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Rather than bolstering the likelihood of students marrying within their race, attending once-a-week Sunday school programs actually slightly increases the chance of intermarriage, according to a newly published study.
The research, conducted by Steven M. Cohen, research professor at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, finds that the likelihood of intermarriage increases by up to 9 percentage points among students who attend once-a-week programs in comparison to those who don't receive any Jewish schooling. (The pool of students was controlled for factors such as family upbringing and other sources of Jewish education.)
The study also found that attending congregational school two or more times a week hardly decreases students' chances of intermarrying.
Cohen hypothesizes that since Sunday schools - an education option almost exclusively offered by the Reform denomination - have large numbers of children of intermarriage, they actually reinforce the legitimacy of intermarriage.
"When you bring together people who are relatively distant from Judaism, it might be that they reinforce distance from Jewish life," he suggested.
The analysis, based on data collected in the National Jewish Population Survey of 2000-01, "points to the inadequacy of one-day-a-week schools as a Jewish education alternative," he said.
While Cohen's research focuses on Hebrew schools' failure from the perspective of their inefficiency in reducing intermarriage, others criticized the content provided at these schools at a meeting of the St. Louis Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education attended by more than 1,200 Jewish instructors this week.
Joel Hoffman, a language expert who teaches at Temple Shaaray Tefila in New York, devoted several lectures at the conference to the shortcomings of Hebrew school education, but said it would be a mistake to conclude from Cohen's analysis that what's needed is to boost the number of days children are sent to Hebrew school: "Maybe cutting down to one day a week is just what the doctor ordered," Hoffman said.
Quality, not quantity, was the more important guiding factor, and one "dynamite" session would be better than two "mediocre" experiences each week, he said.
Hoffman pointed to a wide range of problems in current after-school Jewish education models, arguing that "our Hebrew schools aren't teaching Hebrew, the kids are miserable in the process, and are making the teachers miserable in the process."
And a miserable experience, stemming from setting unreachable goals such as the mastery of Hebrew or tedious memorization doesn't draw kids closer to Judaism, he said.
"As a program it's clearly a failure, but in fact we're often doing damage," Hoffman asserted. "If your only experience of synagogue is feeling stupid, then surprise - you're not going to like going to synagogue."
Cohen argued that what's necessary to improve both the learning and the enjoyment of Hebrew school was to supplement it with "a Jewish context" for their lives, for example with Jewish camps, trips to Israel and youth groups.
"Then he or she will see the value in what will be learned in Hebrew school," Cohen concluded.
Laurie Green's experience seems to back up Cohen's theory. A 29-year-old newly ordained rabbi, Green attended Hoffman's workshops to pick up tips for the Hebrew school at her synagogue.
She didn't connect her Sunday school experience with her decision to make Judaism a career.
"The link was as a teenager, being involved in a youth group, going to Israel, to camp," she said. "I don't think it had anything to do with what my third grade teacher did in Hebrew school."
But Hoffman stressed that Cohen's hypothesis is just that - a hypothesis. He said the system was seriously broken and needed to be fixed before it could be tested. According to Hoffman, there's enough recognition of this need that next year's Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education conference will be called "back to the drawing board" in an attempt to completely reexamine Hebrew school education.
But Jan Katzew, director of Lifelong Jewish Learning at the Union for Reform Judaism (and another conference lecturer) differed in the assessment of the need for a Hebrew school overhaul, noting some places were thriving.
"Any organism, institution or organization needs to take a deep look at itself; that's what Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are all about," he said. But he compared it to the need for a "checkup" rather than "open heart surgery" and cautioned that it wasn't necessary "to manufacture a crisis in order to create change."
Katzew pointed to certain areas for improvement, such as teacher and student retention and professional development, but also highlighted fields where synagogues give positive assessments - including curricula and socialization of the students.
He added that as Jews and teachers, "We should never be satisfied." He described the field of education as one of growth and change.
"The difference," he said, "is whether that change is incremental and evolutionary or transformational and revolutionary."