We Are the People of the Book

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March 1, 2002
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By Cherie Koller-Fox

Jewish education is a life-long pursuit and should be thought of that way. From cradle to grave, Jews should be engaged in deepening their understanding of Judaism in order to deepen their understanding of themselves. To accomplish this, we need an educational system both formal and informal with multiple touch-points – all with clear educational goals. For instance, young families would be involved in Jewish parenting classes along with Lamaze, parent-baby drop-in groups, Shabbat dinners and social outings, pre-schools, family education, and Hebrew school and day camp. In this context, congregational schools are just one learning venue. They should not be viewed as the only context in which a person will learn about Judaism; therefore, they do not have to accomplish everything.

What, then, is the role of the congregational school in a lifetime of Jewish learning? Like all forms of elementary education, the goal should be literacy and teaching children how to learn. Jewish literacy comprises the practical skills that an adult Jew needs to know: how to lead a seder, read Torah, say kiddush, bake challah. Hebrew school is also an opportunity to experience what makes Jewish learning so compelling. For many Jews, this is the study of text. Children need to learn the skills necessary to understand and interpret text. Children as young as nine years old are capable of reading and understanding biblical texts in English with the guidance of a skilled teacher. They also need to be exposed to a rich and joyful repertoire of holiday observances and customs. They need to feel comfortable and be competent when entering a synagogue. They need to know Jewish history – but not until they’re developmentally ready for sequential learning. Literacy is what empowers and motivates children to learn more, and gives them the keys to Jewish learning.

It would be a crime to turn congregational schools into camps and clubs. Some educators are responding to the sentiment that children need to have fun at Hebrew school to feel good about being Jewish. Are we ready to declare that learning cannot be “fun,” even exhilarating? Jewish education has always introduced children to the great books of our civilization. We need to strengthen this aspect of who we are, not disregard it. We err when we take the meat off the bones to make things easier. Ignorance should not be the inheritance of the next generation.

In order to be happy, children must feel good at school. Because children attend synagogue schools only three to six hours per week, and because the content is challenging, individual children may fall through the cracks academically or socially. To prevent this, classes should be small and individualized. Special needs support is essential. Further, every child must feel accepted within the school community. Time spent, both inside and outside of class, developing friendship ties is crucial. Children should know that teachers and staff care about them and their spiritual questions. The rabbi should know the children’s names and be available to them – long before bar or bat mitzvah or a family crisis.

All schools would benefit from more money to provide up-to-date educational resources, excellent programming, and teachers who can inspire children and adults. Schools would grow stronger with more full-time teachers. Adequately compensated and supported professionals stay in their positions longer, providing consistency for students and excellence in content.

New models and innovative ideas can expand the time available for instruction and contact. Informal education should be used in conjunction with formal education, but should never replace it. Congregations should engage in ongoing discussion to clarify what Jewish education they want for their children and themselves. But we should remember what makes our civilization unique and what we want to pass on to the next generation.

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Rabbi Cherie Koller-Fox is a founder of CAJE and Co-chair of Hanukat CAJE, its advocacy branch. The congregational school she directed was named "one of the six best in the country" by the Baltimore Jewish News.

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