Because I was sentient as a child, I loathed Hebrew school. I don’t know what yours was like, but mine amounted to four weekly hours of soporific instruction by teachers who clearly longed to be elsewhere. Our classroom walls were mint-green cinderblock, our classroom windows looked out onto a concrete plaza, and even after I learned to pronounce Hebrew letters I never found out what any actual Hebrew words meant. Meanwhile, in the corridors, the same mean girls who bullied me all day doubled down in Hebrew school, bullying me just a little extra before pick up, homework, and bed.
So you’d think, considering how miserable the experience was, I wouldn’t inflict it on my own precious son, for whose pleasure I would gladly swallow nails. But you’d be wrong. I love Hebrew school now, and I especially love his Hebrew school, and I’ve come to believe that, done right, there’s no better way to create a Jewish community for kids and their parents than to participate in a welcoming and joyful Hebrew school.
But it’s not an easy thing to put together, especially in an age of diminished resources and busy families. This kind of Hebrew school has classes taught by knowledgeable, informed, and friendly teachers, who understand that kids (especially secular ones) don’t always want extra school at the end of the week, but who will go if the experience is rewarding. This sort of school looks for ways to integrate Jewish learning into everyday experiences instead of separating it into something we only think about during designated hours. And this sort of school remembers that Judaism is often as much about community as it is about faith. My son’s school, housed in a multi-use art space in Philadelphia, doesn’t have much in the way of facilities or even chairs, but it does have enthusiastic teachers who love kids, love Judaism, and are willing to have fun with both.
A good Hebrew school also requires involvement from parents. The one I attended as a kid, at least from my perspective, was a place where students were dropped off twice a week and picked up again two hours later. The parents’ participation seemed to amount to writing checks and booking Bar Mitzvah dates. Therefore, not only was Hebrew school boring, but it was totally separate from the rest of our lives, even from our family life. My family’s Jewish rituals only incidentally incorporated Hebrew school lessons – I might know a few extra things about Chanukah come winter – but it was never fully a part of our family’s discussions or religious practice.
My son’s Hebrew school, on the other hand, is coordinated by a group of loud, smart and funny parents who are actively committed to
their sense of Jewish belonging. For the first time in my life, I am part of a faith community bigger than my own small family. So many of my own religious experiences have left me feeling embarrassed (for not knowing more) or left out (since everyone else seemed to know each other before they walked in the door). I take responsibility, of course, for not having better educated myself, and for not having better socialized myself – but still, I’ll never forget going to Shabbat services during my first week as an undergraduate and slinking out in shame after having been given the stink-eye for singing something wrong.
This Hebrew school sings a different tune. People are welcomed no matter how much or how little they know about Judaism, no matter their social circles or lack thereof. The kids there represent diverse ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds, attend fancy private schools or overcrowded urban ones, come from interfaith households and LGBT households and old-school heteronormative Jewish households too. None of which matters. Everyone is welcomed in with a spirit of kindness, and a dedication to a larger cause.
But here’s what’s weird: despite how much fun it is, and how kind the teachers are, my son is not nearly as into his Hebrew school as I am. What can I say? He’s five, and he’d rather be outside playing soccer or inside drawing on the furniture than going to Philadelphia on Sunday afternoons. I, on the other hand, clearly adore his Hebrew school, and hope that one day he knows how lucky he is to be part of it . And if that doesn’t happen, then I hope one day his own children introduce him into a community that he can make his own.