I just started a new teaching gig: learning Megillat Ruth with a small class of high school girls every Sunday. And I was pleasantly surprised to find that my new students were extremely bright, had acute literary skills, and excellent Hebrew. They translated, they read, they discussed, all with speed, quality, and incisiveness...it was the kind of experience learning text with students that Jewish educators rarely get the chance to have.
Afterward, I was musing to myself about the class, wondering why this was so different. It’s not, of course, like I’ve never taught very bright, talented kids before. You can’t teach in Jewish day schools and Hebrew schools and not run into a lot of bright and talented kids. But these girls were remarkable, in my experience: I have seldom taught such a responsive and engaged class.
In the end, it was the engagement that struck me as being most different. They did so well not only because they were bright and talented, but because they were engaged, they were motivated. They wanted to be there, learning what they were learning. And to some degree, that might just be because all or some of them have a natural inclination for text study.
But to a very great degree, it became apparent to me, having met their parents, having seen those parents interacting with their children, that the girls were engaged and motivated because their parents were engaged, and were teaching by example that, in their homes, Jewish learning was important, and to be valued for its own sake; and that such learning was connected to life in that home, by virtue of observance. In whatever shape or form it might take, it was clear to me that these were homes that observed Shabbat and chagim (festivals) and perhaps had some kind of experience of kashrut. I’m not implying Orthodoxy or any kind of strict traditionalism; just that these were homes in which Judaism was readily participatory in some fashion. And I believe that has made all the difference.
I am a Jewish educator. My rabbinate is teaching. I’ve taught in day school, in Hebrew school, at informal learning gatherings, and one-on-one for tutoring of various kinds. I spend a lot of my time thinking about how to teach more effectively, what we as a community or as a people could be doing to improve Jewish educational facilities or train better Jewish educators. But things like teaching this wonderful class remind me that ultimately, even if we had the kind of funding that we need (and always lack) to make quality Jewish education readily available and affordable, even if we had consistently deeply informed and traditionally knowledgeable teachers, the better part of the onus for successful Jewish education rests upon the home.
I have taught classes, in the past, that were the reverse of this one that I recently began. Where the kids absolutely didn’t want to be there, they steadfastly refused to participate, their knowledge of both text and Hebrew was abysmal, and those that lacked utter apathy for the Jewish tradition only replaced apathy with vague contempt. And perhaps in part, we can write some of that off to modern teenagerhood: rebellious, apathetic, disconnected. But having met the parents of those students also, I know that they had homes in which Jewish observance played no real part: Shabbat was not kept, and such chagim as were kept were observed in the most casual and half-hearted manner; text was not discussed or learned in the home, and no form of kashrut was kept. In short, there was nothing in the home life of these students that might reinforce or support the notions that the study of Jewish text and tradition related in any way to real life, or was of any practical importance to their parents.
I once had such a student tell me with complete seriousness, when I asked her why she was in Hebrew school, that her mother had been quite clear that when she (her mother) had been a girl, she’d had to “waste her afternoons sitting through Hebrew school,” and if she’d had to do it, then her daughter would have to do it, too. It’s true that we talk a lot about passing things on l’dor va-dor (from generation to generation), but I’m pretty sure this is not what that’s supposed to be.
There seems to be a pretty clear understanding in secular American culture that if we want our kids to succeed in regular school, not only does the school need adequate funding, trained teachers, and decent materials, but parents have to be involved. They need to ensure that kids do homework, get tutoring if needed, and they need to be given encouragement, shown that education is valuable, and, ideally, come from a home where books and newspapers are read, current events are discussed, literature or history or science or mathematics are used and discussed and valued. In homes where none of these things are true, it is rare that the child will truly embrace learning and critical thinking.
It should be obvious that the same basic ideas are true for Jewish education.
It’s not enough that we send our kids to Hebrew school (which is seldom an adequate educational experience even in ideal circumstances), or even to day school. Judaism is passed on by Judaism being practiced. When kids see mitzvot being done by their parents, when they see Jewish ritual as a part of their daily (or at least weekly) lives, when they hear Torah being talked about-- even if it’s just a quick read of the weekly parashah-- that makes all the difference. When they get support and encouragement for their Jewish educational achievements equal or greater to that which they get for their secular educational achievement, that makes all the difference. In such situations, regardless of the level of home observance according to the stricture of the tradition, Judaism is a reality, a living thing, and it causes the student to engage in their Jewish studies. It makes Jewish education merely a Herculean effort, rather than a Sisyphean effort-- and sometimes, as with my newly begun class, it even makes it into a pleasure and an instant success.
We Jewish educators need to make a bargain with the rest of Am Yisrael: we will give 110%-- really bust our butts-- coming up with quality Jewish educational experiences for your kids. We will bring to bear all our excitement and passion for our texts and traditions, all our dedication to youth and education. We will try to make do on the shoestring budgets and limited resources that education in an economic crisis and an atmosphere of assimilation permit us. We will continue to teach for shockingly low pay, just like other teachers, all across America. But in return, zay dem yidn: live Jewish lives. Bring Jewish observance into your homes. Go to shul on Shabbat. Learn a little Torah. Maybe keep a little kosher. Say a brachah now and then. These things have limitless effect on your children. And they will give life to our tradition as nothing else will do so, strengthening the next generation and elevating us all just a little in holiness.