’s comment make a mockery of our sages, who taught: “Let the reverence for your teacher be as great as your reverence for God” (Pirke Avot 4:15).

Clearly, a disparity exists between the traditional Jewish ideal of the teacher and the contemporary reality. Before addressing the question of teacher status in our North American Jewish community, three widely-held but questionable assumptions about Jewish education need to be addressed.

The first of these assumptions is that education takes place solely in schools. In fact, Jewish education encompasses everything that happens when people interact within our community — the stories they tell, the skills they share, the way they discuss current events or temple politics, the way they treat one another. Everyone who sets foot inside a temple or who participates in a congregational program is potentially a teacher of Judaism. To be an effective Jewish teacher, one must be sensitive to the educational potential inherent in every moment, be open to life-long learning, and be aware of the power of one’s behavior as a model for others. The challenge to the Jewish community is to empower adults to view themselves as teachers, and to provide opportunities for them to learn and share their experiences with other Jews. Subsequently, all of these adults become part of a pool of potential teachers for congregational education programs.

Education Jews in Congregational Schools

The second questionable assumption is that Sunday schools and Hebrew schools will remain the primary format for Jewish education. Most Jewish schooling today does take place in settings specifically designed to teach Judaism, but this is likely to change. The disaffection with Sunday schools and Hebrew schools experienced by many baby boomers has etched itself on the psyche of the American Jewish community. The magnetism of bar and bat mitzvah, for which school attendance is a prerequisite, has kept these schools alive, but few professional educators and lay leaders currently believe that supplementary schools alone will be sufficient to prepare young Jews for a life-long commitment to Judaism.

Expanded educational programming is rapidly becoming the norm in Reform and conservative temples. New programs include performing arts, community service, and adult learning circles. Most Reform religious schools have added a family education component in an effort to transform themselves into Jewish learning communities. Many congregations urge their young people to participate in youth programs, summer camps, and, particularly, Israel trips, all consider vital to the Jewish community.

Unlike those working in the current paradigm of a classroom with a dozen or so students, tomorrow’s teachers will be called upon to teach children and adults, and to plan and implement programs for large numbers of people with different learning needs. They will need skills to move learning out of the classroom and into the community, utilizing a diverse range of resources. And they will need to be able to touch people’s hearts as well as inform their minds.

Day Schools

Since the 1970s day schools have provided an increasing popular alternative among all branches of North American Judaism. Because day schools assume responsibility for the totality of children’s education, they require professionally trained teachers, who, in addition to teaching secular studies, are responsible for teaching Judaism and modeling Jewish commitment. To accomplish these multiple tasks, they must bring a strong personal connection to Judaism, a naturalness about their own Jewish identity, and skills in teaching Judaic subjects within a broader curricular context. The challenge to the Jewish community is to find teachers with the necessary mix of pedagogic expertise, Jewish knowledge, and commitment. Where they cannot be found in sufficient numbers, the community must provide in-service training.

Jewish preschools are the “growth industry” of Jewish life. Their enrollments are swelling as young parents, returning to the organized Jewish community after establishing families, with to nurture their children’s Jewish identity. Our preschools must attract the very best teachers and directors by providing attractive salaries, sufficient benefits, and sound professional conditions; otherwise, success-oriented parents will forego Jewish identity development.

Investing in People, Not Programs

A third questionable assumption currently guiding the Jewish community’s educational agenda is that instituting new programs will solve educational problems. Thus, if parents don’t support their children’s education, start a parent education program; if Hebrew school students don’t have positive feelings about going to services, institute a new prayer program; if children in a religious school don’t form friendships, begin a retreat program. All these may be important steps in addressing problems, but programmatic changes alone are unlikely to enhance Jewish education and make it a more positive experience for students.

To improve Jewish education, we must focus not only on programs but on teachers. As Abraham Joshua Heschel noted, the Jewish people does not need more textbooks but more “textpeople” so that others may learn from the rich texture of their Jewish lives and souls.

The challenge to the Jewish community is to nurture Jewish lives and souls, so that people can teach each other. This responsibility falls mainly on educational leaders (directors of education, rabbis, cantors, etc.), who must encourage teachers to realize their human and Jewish potential, and to guide them as they share themselves with others. Their primary responsibility is more interpersonal than administrative. As mentors to their staff, they must be given the organizational and material support necessary to nurture those who have direct contact with students. They must provide teachers with a vision of what is possible when Jews engage each other in learning and growing as Jews. Investing in the “human capital” of the congregation — its teachers — will go a long way in fostering commitment to a vibrant Jewish future.