Dispatch from the trenches of Jewish continuity

For a quarter-million Jewish children, Hebrew school is Judaism. So why isn't more being done to make that experience a good one?

hebrew school 88 (photo credit: )
hebrew school 88
(photo credit: )
It is hard to imagine a Jewish gathering more unassuming and humble, yet more strategically critical for Jewish communal life, than the Conference on Alternatives in Jewish Education that took place last week in rainy Vermont. Some 230,000 American children receive their primary Jewish experiences in some form of part-time Hebrew schools, often called supplementary schools, each week, at the same time connecting perhaps 460,000 parents to the synagogue and community. For those who teach in these Hebrew schools, who are the interface between so many weakly-affiliated Jews and the organized community, CAJE is the sole major professional development conference that deals with their problems. As American Jewry splits down the middle in terms of affiliation - more Jews than ever report a stronger particularistic identity and participate more in Jewish life, while more than ever are abandoning their Jewish identities - Hebrew schools remain one of the few places where less-connected Jews continue to come into contact with Jewish institutions. Indeed, according to a study published this month by the Jewish Theological Seminary's Prof. Jack Wertheimer, more Jewish children in America get their Jewish education in Hebrew school than in any other institution. So one would think the success of these schools - that is, managing to instill some Jewish identity in just six weekly hours - would be a top priority for the American Jewish community. It is not. Famously among the lowest-paid professionals in the Jewish world, Hebrew school teachers work on a part-time basis, receive almost no in-house training and require almost no professional certification. Without a serious commitment from donors and institutions, and little interest even from parents, it is small wonder that these teachers talk about feeling unappreciated and ill-prepared for the challenge of creating the main Jewish experiences for so many young Jews. Enter CAJE On a shoestring budget (the organization's annual budget hovers around $2 million), the Conference on Alternatives in Jewish Education tries to provide the missing support that Hebrew school teachers so desperately need. Since it can't throw money at the problem, it offers pride, whatever professional training can be squeezed into five days, and a deep sense of mission. Without pompous politicians, unobsessed with donor recognition, housed on a spartan university campus and serving the same vegetarian meals day after day, CAJE is a remarkable achievement. It is where one comes face-to-face with the dedication of those who serve in the trenches of Jewish continuity. The fact that 1,500 educators went to Vermont last week, at the cost of vacation time and a hard-earned $2,000 (a rough estimate including airfare) simply to learn how to become better educators, speaks to the commitment of this group. A spiritual mission But CAJE goes beyond professional development. It is, as The Jerusalem Post discussed with conference co-chair Dr. Joel Hoffman, a point at which new content, a new agenda, can be injected into the curricula of a broad swath of America's Hebrew schools. At a plenary talk, attendees heard an exhortation from Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, an author and Hebrew Union College professor, to rediscover spirituality in Jewish education. This is the only way to hold onto a new generation of Jews for whom the old "ethnic" Judaism of their grandparents and great-grandparents has become a long lost, meaningless experience, Hoffman explained. "Ethnicity is dead. It's become nostalgia, and nostalgia ain't what it used to be," he quipped. "We have to have something other than Israel, Jewish holidays, history, customs. All that stuff is important, but we need spirituality. We need to be talking to our kids about God." Thus CAJE attendees are shown live examples of cutting-edge identity education to take back to their communities, such as dozens of sessions on Jewish environmentalism (multiple sessions run concurrently), and others on hassidic masters or even kabbala, or through media such as musical jam sessions and comedy acts. The existential threat to American Jewry - as real to the organized community as the military threat felt by Israel - is the simple choice any young Jew can make to walk away. The question at the heart of CAJE is how to convince young Jews to choose to stay, and to join the half of American Jewry whose connection to Judaism, to Israel and to the community has grown stronger in recent years. Absent Israel, absent support A surprising note about the conference is the almost total absence of Israel and Israelis, apart from a handful of expats working for American Jewish organizations. A few phone calls from the Post revealed that Israeli agencies and officials would have sent representatives "if we knew when it was taking place," as one government official who deals with Diaspora relations explained. Locked in its rigid bureaucracies, Israel doesn't know how to engage strategically with the American Jewish community. The new governmental commitment to dialogue with the Diaspora - of which US Jewry accounts for up to 80 percent - is not reflected in any commitment to actually learn about Jewish life abroad or to meet the Jews living there. If, as every major politician declares at every opportunity, Israel wants dialogue with American Jews, it has to meet the activist core of this community on its home turf. CAJE is one of those places. Yet, while the conference needs participation from world Jewish communities, particularly Israel, it also needs to see more support from American Jewish institutions, who conference organizers believe do not fully recognize the importance of the Hebrew school's role. This was brought home dramatically when, toward the end of the conference, CAJE officials called for donations from the teachers themselves to the tiny scholarship fund that helped to bring an additional 30 participants this year. The fact that so few scholarships could be found for such an important conference, and this through donations from the teachers themselves, leaves one wondering why, when it proves year after year that the interest is there and all agree about the urgent need to expand its work, CAJE still lacks for money. As veteran educator and CAJE founding board member Joel Grishaver sees it, "CAJE is moving in a good direction." But, he admits with an air of mild chagrin, "teachers aren't good fund-raisers."