Monday, October 27, 2008

How to Undermine Jewish Education

Many Conservative and Reform synagogues do an admirable job of Jewish education, but sometimes these synagogues and their members unintentionally undermine all their efforts by committing one of the most serious errors I know of in Jewish education: conveying the message that Judaism is only for children and that serious adults should not take it seriously.

Take the following overexaggerated description of this problem.

A set of parents have only a minimal level of Jewish knowledge or practice. They never go to services on shabbat or holidays other than (say) Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. They do not daven or study or have Jewish books in their home or think about or talk about Judaism. The message the parents implicitly and perhaps unintentionally convey to their children is that serious adults do not have any serious involvement with Judaism.

The parents decide that their child should know something about Judaism and "get bar-mitzvahed." So they join the local synagogue and enroll their childen in the after-school Hebrew school. The Hebrew curriculum consists of learning basic Hebrew words and pronunciation. The religious curriculum consists of simplistic descriptions of, and activities about, the Torah and the holidays. (Lots of songs and arts-and-crafts projects.) The kids never (or at most rarely) read original texts. The only Torah stories are the most myth-like: creation, garden of Eden, Noah's flood, the Red Sea, Mt. Sinai. The ethics consist of simplistic universal rules, albeit with a few Hebrew words thrown in (don't steal, be nice, give "tzedakah"). These lessons are conveyed with big smiles and a tone of talking down to small children.

There are many significant issues in the child's life that serious Judaism speaks to but that are avoided altogether: God, death, the holiness of life, sexuality (for the older kids), assimilation, how (and why) to be Jewish in a non-Jewish America, how to read a complex and ancient text.

The message implicitly conveyed by all of this is that Judaism is for children. It covers things that children might consider fun and interesting (arts-and-crafts, songs, simple stories, simple ethics) but nothing that adults would find meaningful or important.

Eventually, the child begins bar- or bat-mitzvah training, which consists in memorizing a bunch of Hebrew. The child may be required to attend a specified number of Saturday services. Again, this is not something that adults do in the normal course of things; it is something that children do to prepare for a bar- or bat-mitzvah.

Finally, the child has a bar-mitzvah. Adults never attend services or read from the Torah; the only people who do so are 13-year-olds celebrating a bar- or bat-mitzvah. (At some synagogues, there is no Saturday service if there no bar-mitzvah.) So the child completes his coming-of-age ritual, reads from the Torah, and then joins the ranks of adults who never have to go to services again.

Once the child internalizes this message of Judaism-for-children, that's pretty much it. The child is unlikely to want to participate in anything Jewish or learn anything about Judaism again. This is worse than an ignorance of Judaism. It is based on the (now) young adult's actual knowledge, based on years of experience, that Judaism has nothing important to say about life and in fact is childish and silly.

This scenario is obviously an over-exaggeration, but in some cases, it is not very much of an over-exaggeration. Contrast that scenario with life at an Orthodox synagogue. Adults regularly go to synagogue on shabbat and often for daily minyan; if not, they often daven at home. The adults observe Jewish rituals at home, study Judaism, are knowledgeable about Judaism, and discuss Judaism with their children. The children's Jewish education is serious; it consists in large part of reading from original sources. And the bar-mitzvah boy leads the service and reads from the Torah as part of his entry into the adult world of participating in services and reading from the Torah. Whatever the problems are with Orthodoxy (and I think there are many), one problem that does not exist is conveying the message that Judaism is for children. Instead, Orthodox Judaism conveys the message that Judaism is important and serious adults take it seriously.

Liberal and moderate Jews can avoid conveying the implicit message Judaism is for children by participating in it in a serious adult way as adults. The obvious particular ways are noted above (go to synagogue on at least some Saturdays, observe Jewish rituals, have Jewish books, discuss Jewish ideas).

But here are a few less obvious ideas for parents and synagogues.

1. Take Judaism seriously. Having children see that adults treat Judaism seriously may be the most important lesson they learn.

2. Develop a knowledgeable and (largely) self-sufficient laity. This does not just require adult education programs at synagogues and members who attend. More importantly, it requires a decentralized model of adult eduction. Rather than have the rabbi lecture on some topic, the synagogue should facilitate smaller discussion groups or study groups that work through some topic on their own. (They can always call in the rabbi for tough questions.)

3. Kids sports on Sunday? One of the biggest practical obstacles to attending services on Saturday for the non-shomer-shabbos crowd is kids sports programs with games on Saturdays. Perhaps one option is for many synagogues to work together and form sports leagues that play on Sunday (and that are not limited to Jews). Certainly Jews would be one of the larger constituencies, and church-going Christians (who are otherwise occupied on Sunday mornings) would be unlikely to participate. But there must be many non-Jews who for personal and idiosyncratic reason prefers games on Sunday.

Those are my initial thoughts. (I will be posting more in the future on Jewish education in general.) If anyone has any ideas about what would help convey the message that Judaism is not just for children, I would like to hear your thoughts.

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