NEW YORK – Hebrew schools are something of a paradox in American Jewish life. Parents complain about how they hated Hebrew school and learned nothing there. Yet they send their children to them in far larger numbers than today schools.
Religious leaders lament how difficult it is to cover anything meaningful in the short chunk of time Hebrew schools allow – an average of 5-6 hours per week-particularly when compared to increasingly popular day schools.
Yet synagogues continue to run Hebrew schools, partly to make the synagogue attractive to younger families.
High-profile philanthropists like Michael Steinhardt and Charles and Edgar Bronfman – who are using their dollars and celebrity to highlight the importance of day schools, synagogues, campus student organizations, Israel experiences and activities for Jews in their 20s and 30s – have remained relatively quiet when it comes to Hebrew schools.
But given that Hebrew schools remain the venue of choice for 60 percent of American children who receive a Jewish education – and more than 80 percent of non-Orthodox children-various religious and educational leaders are seeking to snag more attention and dollars for them.
The Jewish Education Service of North America, which last year issued a report urging support for day schools, has launched a similar report on Hebrew, or congregational, schools.
And, after years as the butt of jokes, these schools just might be poised for some new attention.
Jewish federations are increasingly receptive to funding synagogue projects and the big philanthropists, through a new organization called STAR, are planning to invest millions of dollars in synagogues. STAR officials say the $500,000-a-year challenge grant pool it just launched for innovative synagogue programs could conceivably benefit Hebrew schools.
JESNA's report "is part of and will help further a revisiting of the synagogue school as an ongoing important educational institution," said Rabbi Robert Abramson, director of education for the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and a member of the JESNA task force that issued the report.
The beginning of the 1990s, said Abramson, marked a "very strong moving away from the synagogue school and an attitude – sometimes articulated sometimes obliquely implicit – that synagogue school is not part of the solution but part of the problem."
Now, said Abramson, despite continuing support for day schools, people have come to realize that there's no "silver bullet" in strengthening Jewish identity and that "one cannot ignore a place where somewhere in the vicinity of 70-80 percent of our children at least enter the portals of."
Called "A Vision for Excellence," JESNA's report lays out seven strategies "to transform congregational education," among them placing a congregation-wide focus on education, so that the Hebrew school is not an isolated entity but integral to synagogue life.
Other strategies include building broad community-wide support, developing new models for Hebrew school education – such as integrating aspects of informal education like summer camps, and recruiting and training teachers.
The report offers specific recommendations, including having innovative congregations share their visions with other synagogues and discuss ways to integrate the mission of the school into the larger synagogue mission as well as creating a community endowment to support Hebrew schools.
It also lists various congregational schools, as well as community-based programs, that are "innovative program models."
One model is a program at Temple Sholom in New Milford, Conn., that engages parents through adult-learning workshops-another is the School Accreditation Process of the Los Angeles Bureau of Jewish Education, which makes grants available to Hebrew schools that undergo an assessment process of self-study, goal-setting and on-site visits from outside consultants.
"My hope is the community will take a renewed interest in this venue to make it a quality, important, valued form of Jewish education," said Paul Flexner, the JESNA professional who oversaw the task force's work.
Hebrew schools, said Flexner, provide an important foundation to children who would probably not attend day school. Some leaders, he says, have suggested that Hebrew schools should be replaced with summer camps or other informal educational experiences.
However, "You need a foundation, and elementary formal school environment provides that foundation. You don't get kids in significant number to do anything if they haven't had a foundation."
Hebrew schools, he said, also have a greater potential than camps to involve the parents and to engage them in synagogue life. Leaders of all the movements were represented on the task force and say they are working to increase teacher training and curriculum resources for their synagogues' Hebrew schools.
But Barry Shrage, executive of Boston's Combined Jewish Philanthropies, which is considered a leader in its strong support for synagogues, warned that teachers and curriculum are not enough.
"As an isolated entity, the Hebrew school cannot educate children. It absolutely can't," he said, adding that "teachers are probably better trained than they've ever been and there is probably better curriculum material than ever, but no matter what you do, the Hebrew school experience doesn't quite make it unless you reinforce it with a serious number of experiences."
Eliot Spack, executive director of the Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education, said he is optimistic that the congregational school is moving higher on the communal agenda, noting that the JESNA report "won't fall on deaf ears."
In contrast to the "gloom and doom" of 1990s statistics that indicated high rates of assimilation and intermarriage, "the success of day schools has been giving people something to feel good about," said Spack.
But, he added, "There are good news stories in the congregational schools as well," and, with increased funding and attention, there could be more.