Friday, May 20, 2011

040511 Dear Jewish parents.

040511 Dear Jewish parents. Version 1

Dear Jewish parents:

We bring our children to school to have them learn things we consider valuable.

We entrust the public schools with their secular education, and in many ways, they do a creditable job.

Most of us bring our children to synagogue Hebrew schools, which come under many names, to have them learn about our culture.

Almost throughout the United States, the Hebrew school has been reduced to two days per week.

This can only be adequate for even the most basic acculturation if there is considerable support at home.  It is vital that there be an additional period of extended study, and at least two short periods of practice, per week.

I have taught in Hebrew school classrooms for two decades.  I must tell you, I have rarely seen this happen.

The reasons are various.  Professionals lead busy, stressful lives.  We wish the best, all the best, we can provide for our children.  This often includes music, dance, modern languages, advanced tutoring, athletics, etc.  These, activities compete, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say, our culture must compete with all of these other valuable, beneficial activities and opportunities.  There is of course the difficulty that many parents have not really made regular or rigorous study of Jewish topics a personal practice since their own b’nai mitzvah.

It often happens that students are absent from numerous class sessions because of an athletic season.  This is, of course, not only detrimental to the individual child, but to the whole class, as such children almost never make time to compensate for the missed work.  Rather, most such students require review and recapitulation during every class they do attend.

I have to tell you, the best you can hope for from the sort of program most synagogues offer, as hard as everyone involved works to maximize its quality, impact, and value, is a child with a tenuous grasp of a limitted number of prayers, who, with extensive coaching, will be able to do a creditable job at a bar or bat mitzvah.

If that is what you want, you are not alone.  A great many Jews over the last two and a half centuries have found this sufficient, preferring to think of themselves as citizens, or liberals, or professionals first, and Jews a fairly distant second, if that. 

If you would like your child to have any familiarity with the classic texts of our culture and our own, indigenous, organic language as more than a grinding exercise, to have the pride and strength of identification such knowledge affords, I beg you to consider this:

Graduating highschool in most places requires two years of mathematics, science, language, English, and American history and social science.  A year of one period in a public school is more than three times as many instructional periods as a Hebrew school year.  The year is longer, there are fewer holidays, and there are five, not two, not three, five periods per week.  The minimum highschool graduation requirement in any important (major) secular subject, which few of us would consider a full education, is the equivalent of more than six years of Hebrew school.

Hebrew school, from third to seventh grade, is thus the temporal equivalent of  a year and two-thirds in two subjects.  Additionally, due to the short year and required holidays, much time is lost in review and recapitulation.

I would honestly estimate the whole of Hebrew school to amount to about the equivalent of the morning portion of secular first grade.  Because it is spread over such a long period of time, it is dificult for the children to see or enjoy the satisfaction of any real progress, which also detracts from the value, impact, and enjoyment of the process.

If we want our children to have more, both parents and children need to invest more time.

This does not need to be burdensome, but it does need to be regular.

I suggest that those parents who want more go to their school administrators and request either additional or alternative programs with a minimum of three weekly sessions.  These programs should focus on the text of the Bible, especially the Chumash (Torah and Haftarot) and Tehillim (Psalms), because so much of both the Siddur (prayerbook), and modern Hebrew are derived from it, and modern Hebrew.  I think it would be a distinct improvement if, rather than dividing the class day in half, it was composed of three periods, two Hebrew (modern and Biblical), and one discussing holidays and history.  This, of course, would require a fair facility with the Hebrew language of every teacher.

The most critical element, though is that of the home.  The parents must actively indicate and model the importance of acculturation through some amount of study and practice.

These new programs could be family oriented, or the parents could have separate classes.  University trained intellectuals don’t require anywhere near as much instruction or support as elementary and middleschool students.  Either way, however, regular study at home with the children is crucial.

I would also like to say that cutting the school year so very short, leaving more than a quarter of the year until the next class sesson, is one of the worst ideas in education.  Almost none of us, I fancy, really requires our children to reap our fields, the original reason for a months long Summer vacation.  I am not being sarcastic.  The idea of sending all the children home for two months dates from the beginning of public education, when America was still largely an agrarian economy.

There are numerous options for Summer education.  It could be a continuation of the regular year.  It could be a separate program.  It could be several short programs.  The last appeals to me because many people take vacations, but few are gone all Summer, and many children go to camp, but again, few go for the entire Summer.  A class or two a week in June, July, or August reading a book of the Bible not studied during the regular program (such as Ruth, or Esther, or Song of Songs) or modern Hebrew literature, or listening to Hebrew folk songs and then studying the lyrics, would greatly decrease the negative effect of the exceedingly long break.

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