Religious School: An Institution Jews Love to Hate

Experts from the Experiment in Congregational Education address the challenges of creating and maintaining interesting and informative religious schools.

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The following article is reprinted from the March 2002 issue of Sh'ma: A Journal of Jewish Responsibility.

The afternoon religious school is an institution Jews love to hate. For over a century, educational professionals, lay leaders, parents, and students alike have been relentless in their critiques of the congregational school: the hours are inconvenient, discipline is lax, the teachers are unprofessional, and the students are bored. Responses to this situation have varied over time. In the 1970s, for example, the denominational movements created new curricula, and local Bureaus of Jewish Education launched initiatives to recruit and train teachers. In the 1980s and 1990s, in contrast, the religious school suffered from benign neglect, as communal leaders focused their attention on day schools, pre‑schools, Israel trips, and other modes of informal Jewish education. 

Today, however, leaders of the Jewish community realize that they cannot avoid dealing with congregational education, in general, and the congregational school, in particular. The majority of Jewish children are educated in religious schools. Any attempt to strengthen Jewish continuity must, inevitably, focus on improving the schools where most children learn about Judaism.

jewish schoolWhile all the critiques mentioned above are, to some extent, true, we believe that the root cause of the problem is one of unclear and conflicting expectations. Some parents see the religious school as a place for their children to associate with other Jews, while others see it as a vehicle for bar and bat mitzvah preparation. Still others expect religious school attendance to be simply a necessary (if unpleasant) part of being Jewish. Educators themselves are divided as to the primary goals. Are the goals to develop Jewish identity? Enjoy being Jewish? Motivate children to continue their Jewish education during high school and college? Learn Hebrew, or Torah, or history? With so many disparate goals, it is difficult for a congregational school to succeed.

At its best, religious school is only one element of a full program of congregational education. A congregation should offer all of its members a variety of learning experiences throughout their lives, including pre‑school, family education, adolescent programs, retreats, and adult classes, in addition to religious school. These programs should have as their overriding goal the enculturation of congregants of all ages-- enabling congregants to encounter the richness of the Jewish tradition and to develop in themselves strong Jewish identities, commitments, and practices. To paraphrase Hillary Clinton, "it takes a synagogue to educate a Jew." Enculturation should be the goal of every aspect of congregational life, not just the religious school.

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Robert Weinberg

Robert Weinberg, PhD, has worked as an organizational effectiveness consultant to corporations and Jewish institutions and is currently the Director of the Experiment in Congregational Education.