Thursday, June 24, 2010

Jewish Education in America: A Historical Note

Given the conditions of Jewish education in the United States, it is not surprising that so many children behave badly and learn little in Hebrew school. What is surprising is that this situation has existed for at least 140 years.

In a piece published on the Web in January of this year under the title “Stop Blaming Hebrew School,” Rabbi Benjamin Weiner responds to comments reportedly made by a prominent Jewish philanthropist in an interview on cable television. These comments included a characterization of the American institution of Hebrew school as “a shandah—an abysmal failure. . . . Can there be a worse term in the American Jewish lexicon than ‘Hebrew School’? There were six kids in the 20th century who liked it!”

Weiner contests the claim that Hebrew school has been a failure: “Anyone who has jockeyed disaffection with the Jewish establishment into a successful career of personal expression on the American mass-media stage . . . should reflect on the debt of gratitude he or she owes to this half-assed system of religio-ethno-cultural indoctrination,” he writes. But his main point is that “such talk, to paraphrase Tevye, blames the cart for the inherent lameness of the horse.” Weiner likens “the oft repeated claim that synagogue Hebrew schools are responsible for the decline of the Jewish people” to “stripping your parents’ house of all viable woodwork, plumbing, and appliances and then wondering why they live in such a dump.” He writes further:
What created the supposition that two to six hours a week of after-school guttarality could foment a firm commitment to the Jewish people? I don’t think this paradigm was determined deliberately from the outset, by committee. At the turn of the last century, there were viable models of Jewish education, and there was a critical mass of Jewish community prepared to embody them. And then there was mass immigration, and genocide, and breakneck assimilation—from a flummoxed traditional culture into a post-War America that was primed with petroleum to give Jewish people the greatest thrill ride they had ever experienced in a Gentile world. And, at the end of the day, Hebrew School emerged because it was the best we were allowed to do. Speaking, gloves off, as a working rabbi and education director, trying hard to find ways to reflect the “verbiage” of the Jewish religion “realistically upon our lives,” it is frustrating that, by consensus of the parents of my community, I can only educate their children for two hours a week with no homework, and that those hours come well after regular school hours, and that the expectations for behavior and attendance sometimes fall somewhere between a railway station and a monkey house—despite the fact that they are all, without exception, great kids. But this is roughly the extent of the concession that many American Jewish families are willing to make these days to their Jewish identities, and there should be a category of Nobel prize for whoever figures out how to put these parameters to the best use.
The point is that historical circumstances have made the institution of Hebrew school, with all its limitations, the primary arrangement by which Jewish parents seek to transmit Jewish knowledge to their children. The results are dismal because the hours in the classroom are meager and no homework can be assigned—not that having longer hours or assigning homework is a serious option, given that the sessions are supplemental to the children’s weekday schooling.

My attention was arrested by Weiner’s felicitous observation that “the expectations for behavior and attendance sometimes fall somewhere between a railway station and a monkey house.” The phrase seemed to me exactly to describe my own experience of Jewish religious education, and moved me to post a comment under the heading “I have long wondered why we all hated Hebrew school so much,” in which I wrote:
I am ashamed to recall the way that I and my fellows behaved in religious school. I had Sunday school at one Reform synagogue and evening classes once a week at another, with a different crowd at each, and we were all completely ineducable. As far as I recall, the only teacher who got any respect from us was a tough, sarcastic rabbi from Brooklyn (in Seattle, such a creature was rather exotic) who had a great knack for humorous abuse à la Don Rickles, and who would throw erasers at students whose answers he didn’t like. I can't speak for the other boys (I don’t recall the girls being as troublesome as we boys were, though they may have been just as inattentive), but I was certainly interested in the subjects that I studied in my secular day school, and it would never have occurred to me to misbehave in class there.
The puzzle is that youngsters who, in their daily secular schools, showed at least a reasonable degree of interest in their subjects of study and a reasonable standard of behavior became inattentive and intractable during the measly two hours or so that they were expected to spend in learning about Judaism. Weiner, though he notes this disparity, does not attempt to explain it.

Reader Becca Lish, however, does so in a comment in which she writes that the Jewish philanthropist mentioned earlier “might wish to look to the vast majority of parents who expect our children to embrace beliefs and practices which we ourselves eschew. . . . The degree to which we integrate ‘Jewishness’ into actual family life will always be the prevailing factor in determining both sentiment and practice in the next generation.” I am inclined to agree. In fact, just a few days before her comment appeared, I had written something in a similar vein in a comment on my own blog:
Though I was industrious and well-behaved in my weekday secular school, I and my classmates in religious school were rebellious, inattentive, and virtually unteachable. I think that the underlying cause was simply that Jewish observance played so little role in our everyday lives that any study of it or of the thinking on which it was based literally bored us silly.
As I ruefully concluded my comment on Weiner’s piece: “In my adulthood, I wish that I could have learned much more [about Judaism when I was a child], but I don’t know how anyone could ever have taught it to us.” The ineffectuality of Jewish education outside of day schools and yeshivot reflects the thinness of most American Jewish practice.

But why is so much American Jewish practice—at least, so much American Reform Jewish practice—so thin? I think it is thin because the underlying beliefs are thin; and I think that the beliefs are thin because modern scientific and historical knowledge has made them so. But I know too little about the subject for my historical speculations to be worth publishing here.

Recently, I have been making my way slowly through Michael A. Meyer’s compendious Response to Modernity: A History of the Reform Movement in Judaism (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988). The following passage—and this is really what this whole post has been leading up to—caught my attention:
Limited to a few hours a week, the religious school was unable to undertake the intensive curriculum which had been taught in the day schools. Most met as few as two hours per week. Hebrew especially suffered, students but rarely achieving any real competence in the language. While in the majority of schools some Hebrew was taught, it was often optional and in quite a few not taught at all. Children who behaved well in public school resented the additional burden of weekend classes. As one observer noted, comparing the two: “There attention and quiet, here indifference, often wild noise; there decent respectful behavior toward the teacher, here only the opposite.” (286)
I quote this passage here because, although it almost exactly describes my own experience of Hebrew school, it refers to the situation approximately 140 years ago: the quotation within the quoted passage is taken from a piece published in 1871! Rabbi Weiner, in a passage quoted earlier, claims that “at the turn of the last century”—that is, circa 1901, in contrast to developments in subsequent decades—“there were viable models of Jewish education, and there was a critical mass of Jewish community prepared to embody them.” I don’t know how to square this with Meyers’s historical account. If the passage from that account quoted above is at all reliable, then the ineffectuality of Hebrew school and the refractory behavior of its recipients are not only not recent developments: one could fairly say that they belong to a Reform Jewish tradition.

Previous post: A Dilemma for NOMA

No comments:

Post a Comment