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Jewess » Guest Blogger: Michelle Cove on Why I May Not Send My Daughter to Hebrew School

Guest Blogger: Michelle Cove on Why I May Not Send My Daughter to Hebrew School

by Guest

Why I May Not Send My Daughter to Hebrew School
by Michelle Cove

The reason I was hired to create JVibe, a national magazine for Jewish teens, back in 2003 was to create a new way to engage youth in Judaism. Makes sense, given the fact that so many of them are fleeing from Judaism the moment their bar/bat mitzvah party doors close. For me, creating the magazine was a chance to give all those kids who hate Hebrew school an attractive alternative to learning about the religion. If I were to be 100 percent honest, it was a chance for me two work though my own horrible memories of Hebrew school.

I’m certainly not alone in my memories of this time: uninspired teachers who had no clue how to talk to kids; Holocaust footage that scared the crap out of us with no bigger context other than “never forget”; learning to read Hebrew without any skills to translate the words. Hebrew school had the astonishing ability to turn me off of religion for years. So I created JVibe with hopes of incorporating what I had wished for: interviews with cool Jews I looked up to and teens who were changing the world, learning about the ethics of Judaism by discussing experiences that were relevant to my life (bullying, jealousy, betrayal, flirting) and also about why Jews do the things they do (eat gefilte fish, stomp on glass at weddings, wear kippahs).

While the magazine is still going strong (I handed over the reigns a few years ago now), there were certainly criticisms of the publication. It was Jewish “light,” covered too many/not enough controversial issues, and the Hollywood celebs who graced the cover had very little to say about Judaism other than the fact that they were bonafide members of the tribe. All of these opinions are probably valid; but I still take great pride in the fact that this magazine helped makes the thousands of Jewish teens who were reading it feel in some way, big or small, better about their Jewish identity and more connected to the Jewish community.

I’ve been hearing more and more about innovative programs for young Jews that I think are fabulous. This includes Rosh Hodesh (a series of modern talks for teen girls about Jewish topics they connect with) and Sam Ball’s New Jewish Filmmaking Project in which he connects teens with filmmaking mentors, so they can use art to “share their own resonant visions of American Jewish life” as part of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. There are dozens and dozens of these types of projects to rally around.

But still, I watch teens roll their eyes and scowl when talking about Hebrew school and how much they’d rather go to soccer, theater rehearsal. . . the dentist. Why can’t the powers-that-be see that as long as Hebrew school refuses to get with the times and truly consider how kids learn and what excites them that the experience is worse than no Jewish education at all? There’s a reason teens keep running from Hebrew school, folks!

Yes, there are schools that are getting it right but certainly not enough. I would encourage administrators to keep looking at the programs that are drawing in young Jews voluntarily and figure out what they can borrow and steal. I know, for myself, that I will not send my daughter to Hebrew school until I can find a kinder and gentler version of Hebrew school.

Free bonus: I know, it’s easy to judge and more important to offer solutions. So, if there are any Hebrew school teachers/administrators out there, here are some ideas to try.

· Give kids disposable cameras and ask them to take pictures that represent their lives as Jews.

· Establish a pen pal program with Jewish teens in Israel (or another International country), so they can really experience a meaningful connection while learning.

· Instead of showing Holocaust footage, have teens read The Diary of Anne Frank and then discuss it in depth, what it would have felt like to face what she faced.

· Teach Jewish values by focusing on a current event and discussing it from Jewish perspectives. Take bullying. What do the Torah, Jewish philosophers, modern Jewish thinkers have to say about standing up for someone, loyalty, doing harm, etc? What do they think is the “right” thing to do?

· Ask contemporary questions such as “Are there any Jewish characters on TV or in movies that are appealing? How? Why are there so few? What would you like to see in a Jewish character? Suggest taking action by writing a letter to the head of WB (or another youth network) telling them what they’d like to see, or praising a film studio that got it right.

Yes, all of these things take time and energy for the teacher. But if the point of Hebrew School is really to give kids a Jewish education and keep them engaged, this is how you do it. I suspect that the pay-off for teachers will be seeing kids in class who are actually excited to participate.

4 Responses to “Guest Blogger: Michelle Cove on Why I May Not Send My Daughter to Hebrew School”

  1. I also hated Hebrew school & I don’t blame you for hesitating to send your own child. It took 20 years for me to get to the point where I got interested in Judaism again. I don’t think Hebrew school teachers will ever be well paid, so increasing the quality of teachers will be difficult. Maybe change the paradigm - less lecture, more independent study with volunteer mentors?

  2. I worked in a synagogues for years, did literally everything you suggest here, and still saw many of my students disappear the week after their party. When you have parents who don’t see their children’s education in their spiritual heritage as a priority, children are smart enough to sense it. When the kids see one of their classmates leave as soon as they can, the see it as tacit permission to do the same. As for trying to engage the kids informally, it was a fight to get onto the busy calendars of the over-programmed kids (starting from a very young age) when their sports coaches held more sway than their Rabbi. We need programs that engage whole families - that show a Judaism that isn’t pediatric, and that expose parents and children alike to the riches of our tradition and the power of that tradition to transform our lives. That being said, not every suburban mom with an SUV wants their life transformed.

  3. Hi, Drew. Thanks for leaving that comment. You raise a good point that if family and friends aren’t into Jewish learning, it’s all the more difficult to get the teen engaged. I’m dismayed to learn that teens didn’t connect to the new ways of learning. My experience has been so positive overall, as have leaders of alternative Jewish programming I’ve spoken with. Maybe Sharyn (above) is right in suggesting Hebrew School might need to be taken out of the synagogue. Would love to hear more thoughts on this from others who’ve tried! Michelle

  4. Michelle,
    You raise good points here.

    I had a great Hebrew school experience and as a rabbi working in the shul of my youth, I work diligently to make it equally as positive for “my kids.” Making Judaism relevant for the kids is definitely important. So is making Judaism important for the parents so that we can create real partnership in strengthening the next generation!

    Good luck!!

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