Buried deep in the American Jewish psyche is the notion that Hebrew school is an experience that must be borne, not enjoyed. Unlike all the non-Jewish children who got to play outside after school and sleep in on Sundays, we had to go to up to seven hours of school upon school each week. In Judaism, we are obligated to accept the yoke of heaven, but does it have to be that heavy?
Kids today have it much easier. While generations ago students went to Hebrew school three times a week, most institutions today either require one weekday and one day on the weekend (either Saturday or Sunday). Some schools have even moved to only one day per week, and yet I’m willing to venture that a survey of current religious school students would find that they would rather be doing something else during that time.
While Hebrew school memories may be negative for most people, I would like to stick up for the maligned Jewish institution. Recently, Craig Newmark, the creator of Craig’s List, wrote about how he was inspired to give away much of his fortune by the Jewish values he learned from his Hebrew school teachers, Mr. and Mrs. Levin of the Morristown Jewish Center, a Conservative synagogue here in New Jersey.
The Forward tracked down the story of the couple, Holocaust survivors who made a deep impression on their students and community. They taught Newmark and his friends to “[t]reat people like you want to be treated … know when enough is enough … [and] I am my brother’s keeper and my sister’s keeper.” Newmark does not consider himself to be an observant Jew today. He calls the musician and poet Leonard Cohen his rabbi, which may have been meant to indicate his secular nature, but Cohen is actually one of the richest creators of contemporary midrash we have.
The purpose of Hebrew school is certainly to teach the language and skills to be comfortable in the synagogue and live a Jewish life, but perhaps even more important is the moral education it provides. Supplementary Jewish education is not just about how to do things, but why we do them, why they are important, and how we can live a better life.
Clearly, the education Newmark received from the Levins guided him in his personal journey and has brought him to a place of generosity. His time in Hebrew school was well worth it because it shaped the person he has become. After reading his story I thought back to my own religious school teachers and remembered that I too was taught by a husband and wife team. Unlike Newmark, I don’t remember their names. They were a young couple who had recently moved to San Antonio, where I lived. I think the husband was doing a medical residency.
I don’t remember particular lessons these two taught me, but I do remember their kindness and understanding. Unlike some teachers who could be harsh with us rambunctious students, they related to us as young people. In my mind they were great role models of how one can be Jewish and modern at the same time.
Maybe rather than look back on how boring Hebrew school was for us growing up, we should take the example of Craig Newmark and search our memories for the inspiring moments and the teachers who helped shape us. Is there someone from your religious school past who you would single out? What did they teach you? What lessons can you then pass on to the next generation so that our tradition continues to encourage goodness and kindness in the world.