The New Hebrew School Will Take A Village
Tue, 01/11/2011
Special To The Jewish Week
Rabbi Joy Levitt’s vision of community-based Jewish education incorporates Scouts-like “badges” and varieties of informal settin
Rabbi Joy Levitt’s vision of community-based Jewish education incorporates Scouts-like “badges” and varieties of informal settin

Imagine if you will a typical week in the Jewish education of a fourth grader named Josh.

Josh has decided to earn four “badges” this year — in the areas of Tikkun Olam, Jewish Holidays, Hebrew Reading Proficiency and Setting Shabbat as a Special Day. For his “Tikkun” badge, once a week, he has decided to volunteer at a local school for developmentally disabled children, where he helps coach basketball once a week. In preparation, he takes a two-part workshop on tikkun olam in Jewish tradition and learns about working with special-needs children. For his “Hebrew” badge, Josh practices reading online with a computer program (having learned basic Hebrew in camp) and reads over the phone with his grandmother once a week. For his “Holidays” badge, he takes a 10-week class offered at a Jewish community center, spending two weeks each in the culinary, photography, painting and ceramics studios with an informal arts educator.

In his clubhouse, which meets on late Friday afternoons, he unwinds from the week and celebrates Shabbat with his peers.

Josh is not going to Hebrew school or Jewish day school, but he is immersed in activities that connect him to Jewish values and institutions that enrich his life. His program is family-centered, synagogue-based, and community enriched. His parents pay one tuition bill; everything is covered.

While this model of Jewish education doesn’t yet exist, I am hoping it will soon.

Why? Because in an age of unprecedented affluence and access to resources, we are faced with an unacceptable gap between the Jewish lives we want for ourselves and for our families, and the Jewish lives we actually experience.

We want lives that mean something and that have purpose and integrity. We want to feel connected to our people and our past, and to one another, through shared stories and history. We want joy — the opportunity and ability to celebrate the special moments of our lives and to be able to express gratitude for all we have. We want to live in the world with all its complexities, even with all its problems. Indeed, we feel a special responsibility to fix those problems.

Yet the majority of our children attend after-school educational programs that cannot achieve the level of excellence that parents ought to expect and that our community needs to maintain thriving, nurturing Jewish communities.

A radically new model is required to bridge this gap, to create a more sustainable vehicle in which to transmit our tradition, and in so doing, build the world we want for ourselves and for our children.

The new model I envision assumes that most children will not receive a Jewish day school education, most families cannot provide Jewish education for their children without outside resources, and that most afternoon Hebrew schools fail to provide children with the tools to lead engaged Jewish lives. It also assumes that no single model will be sufficient for our diverse Jewish community: while synagogues remain a key resource, we need to expand the institutions engaged in providing educational opportunities. Multiple options are required to meet the needs of children with special needs, challenging schedules, different family structures and specific interests.

The reasons for the failure of the after-school Hebrew school model are several, though two are central: the economics don’t work, and the time of day is bad for children, teachers and families. No amount of re-imagining can change the time of day, and while more resources are required, money alone cannot fix an essentially a bad model.

My alternative model begins in fourth grade and resides either at a synagogue or a JCC. Communities would undertake a process to identify their values, forming a list that might include 25 items, like Hebrew reading proficiency, an understanding of Jewish holidays, setting Shabbat aside as a special day and a regular practice of tikkun olam. From that list, perhaps eight items would be deemed “core.” Children would select an additional five “electives” from the list, based on their interests. An adviser who works with the child and his/her family would help facilitate the process. Over the course of the four years leading up to bar/bat mitzvah, children would complete the requirements for 13 “badges.”

While synagogues would offer classes, retreats and workshops to enable children to earn badges, there would also be other venues where they could do so, including Jewish summer camps, JCCs, Jewish museums and even secular institutions, where appropriate. Once a week, children would come together in a clubhouse in order to create community that will provide social and emotional support as they grow.

What makes this model different? For one thing, it assumes a communal responsibility for Jewish education. For another, it places more choice (and responsibility) in the hands of children and parents. It gives children the opportunity to follow their passions while developing the muscles the community needs them to strengthen. It acknowledges that “school” is not the best or most effective way to transmit values, culture, tradition or even language in an afternoon setting.

There is a lot of work that needs to be done to get us from where we are to where we need to be. I am embarking on a planning process with a select group of four to six pilot synagogues (we will soon be putting out an RFP) in the New York area to simplify the model, develop the business plan and determine the staffing needs. Busy and often cynical parents who have come to expect very little from their children’s Jewish education will have to be convinced to take some risks.

We can say out loud what we know to be true, that we can and must do this better, and then we can really do better for our children. This proposal represents a big idea. Synagogues and JCCs will have to commit to change the way they function. But even with everything that is wrong — weak systems, failed models, and shrinking demographics — we have much in our favor. We have a passionate desire to succeed. We understand the stakes. We have the resources, in our minds, in our hearts, and in our pocketbooks to create exciting, intensive, interesting learning pathways for our children.

Rabbi Joy Levitt is the executive director of the JCC in Manhattan.