How to Choose a Hebrew School

Making the right decision for your family and your life

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Choosing a Jewish education for your child is a major event in the life of your family. In fact, according to the Talmud (Kiddushin 29a), providing a child with a Jewish education is one of just a few things that parents are obligated to do for their sons and daughters. For some, it's as easy as stopping by the local synagogue, picking up a membership form and dropping off a check. For others, there is no choice involved, as their communities offer only one synagogue and one program. But for those of us who have many options from which to choose, the sheer variety of programs and number of choices can be mind-boggling.

For many of us, the process of choosing a Hebrew school program for our children brings us face to face with the Jewish education we received as children or young adults. Many of us warmly remember teachers who expertly taught us Hebrew, rabbis who inspired us with words of Torah, or youth group leaders and counselors who, through their enthusiasm, demonstrated how much fun Jewish living could be. But for each one of us who thrived, there are those of us who found Hebrew school to be uninspiring and meaningless.

Regardless of the category in which you find yourself, you still need to make a choice. Choose the school that most resembles the elements you liked about your own Jewish education--and the one that least resembles the program that you disliked. Choose a school with an eye to what best suits your child, what is most appropriate for your family, and, most of all, what allows your child to grow and thrive as a young member of the Jewish community.

Here are some things to look for and questions to ask as you go about choosing the right kind of synagogue educational program for your family.

Get to Know the Lingo

What's the difference between a Hebrew school, a Sunday school, a synagogue school, a supplementary school and a Religious School? Sometimes quite a bit, and sometimes nothing at all. Generally speaking, an afternoon Jewish educational program is housed in a synagogue and teaches a wide variety of subjects, ranging from Hebrew and prayer to holidays and values. The name may give a clue as to what kind of program it is, but it may not. Hebrew schools may emphasize Hebrew, but sometimes simply use the name. Sunday school is a bit of a dated term, from years ago when Sunday was the only day of instruction.  Most schools now meet either on Sunday and a weekday or just on weekday afternoons. Today the term "religious school" is often used; many find this to be the preferred title because it encompasses a broader approach to Jewish learning and living.

Does the Program Suit Your Family?

Often parents will choose a program "in spite" of some major issue or conflict. Examine the requirements of the school (in every grade) to make sure that it is a good match for your family. Choose a Hebrew school that doesn't conflict with your child's schedule or your family's schedule. What if Shabbat is a requirement but you are often out of town on weekends? What if you want a two day program and not a three day program? School requirements should mesh with your family's needs and should support your goals for your child's education. Is the synagogue located far away from your home, or close by in your neighborhood? If your child has particular learning needs or particular interests, find out if the school can accommodate these needs. One of the surest ways to guarantee your child's success in Hebrew school is to make sure that it's a good fit. Your family is unique--choose the program that is your best match.

Take a Tour

Schedule a tour of the school and visit some classes. You can tell the most about a program by visiting it during school hours. Do things seem to be running smoothly? Are the classrooms cheerful? Is the space appropriate for learning? Are the students happy and engaged? A good program will "feel" good when you're in the building. Remember that not all religious school programs are in spaces built to be schools--some may meet in nursery school classrooms, libraries, sanctuaries or even offices. Students studying in these unusual settings should still be actively engaged in exciting, meaningful and stimulating learning.

Do Your Homework

Ask other parents or the education director about the school's curriculum. Many parents discover in retrospect that the curriculum of a Hebrew school doesn't particularly suit their needs. For instance, parents may be eager to have a child become proficient in Modern Hebrew, but the school emphasizes liturgical Hebrew. Other schools emphasize tefillah, prayer and participation in Shabbat services over other areas of study. Hebrew schools are limited by time, and often must "leave out" some areas of study in order to help students become literate in other subjects. This is not a bad thing--on the contrary, it allows teachers and students to focus their attention on areas in which students can develop deeper knowledge. Look at the curriculum and make sure it addresses your particular family's needs.

Who's in Charge?

The educational leadership and teaching faculty make a school what it is. A good school will have a clearly articulated educational vision and a director or principal who guides the program and sets the agenda for change and growth. Meet with the education director and ask her to share her vision for the school. Don't hesitate to come prepared with questions; discuss any anxieties you may have about the process and what it will take to make the experience a positive one for your child and your family. Learn a bit about the faculty and even ask to take a look at textbooks and other materials. Taking some time to meet with the head of the school will help you to get to know the school more intimately, and let you know if you're making the right choice.

Involved Parents

The Shema teaches us v'shinantam l'vaneha, you shall teach the words of Torah to your children. The obligation of providing a child with a Jewish education rests on the shoulders of the parents. While you may not want teach in your child's Hebrew school, you should find out how parents are involved in the school. Is there an active School or Education Committee? Are parents invited and encouraged to volunteer? Does the synagogue community rely on lay leadership? Parents should be actively involved in the governance of the school, in planning and executing programs, and in the life of the community. This doesn't mean that you need to get involved right away, but it opens the door for you to participate in your child's education at some later date.

Other Amenities

A Jewish education is not a stand-alone experience. Generally, schools are part of synagogue communities that offer a wide variety of programming. Are you looking for anything else? Families who regularly attend Shabbat services may be interested in children's services. You may be eager to be a part of a regular davening (prayer) community and want to join the morning minyan. Are you interested in learning with your child? Find out if the synagogue or school offers family education programs where you can learn side-by-side with your child. Many adults are also seeking stimulating learning opportunities for themselves--does the congregation offer workshops and courses designed with adult learners in mind? And don't forget: you may not be able to take advantage of these additional amenities now, but you may want them later on.

Making the Decision

In the end, the choice is yours. Choosing a religious school program for your child is a true commitment, spiritually as well as financially. For the relationship to be successful, both parents and school leaders must be partners in the child's education and commit to that partnership from the moment the child enters the school until he or she graduates. The entire undertaking is, however, a very personal one, and should be reflective of who you are, and who your child is, and the dreams and aspirations you have for your family. The fit should feel just right.

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Sara Shapiro-Plevan

Sara Shapiro-Plevan serves as the Coordinator of Congregational Education for New York City for the Board of Jewish Education of Greater New York.