The goal of Jewish supplemental education cannot simply be a curricular acquisition of knowledge about Jewish history, culture, prayer or Hebrew.
If we do not prioritize acceptance, care, friendship, inclusion, and love for every child in our synagogues, it is irrelevant what they learn about the Ten Commandments, reciting V’Ahavta, or the history of the Land of Israel. If our synagogue schools are not primarily a place of welcome and care for our children, they are far less likely to grow to be adults who want to be members of synagogues.
If we want to save synagogues, we have to change the stated goal of Jewish education programs. The primary goal must be to love our kids and think they’re cool.
Creating knowledgeable, involved Jews does not require 10+ years of Jewish education. Just ask anyone who became a Jew as an adult and now leads a fulfilling and engaged Jewish life. Hebrew can be learned in adulthood, prayer, history, tradition, and culture are not going anywhere, and are easier to access than ever. And, engaging an adult in Jewish learning will be far easier if that adult does not have an engrained memory of being shamed, overlooked, or dismissed as a child.
“So make everything fun”, “Make everything like camp!” No, this misses the point. Kids don’t love camp because it’s fun. Kids love camp because they belong there, they have friends, they are loved by their counselors and celebrated for their “unique spirit” that the rest of their world considers “disruptive and inappropriate”.
Young people, like adults, do not need to be entertained, they need to be loved. Just creating a “Build the Mishkan in Minecraft” class because it’s “fun” and something the kids already enjoy is misguided, especially if the person teaching the class doesn’t see it as their primary job to make every child in their class feel like the smartest, funniest, kindest, most interesting person they know. Kids will love learning calculus if they have a teacher who loves them and says “how was your day” and laughs at their one liners.
Kids will love being Jewish when Jewish adults show them what it means to feel special and valued every day. And if those kids don’t know ONE thing about the mishkan, or the names of the books of Tanakh, or how to bench birkat ha’mazon, or that shellfish isn’t kosher we need to be OK with that. We need to have faith that children who feel loved at synagogue will grow up to be adults who are drawn to places where Jewish learning and living happen. That they will find joy in the ebb and flow of Jewish holidays, that they will find comfort in Jewish spaces when they are in need, that they will approach the possibility of raising a Jewish family with excitement and that they will feel confident that when they find a life partner in whom their soul delights, we will welcome them into our fold with open arms.
And parents, this hard truth starts with us. It is not reasonable to demand that our synagogue schools make our children into Talmud scholars in 3 hours a week by the age of 13. It is not reasonable to expect fluent Hebrew readers when learning a language takes intense instruction and practice especially when their learning takes place in late afternoon after a long school day. The religious school tuition we pay is not a fee for service, it is a long term investment in the continuation of our Jewish families. The payoff is not going to be this school year and it’s certainly not going to happen when our children are in middle school and hate absolutely everything. But if we do it right, the payoff will come, and it will be glorious.
If we reorient our synagogue schools to use the rich and beautiful history and culture of our people to foster a sense of community and belonging, we will raise an entire generation of Jews who are excited to keep learning who can’t fathom their lives separately from their Jewish identity. They will have an inherent understanding that kindness, patience, grace, and service to others is living Jewishly and their leadership will frame the next era of synagogue life in America.
The good news is, our Jewish educators already know this. They know how to create Jewish spaces where children are held and known, and for generations they have been making this happen in the between spaces because we as parents asked academic miracles of them and demanded curricular rubrics, progress reports, and insist that our 12 year olds chant the full Torah portion and Haftarah because their cousins did. Our Jewish educators are masterful professionals who are trying to make everyone happy under impossible circumstances.
We cannot have it all, folks, and asking for adolescent scholarship is unrealistic and a missed opportunity. Striving for our synagogue schools to be a safe place for our children when they are in need, when they are friendless, hopeless, failing, crying, and injured - that is eminently achievable and that is holy community.