Benefit Of Doubt
I am savoring an unusual moment of calm amid the morning rush, when my daughter Talia startles me: “Next year I want to go to a Hebrew school where I can keep up my Hebrew.”
I roll my eyes toward my husband. Her pronouncement comes a few hours before the end-of-year party at her afterschool Jewish program — a program I consider to be one of the best-kept secrets of the Hebrew school world.
Fair enough, I can understand why my child might imagine that she would learn something about that language at an institution that we parents persist in calling “Hebrew” school (a decade or more after educators adopted more descriptive names such as “congregational schools” and afterschool religious programs). And it is also true, that a year ago, last June, this same girl would frequently initiate conversations with “Ani Rotzah,” as in “I want,” and I would beam with joy, whereas if she expressed the same demand in English, I might frown, and whimper under my breath, “How about a please?”
But of all the many struggles of parenting, I thought I’d resolved the question of my daughter’s Jewish education. Why just the other week on the beach, when I noticed a mother animatedly, anxiously chatting with another mother, who is a friend of mine, and I realized that their discussion revolved around Hebrew school hopping, I dove into that conversation, showering the pair with advice.
Before Talia transferred from a Jewish day school to a public school this September, I interviewed dozens of parents and educators in search of a religious education that would instill a joyful Jewish identity in my daughter and also a very basic literacy in Jewish lore.
I was delighted to find the Havurah School, a 35-year-old program based at Congregation Ansche Chesed but not affiliated with it, where the director Jerry Raik teaches the stories of the Torah with a satisfying combination of passion and compassion. He also encourages the children to experience the stories by creating art, both dramatic and fine. He is the kind of natural storyteller who can capture the attention of a roomful of kids and adults, even as his voice drops to barely a whisper.
What the Havurah School doesn’t do is teach Hebrew — at least not until the child is older, at which point he or she can opt for a second day of school, entirely based on language instruction. Of course, when I first signed Talia up for Havurah, I did so with the best intentions of continuing to develop her Hebrew skills. I hired a tutor, but soon found myself unable to stomach paying $80 a pop.
What Talia senses is something I didn’t as a child, and that’s the possibility of experimentation. It’s apparently not uncommon for this generation of Jewish families to jump between religious schools. (The beach mom was researching her daughter’s third one.) It’s also not uncommon for this generation of parents to offer their children choices. Do you want to bring the markers or the cards to the coffee shop? Do you want to attend this Hebrew school or another? But an attempt at such flexibility leaves this mother sore and fatigued.
Tears stream down my face when I speak with Cyd Weissman. The director of innovation in congregational learning at BJENY-SAJES, New York’s central agency for Jewish education, Weissman speaks to me as a parent — one who raised four children on a steady diet of religious after-school programs, who have grown into four adults with strong ties to Israel and varying degrees of Hebrew fluency.
“In some ways,” she says, “language is the most observable fluency, but what we really want is fluency in values, for children to live as menschen [kind people] in the world,” and that, she suggests can best be accomplished when children belong to a Jewish community. She continues, “If children belong here, here, here and here, do they belong anywhere?”
If the children belong to the entire Jewish Upper West Side, if the family attends religious services at Reform, Orthodox, Conservative and Renewal congregations, and most often not at all; if their daughter attends religious school in yet another community — then where do those children really belong?
And so, I’m once again bending over backwards, rethinking old choices. As they say in Israel, “Yesh lanu ba’aya?” Do we have a problem?
Elicia Brown’s column runs monthly. E-mail her at email@example.com.
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