For good reason we refer to the greatest leader of the Jewish people as Moshe Rabbenu – Moses, our teacher. As Rabbi Paul Steinberg highlighted in his article last week, talented, motivated and passionate teachers are invaluable for high quality Jewish education. But, Moshe would have lived the rest of his life quietly tending flocks in Midian had he not encountered God at the burning bush and received his commission to redeem Israel from slavery. “Human agency”, quite literally, was not enough.
So too, our Hebrew School teachers need more than better compensation and professional development in order to be successful (though they may need these too). A group of excellent teachers can teach great classes, but to provide a cohesive education, the school must have a vision – a mission crafted by parents, community leaders, and educators together. Rabbi Steinberg recounted hearing from one parent that “learning Torah and siddur” was the purpose of Hebrew school. Although this seemed obvious to both parent and educator, we need to go deeper. Was that the considered decision of the community, to which all stakeholders had bought in? What were the students expected to be able to do with a siddur? What counts as “Torah” in that setting? What did the stakeholders hope that Torah would mean to the students?
Each school’s answers to such questions, and its wider vision, will differ, and so we must not expect one model to work for every school. A successful program that highlights tefillah skills acquisition will not look just like one that is more interested in Modern Hebrew and Israeli culture.
After agreeing on objectives, we must work out how to achieve them with an open mind, including considering adopting or adapting methodologies from other successful contexts, whether in secular education or Hebrew school’s (sometimes more fashionable) younger sisters – day school and summer camp. If creating a strong community is a top priority for the school, then some primarily social elements may indeed be appropriate. Exceptional experiential education pioneered in camp (and now taught in dedicated tracks at JTS’s and YU’s education schools) can also be an important direction for a school that seeks to integrate having fun and serious content. Afterschool programs, such as the ones described by Ana Fuchs in her response published yesterday, benefit from the every-day consistency of day school, as well as the immersive, experiential environment of camp.
God did not only give Moshe a mission, but also signs by which he might demonstrate his authority. In other words: tools. For today’s – and tomorrow’s – children, sophisticated technology is as essential for learning as pens and paper. In part-time Jewish education, we depend on the basic learning skills that the students are being taught in their secular schools. As the teaching media evolve rapidly outside of the Jewish classroom, it is incumbent upon Jewish educators to keep pace. We must meet the students where they are, and build a Judaic edifice on that foundation. (The potential for remote interactive learning also provides a special attraction for a school where the students are only present for a few hours each week.)
Hebrew schools can indeed be redeemed, but there is no one easy answer. We need first-rate teachers who are recognised as such, appropriate resources, and, most of all, a clear vision and sense of purpose. Only then can we discover how each Hebrew school can find redemption.