Last Line of Defense


In case you haven’t noticed, Hebrew school, that bastion of non-Orthodox supplemental religious training, is a thing of the past. In the evolution of American Jewish life, the Sunday schools and religious schools of past generations have given way to “experiential Wednesdays” and “Jewish discovery labs.”

And whatever you do, don’t call it “Hebrew school.”

As you’ll read in this week’s JT, the traditional backstop of religious instruction — prior to the unprecedented growth in the Jewish day school movement, Hebrew schools, of whatever denominational stripe, were a crucial component of Jewish education for those who sent their children to public or non-Jewish private schools — has been assaulted from all sides.

Many parents, their memories fresh from less-than-ideal experiences as pre-bar and bat mitzvah children a generation ago, have — fairly or unfairly — written off today’s synagogue-affiliated religious schools as carbon copies of past iterations. In addition, more families than a generation ago are sending their children to day schools, negating the need for after-school and weekend religious instruction.

At the same time, communal umbrella organizations such as Jewish federations are changing the way they fund Hebrew schools. The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore moved to a program-based grant system several years ago, and just this month, the Jewish Federation of Howard County did the same. Whereas that federation allocated $32,000 last year to Hebrew schools in the county, future allocations will likely be below that level.

As always, the question now before us is: Where do we go from here?

This column has repeatedly stressed the need for adequate support of Jewish education. But whereas that general call has been specifically articulated on the side of the day schools, it must never be forgotten that the need for Hebrew schools has not lessened. For families who have found day school education either too expensive or not desirable enough for their own children, Hebrew schools can provide badly needed religious instruction at a reduced price.

Hebrew schools can also be paths of entry toward greater familial involvement in Jewish life. Hence the push of some synagogues — Beth Shalom Congregation’s Jewish Experiential Wednesdays is a key part of its religious school program, while Beth Am Synagogue created the Jewish Discovery Lab — to rebrand the staid Hebrew school into a more culturally significant enterprise.

At a time of economically enforced budget cuts, it would be too easy to let Hebrew schools fall by the wayside. The Jewish federation system cannot be faulted for making difficult choices in allocating scarce communal resources, and we all as a community need to be adept at doing more with less. But we all need to recognize the vast potentials of our Hebrew schools as truly the last line of defense against the dual pressures of assimilation and apathy.

Where religious schools have as yet not succeeded, they need to be encouraged to do better. And where they’ve succeeded, they need to be held up as models for everyone else. At the end of the day, we can’t rely on only one educational model to guarantee the next generation’s level of Jewish involvement. It’s going to take an all-hands-on-deck mentality.

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