A Historic Crusade for Learning: The Future of Hebrew School

Sasha Kopp, class of 2018 in Jewish education/Jewish nonprofit management at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, gives a fused glass workshop around the theme of light in Jewish texts.

By Miriam Heller Stern

[This is the second in a weekly series of posts from a coalition of institutions across the continent devoted to nurturing the emerging transformation of congregational and part-time Jewish education. The series is curated by the Leadership Commons at the William Davidson Graduate School of Education of The Jewish Theological Seminary.]


In 1837, a Massachusetts lawyer named Horace Mann became secretary of the first school board, and began to imagine how his local schools could be a model for the nation. If only all American children could have access to a common school education, Mann and his fellow education reformers argued, schools could foster equal opportunity, moral clarity, and stability in a young republic coming of age in a rapidly changing, industrialized world. These educational leaders saw a need, proposed a big (albeit sometimes conflicting) vision for change, and set out upon a multi-decade crusade, traveling from city to city to convince as many people as possible of the promise of “common schools.” This crusade would eventually successfully entrench the idea of schooling for all in the imagination of the American public and bring about the public school system as we know it.

At the same moment in American history, a high society Jewish woman in Philadelphia named Rebecca Gratz identified a need to educate the children of her community. With Jewish children increasingly encountering Christian missionaries seeking to save their souls, Gratz knew that simply learning prayers and rituals would not prepare children to identify with and stand up for their Jewish faith. She created a Hebrew Sabbath School, which she grew into a network of schools called the Hebrew Sabbath School Union. In many ways, “Hebrew school” became the public school equivalent of Jewish education, especially later in the 20th century when day schools grew as a Jewish private school option.

In the mid-19th century, schooling for all was an educational innovation, a symbol of hope and pride. 180 years after the common school crusade and the formation of the Hebrew Sabbath School Union, public school is still a right and “Hebrew school” is still a rite of passage for many Jewish children in America. And yet, the very learning spaces that we have come to take for granted in theory are highly contested in practice. In public schools, progressives and traditionalists have debated the form and function of these institutions since their inception, a debate which continues today. Similarly, in the Jewish arena known variably as Hebrew school, religious school, supplementary education, and congregational learning, the calls for improvement have echoed for the last century, while the perception of mediocrity and failure persists. As historians of education David Tyack and Larry Cuban explained in their now classic history of school change, Tinkering Toward Utopia, schools alone cannot resolve the problems of society, yet they are declared failures when they cannot achieve the vision of their original founders; all the more so, Jewish supplementary schools alone cannot promise the Jewish future.

People often ask me with, at best, pessimistic concern, and at worst, dismissive condemnation: “Why are Hebrew schools so bad?” or “Why can’t anyone seem to fix the Hebrew schools?” or “Honestly, is it possible for these schools to teach anything?”

I tell them that actually, calls to disrupt and reimagine Hebrew schools have been heeded in recent years, and there is promise in the field of Jewish youth learning. There is a new movement afoot that has yet to be named, comprising Jewish educators experimenting with and advocating for weekend and afternoon learning programs that are decidedly not “Hebrew school” as we conventionally know it. They are adopting new names such as learning centers, or Hebrew names like masa (journey), mishpaha (family), nisayon (experience), and more. Educators around the country – in Boston, Chicago, New York, the Bay Area, and Los Angeles, just to name a few – are testing out new visions for authentic learning.

Pockets of innovation, visions of the possible are out there: Learning that incorporates the arts, field trips, student-driven projects, technology, self-expression, and other strategies featuring student choice and differentiation. Teachers are creative, competent, and caring. Children are happy to come, and they go home with enduring understandings and a connection to community. Rabbis and educational leaders partner to ensure that the success of the learning program is a shared adaptive challenge in building an engaged community. Educational leaders design programs with the needs of families and children in mind. Parents understand the goals of the new program and buy in. And these learning programs are portals to other learning experiences, in youth group, volunteer work, camp, and college.

This utopian image is not meant to imply that change isn’t complicated. Deciding what to teach and how, with limited hours and an unreliable mix of teaching talent, continues to be a design challenge. It takes a skilled, knowledgeable, creative educator to design content-rich learning experiences and bring a principled approach to curriculum design. Abandoning the model of “school” is not a learning solution if it ignores subject matter or only includes content superficially. Activities must encourage thinking and plant seeds for future learning. Making a compelling case for an experimental program is often the hurdle that educators cannot cross without excellent communication skills and supportive advocates. We need educators who are prepared for this work, and rabbis and parents who are ready to support them, so that more innovation can flourish.

The task is admittedly great. But if we continue to play a broken record wailing the grating soundtrack of failure, we will undermine and isolate the innovators while we dissuade their potential protégés from entering the profession. It is time to trade in that record player for a Spotify or iTunes account and curate a new playlist. The 21st-century descendant of the Hebrew Sabbath School Union is emerging, a nascent coalition of optimists who care deeply about delivering compelling learning opportunities in a variety of different genres. The possibilities are already in front of us, in synagogues and other community institutions around the country. Now we need to invest in the infrastructure to support the widespread replication, adaptation, and continued reinvention of good teaching and learning strategies, as well as instructional support.

It took approximately 50 years from the time Horace Mann launched his crusade until the final states made public schools compulsory. Educational change often takes longer than other types of organizational change, in part because schools have been so bound up in our social fabric and collective identity that in order to change them, we need to be willing to change ourselves.

Times have changed, and in the part-time Jewish educational arena, instead of being so focused on “schools” as the endpoint and unit of analysis, we are beginning to focus on a revolution in learning. This is a step in the right direction. The revolution is in rhetoric; the real change is a process of painstaking evolution.

We need a new Jewish learning crusade that will tap into our deepest ideals and serve the majority of American Jewish children, those who want or need to attend public and independent schools. We need to attract, prepare, and sustain diverse talent, in greater numbers, to lead our new programs and accept the design challenge of recreating the system. We need to support the nahshonim, those educators who are already at the vanguard, and those working professionals who aspire to change their institutions but just do not have the capacity to do so. We owe it to our kids.

Dr. Miriam Heller Stern is national director of the School of Education at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

This article is cross-posted on eJewishPhilanthropy

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