As a product of a once-a-week Sunday childhood Jewish education provided by a private tutor named Rabbi Jay Miller, z’l, I was initially happy to see the recent front-page article by Julie Wiener on this trend (“Tutoring Trend Tests Jewish Values,” Dec. 25). My first thought when seeing the photo and first part of the headline: “Tutoring Trend,” was “Wow — the establishment has finally caught on.” Then I took note of the closing clause of the headline. It stunned me. Apparently, this recent breakthrough in American Jewish education “tests Jewish values.”
The article quotes a sampling of several prominent synagogue educators in New York sharing doubts about the worth of private tutors for pre-bar and bat mitzvah students. Furthermore, Wiener and those she interviewed seem to assume this approach is only valid for unaffiliated families, but surely not for those more deeply committed.
I come from a traditional Brooklyn Jewish home in terms of observance and concern with Jewish education. Before opting for private tutoring at age ten, my parents tried one afternoon Hebrew school and two yeshivas. For different logistical reasons, these did not work out. One Modern Orthodox yeshiva was in steep decline since the neighborhood where it was located had become ultra-Orthodox, and another was too small and understaffed, and the Hebrew school was superficial in its approach to Jewish learning.
Then my father remembered that his father, while going to a secular gymnasium in pre-war Poland, received his formal Jewish education from private tutors. My grandfather was a well-educated Jew, who not only knew Bible and Talmud but also modern Hebrew language and literature. While we may no longer be living in the kind of rich Jewish environment my grandfather came from, clearly there was something to his experience worth exploring.
And so, feeling that private tutoring was not just a last resort, but perhaps an option that opened up the possibility of designing a substantive curriculum — an option proven by the generations although forgotten in America, even by the most fervently Orthodox — my parents went searching for the right teacher. They discovered Rabbi Jay Miller, known amongst scholars as an awe-inspiring Talmudist. He had a coterie of adult students with whom he studied privately. Rabbi Miller took me on, and my life’s journey, leading towards the rabbinate, began.
Studying with Rabbi Miller took commitment — it was expensive, and it meant for me, as a child, giving up my Sundays. But what more meaningful and sweet way to learn Chumash, Mishnah, and Talmud, than one-on-one with a “Rebbe?” We could embark upon curricular experiments difficult to manage in a more formal Jewish setting. For example, I was, and still am, fascinated by Rashi. He can be read on so many levels. I too wanted to write a Torah commentary. Rabbi Miller, so long as my Hebrew was correct and my questions good, supported that effort. Most importantly, having a private tutor allowed me to express my youthful worries and dreams to a trusted representative of the mesorah — the classic tradition. I have a feeling I would not have felt so close to Jewish thought as the most palpable feature of my own worldview if not for this one-on-one rabbi-student relationship.
Wiener’s article suggests that not only is tutoring weaker in terms of substance, but that it also deprives Jewish children of the potential to “socialize with other Jewish children.” There is truth to that claim. I did not have a year of bar or bat mitzvahs as I see children in my own congregation’s Hebrew school experience. Neither did I discuss the material I studied with anyone but my teacher and family. There are times when I wonder what colleagues who went to day schools actually went through, because their approach to Jewish life and learning is, on many levels, so very different from mine. For example, though I identify as Orthodox because that is my education, theology, and practice, it is hard for me to truly think denominationally. I only see before me my Rebbe and the material he taught me, rather than an institutional framing of my experience. But maybe, that is not such a bad thing. Maybe it’s OK to take prayer out of the Hebrew school and Mishnah out of the yeshiva, and learn privately with someone a student can relate to just like a piano teacher or after-school tutor.
I believe the unaffiliated, who number more than the affiliated in American Jewish life, have a lot to teach those of us in synagogue and communal institutions. Because of the experience I share with many of the b’nai mitzvoth Wiener describes, this is a hunch I can confirm. There are excellent day schools, and there are fine Hebrew schools, but private tutoring needs to be given an equal place at the table of American Jewish education. n
Rabbi Dr. Abraham Unger is professor of government and politics at Wagner College and Rabbi of Congregation Ahavath Israel in Staten Island.
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