I Don’t Believe In Hebrew School And I Teach It Anyway

It’s “meet the teachers” night at the Hebrew school where I teach first-graders the Alef-Bet and not infrequently find myself saying things like “That’s a great question! I also don’t understand how G-d created the world!” and “Sammy, if I have to tell you to keep your shirt on one more time…”. It’s a small congregation, where everything feels makeshift somehow, like we’re all improvising this production together. The strong squad of stragglers who sustain the struggling synagogue and school seem at once naive and noble, fighting to maintain what I, in my Modern Orthodox sensibilities, five-star Hillel building, and Jewish Studies concentration, see as a lost cause. I have prepared a handout with a picture of a dancing Torah, and a child posing as a Hebrew letter, demonstrating the “Alef-Bet Yoga” I plan on incorporating in the classroom. I have written a friendly message encouraging parents to stay in touch with me, and expressing just how excited I am to meet their “special children”. It really is a nice handout. But I feel like a poseur.

A parent approaches me, earnest face making evident her hesitation. I know already this is a new thing for her, definitely her first child. The friendly, if apprehensive, mother strikes up conversation and I smile reassuringly, aiming for somewhere between book club facilitator and toothpaste commercial. She launches into an autobiography, detailing her traditional background- Conservative and Orthodox parents, “Yeshiva league” day school, unresolved qualms and agnostic leanings to boot. She thinks she’s the only one. She tells me in a kind voice of the resentments she holds from her upbringing, and her family’s struggle to make their home Jewish, without delving into the precarious “G-d territory.” Her daughter, my soon-to-be student, she tells me, initiated this  weekly Jew-School adventure herself, an energetic six-year old with some sense of Jewish spark. The mother worries that the lessons in Hebrew school might conflict with their family’s theological leanings (i.e, uncertainty). Their Judaism is a tribal affinity, but the “G” word is not on their parental agenda.

I smile and nod patiently, trying to validate and assuage the mother’s concerns. What she does not know is how little I want to talk about “G” either (or how much of class time will likely be spent just trying to make sure no one pulls anyone else’s hair). I explain to her that, while, of course it makes sense to worry about home and school environments and values aligning, the class will focus on Jewish holidays and Hebrew letters, postponing questions of divine power and providence until high school, at least.

The thing is, I think Hebrew school is a pretty pointless, ineffective educational model. The debate over the efficacy of after-school Jewish education programs is a contentious one, with day school advocates warning against rising rates of intermarriage (and probably mixed dancing too), and their opponents pointing to the potentially enriching nature of these lessons. And to be honest, day school is far (very far) from ideal, and not a feasible option for many families. So besides being a broke college student whose future rides on a liberal arts degree, I’ve been considering why I teach Hebrew School in the first place. I strive for integrity and consistency between my values and actions; so am I just a sellout in this case? Maybe, maybe not.

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There is a cassette tape of my father teaching me the Alef-Bet when I was an infant. The muffled, aged tape distorts our voices at some points, and you hear me trailing into the distance, exclaiming “gotta go poopy!”. I can’t claim to remember that day, learning the foreign letters as my dad begged me to stop stuffing my face with raisins and repeat “lamed-mem-nun” after him. I had to re-learn that alphabet many times before it meant anything to me, before I knew how to combine the Alef, Samech, Tav, and Reish to spell my Hebrew name. Still, “a journey of a thousand miles begins” with the Alef-Bet. It begins with the kind of creative energy that still burns at full strength in these kids’ hearts, not yet jaded, not yet dimmed by the frustrations of unanswered and unanswerable questions about the Almighty or justice. There’s an opportunity.

I am not naive or self-aggrandizing enough to believe I possess some sort of magical teaching power, the transformative kind all the Hillary Swank-esque, white savior inspirational teachers have in the movies. I don’t plan on providing a fail-proof Lifelong Jewish Identity in an hour a week. To think one can “give” a child a Jewish Identity, as though it’s a package of socks, might even be a fundamental problem in the first place. Still, I want to provide a space where kids can feel proud to be Jewish, and where they can learn to carry that excitement in their daily lives. I ask my students what they are grateful for, and then explain that Modeh Ani is one of many prayers we have to say “thank you” for all the donuts, new pets, flowers, hugs from mommy, and opportunities we have. I ask them to tell the group about something they did to make the world better, and then explain that visiting their grandparents, picking up trash, and holding their baby brothers are all kinds of mitzvot (which I refuse to translate as “good deeds,” and instead define as “rules the Torah gives us to be better people, get along together, and live a Jewish life”). I want them to see their Jewishness in their world, and to smile at the ways it brings out the best in them. 

A student of mine prompted his classmates, “raise your hand if you are Jewish!” All hands were up, and the students proceeded to look at their neighbors in pleasant puzzlement, exclaiming in genuine surprise, “wait, you’re Jewish too? Whoa, same!” Kids are pretty dumb, and I’m not sure why they thought this otherwise arbitrary group of children would be gathered there. But in that moment, I realized that their Yiddishkeit is not a given. In contrast to my Hillel-packed schedule and academic navel-gazing about Jewish scholarship and pop culture, their “doing Jewish” is an activity limited to this synagogue sphere, and they are trying to learn what that means.

I don’t know if I’m making a difference. I don’t know if these kids will marry Jews, or affiliate with a synagogue, or years later, forget everything but the taste of latkes. But I have to believe in the value of that weekly hour as counting for something, if not a lifetime of education. I teach because I love Jews, and I teach because someone’s gotta do it. I teach because these kids want to learn (sometimes), and because I’m hopeful, if not for the future of Hebrew school as an institution. I teach because I want to encourage questions, like the one that same mother mentioned at the orientation, when she told me about how upsetting it was to her as a child when she heard how the Egyptians were treated in the Passover story. Because the Alef-Bet is a most beautiful song to carry, and because of something else I can’t quite name, it’s somehow worth it.