Tutoring Trend Tests Jewish Values

Privatized learning seen as threat to communalism.

12/23/09
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Several times a year, Jo Kay, the director of the New York campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s education school, finds herself in a tricky position.

She has to decide how best to respond to unaffiliated families who — seeking an alternative to synagogue Hebrew schools — ask her if she can help them find a private tutor.

Kay ran Congregation Rodeph Sholom’s religious school on the Upper West Side immediately before assuming her current role, and her graduate school, a division of the Reform seminary, trains educators to work primarily in synagogues and day schools. A strong believer in Judaism as a communal, rather than do-it-yourself endeavor, she is not a big fan of home tutoring, even though she recognizes hat many families have “extenuating circumstances” that make it necessary.

Nonetheless, due to her relationship with graduate students — many eager for extra part-time income — she’s seen as a source for tutor referrals. And, while she wishes the families who call her would instead find a place for themselves in a synagogue, she is reluctant to turn away anyone seeking a Jewish experience.

“The more families are turned away the less likely they are to connect ever,” she notes. “When I get a call from a family, I want to extend a hand, I don’t want to be just another person that they can say wasn’t interested in them.”

Kay, who hopes her tutoring students will inspire the families to get involved in congregational life, is hardly alone in her ambivalence about tutoring.

As seemingly growing numbers of families in New York and other major metropolitan areas eschew Hebrew schools for the convenience and intimacy of private tutors, many in the organized Jewish world — particularly those active in synagogues — worry that tutoring’s individualized approach, part of a larger trend in modern American culture, poses a threat not just to synagogues, but to the very ideals of Jewish community.

“There’s such a notion of privatization in the city,” observes Rabbi Felicia Sol of the Upper West Side’s Congregation B’nai Jeshurun. “We want to combat the notion that Judaism is all about hiring someone to meet my needs, on my schedule and not necessarily being as interested in the community at large. ... Jewish life has always been centered around the community.”

Yet at the same time, those who criticize tutoring recognize that part of the reason it remains attractive is because a number — though far from all — of Hebrew schools leave much to be desired.

And, like Kay, they understand that for many families the choice is not between Hebrew school and a tutor, but between a tutor and no Jewish education at all.

The most frequently leveled criticism against privatized Jewish education — whether with a one-on-one tutor or in a small group environment — is that it fails to teach about, or expose children to, the broader Jewish community.

Rabbi Laurie Phillips, director of education at Congregation Habonim, on the Upper West Side, likens Jewish studies tutoring to private sports lessons.

“You can learn to play soccer with a tutor, but it’s a different experience if you’re learning one-on-one versus being part of a soccer team. You’ll know how to play, but won’t know how to be part of a team.”

Jack Wertheimer, a Jewish history professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary and editor of “Learning and Community: Jewish Supplementary Schools in the Twenty-first Century” (Brandeis University Press, 2009) wonders “how well” private programs “can socialize young Jews to feel part of a congregation.

“One of the great advantages of Jewish children being educated in schools is that they are exposed to different types of Jewish role models,” he says. “They see the rabbi, they see their teachers, they see other adults engaged in Jewish living. The private route limits the exposure of young people.”

In addition to exposing children to congregational life and, ideally, instilling in them a sense of belonging to a community, Hebrew schools, unlike tutoring, offer students a chance to socialize with other Jewish children — including ones who come from different backgrounds.

While one-on-one tutoring, by definition, cannot expose students to Jewish diversity, even small groups of kids learning together with a private tutor — such as the model Rabbi Reuben Modek offers in his Rockland-based Hebrew Learning Circles program — tend to “end up with very homogenous groupings,” notes Saul Kaiserman, director of lifelong learning at the Upper East Side’s Temple Emanuel.

“When synagogues are doing their best work, you have public and private school kids from all over the city that are having to deal with their different backgrounds and different levels of observance,” he says.

Says Rabbi Sol: “We really believe that having relationships and experiences together, and growing up with the same group of kids, instills something in our children that ‘it’s not just all about me.’”

At B’nai Jeshurun even the bar/bat mitzvah ceremony — and, while an exception is made for special-needs children, privately tutored children cannot have a BJ rabbi officiate, nor can they have the ceremony on Shabbat morning or a community mincha —teaches about community, Rabbi Sol says.

“B’nai mitzvah don’t lead the whole service, because it’s not only about them. The ultimate expression of bar mitzvah is actually becoming a functioning participant in the community at large — not that everyone suspends their own spiritual needs to have a concert or performance by a 13-year-old kid.”

Even if Hebrew schools do a better job than tutoring when it comes to fostering community, some leaders believe that synagogues would do well to adapt some of the practices of private tutoring — such as offering students more flexibility, more options and one-on-one attention.

“The organized Jewish community should adapt this model within its institutions so people don’t have to seek it outside,” says Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute, which often gets calls from people seeking recommendations for a private tutor.

“If the goal is to provide Jewish education, then we should provide as many opportunities to get there as possible,” he says.

Some Hebrew schools offer some of these features, particularly opportunities for one-on-one attention.

Central Synagogue, one of the few Hebrew schools to employ full-time teachers, has a homework room, where children can go after class to receive extra help.

Scott Shay, who co-founded and helps run the Jewish Youth Connection, a Sunday school that is now sponsored by Kehillath Jeshurun, on the Upper East Side, says his program is a “hybrid” that provides the best of what Hebrew school and private tutoring have to offer.

All the JYC students spend part of Sunday morning working on Hebrew one-on-one with college students, called “big brothers and big sisters,” Shay says. The college students often check in on their charges during the week in order to see how they are managing their homework.

But the program also features regular classes, as well as parties and other group activities.

Where private tutoring wins hands-down, however, is convenience. With a teacher who comes to your home at a mutually convenient time, there is no commuting, no need to carve out one, two or even three afternoons a week — and for busy families struggling to balance an array of competing demands and activities, this is no small thing.

Nonetheless, argues Kaiserman, convenience isn’t everything.

“I suspect those parents wouldn’t have their kids study karate or ballet in their living room, but somehow manage to get them to class because they want a quality program, and value it.”

Hebrew schools, he says, need to offer high quality — to compete not only with tutors, but with “the marketplace of after-school activities.”

“We’re down the street from the [Metropolitan Museum of Art], so we have to offer something as good as an art class at the Met,” he adds.

And while “we try to make it not impossible or unbearable,” Kaiserman says, “I don’t think inconvenience is necessarily a negative. Jewish values, yeah, they’re inconvenient. That’s the whole point. If they weren’t we wouldn’t need to be learning about them.”

JYC’s Shay agrees that requiring a bit of effort from parents is not necessarily a bad thing.

“While for some tutoring is a good option, I think there’s tremendous value in the parent having to get up and bring the child to a place with other Jews and other parents and say ‘This is something we Jews do,’” Shay says. “As opposed to saying ‘Here’s Rabbi X who’s coming, and your piano teacher is coming an hour later.’”

Last Update:

12/23/2009 - 14:32

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