Friday, July 31, 2009

Hating Hebrew School

As we prepare for Shabbat, I thought that I might share an e-mail exchange that I had today.

Today was an observance, as opposed to a "holiday", and is called simply by its date, Tisha b'Av, or the 9th of the month of Av. This day annually marks the destruction of the Holy Temples in Jerusalem. The first Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE, and the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE. On this day, we mourn and we fast. As it is not a holiday, per Se, we are permitted to work, unlike Shabbat and the Festival Holidays, but I have always found it to be a good day for reflection, meditation and learning.

Today, I also chose to respond to a few pieces of e-mail that I received this week through various Judaic List Serves. These e-mail servers deliver questions that range from the simplest of three sentence answers, to some that I refer to others due to their complexity in Jewish Law, or Custom or both.

The question that I received today was: How does one deal with a child who hates Hebrew School? This is always a very difficult question to answer, as usually, someone is insulted, or hurt in the process. Today, I chose to reply in a different way than I might have if today were a day other than Tisha b'Av. Today, I looked for answers outside of the Hebrew School or Synagogue:

Dear Mrs. Cohen (name changed):

I have read your question with great interest, and must reply to you that as much as I do not like admitting it, I have found actually, that most kids don't like going to Hebrew School!
Why would they, really? They get out of "regular school" around 3pm and twice a week get rushed to the Synagogue, not to mention the dreaded Sunday morning!
My experience has shown me that this is more a product of the combination of "at home prioritizing" and for lack of a better word, uninspiring teachers. The more that the family is involved in Shul (Synagogue) life and in Judaica in general, the more interested the children will be. At the same time, we need more inspiring teachers. Couple an inspirational and excited teacher with a child who is growing up in a home where Judaism is alive and vibrant, and you will have a child who loves to learn about Judaism.
It is very hard, for example, for us to teach children about Kashrut (dietary laws) and send them home to a Pork Chop dinner. If we could wave a magic wand over a situation and make it work, we would all look at our own levels of observance and remember that just as our parents brought us into the world, so too did HaShem bring everything into the world, and if we are able to not only respect this, but live more according to the V'eAhavta prayer (You shall love the L-rd your G-d with all your heart, with all your strength and with all your soul), and we follow these instructions by "teaching our children", first at home, and then in the Synagogue, I believe that this symptom can be made to go away.

I would speak with your child's teacher and with the Rabbi and ask their opinion. At the same time, let's look at the children's home base and try to do one more small thing to make it more Jewish; whether this be lighting candles on Friday night, or having two sets of dishes, one for meat and one for dairy. Nothing changes overnight, but the more that we can do, the more important it becomes. When this happens, the child will not only stop disliking Hebrew School, but might just ask for more!

Shabbat Shalom.....

As I finished the letter, I had my own problem and question: Is it the correct way to approach this dilemma by sending the blame to the parents?

The "drop and dump", as it is called has been widespread in Non-Orthodox Religious Schools since I was a child. As we were products of Pre-World War II parents, and they were products of Pre-World War I parents, the scenario has generally played out something like this...

Our grandparents arrive to USA around 1910 ---- Observant

Our parents born around 1920's - 1940's ---- Raised Observant, but upon attaining adulthood, many move to the Suburbs where it it more convenient to practice Judaism in the more liberal settings of Conservative or Reform Judaism. (drop and dump begins)

We are born in the 1960's, 1970's ---- We come from either observant families who are still in the hearts of the cities in which they had always lived, or, we come from families who are already non-observant and more liberal. Our kids have Little League; they have Ballet and Jazz; they have I-Pods and MP3 players and computers and DVD players. They seem to always have something to do, other than Religious School. And, the truth of it is, they do have other things to do.

They will, however, invest in a few years of Judaic education (to 'have' that Bar Mitzvah and party); they might even get roped into a few more years of classes to become Confirmed. Maybe-- Just MAYBE a few will continue on to the local Hebrew High program, but in all honesty, more will not, than those who will.

This is rather sad, is it not? To have all of this wonderful heritage and history and ritual, and to never or rarely practice or use it?

What I would give to be ten years old again and run up the stairs with my sisters to get dressed for Shabbat.

Maybe, together, we can bring some of our brothers and sisters back. Back to those wonderful memories of Shabbatot and Chagim; the festivals of Passover and Shavuot; the wonder of sitting outside in October in the Sukkah that our father struggled for three hours (or more) to screw together, so that we would have it for a week.

Would it not be exciting to be able to see the wonder in the eyes of children, as they learn to become Jewish adults. Then, just maybe, we parents can get more involved again, and eliminate the drop and dump altogether.

May this be G-d's will for Shabbat V'Etchanan, 10-11 Av, 5769; July 31, August 1, 2009.

As a side note, this Shabbat would have been my father's 82nd birthday. May his soul be bound in the book of life forever.

From the Desert that we call Arizona...

Shabbat Shalom; Ahavah u'Vrachot.
Love and Blessings...

--Rabbi Alan Abrams

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