What if we situated Hebrew schools in Jewish day schools and not in synagogues? Sounds preposterous? Never been done? All the more reason to give it some thought. Today, day schools in America are a fast-growing educational movement. People who never sent their kids to day schools are reconsidering, and synagogue movements that promoted public school education now have their own affiliate day schools. With all of the enhancements in recruitment, attendance and quality of day school education, there is a community educational orphan that we can no longer afford to neglect: congregational schools.
Hebrew school education has been notoriously bad for decades. It was and continues to be the Jewish educational institution most pilloried and least effective. The novelist Philip Roth created a fictional scene that we can imagine taking place in a variety of American living rooms. A young boy complains to his father that he hates Hebrew school. The father beams and wishes his son mazal tov for following in the fine family footsteps of his ancestors; both he and his father also hated Hebrew school. This "tradition" is not only damaging to the young minds who hold Judaism at
fault for a life-time; it hurts the Jewish community as a whole.
Instead of using weak teachers with little background in Hebrew schools, imagine having the elementary division of day schools using some of their finest teachers, resources and even day school students to participate in a much more content-rich program for public school students when the regular school day is done. Sure there are plenty of practical details to iron out, but many day schools use their facilities for Jewish camping in the summer or rent out auditoriums for community functions. Why not have the day school become the real educational center for the community at large?
For all of us whose lives rotate around day schools - we attended them, send our kids to them, teach in them, run them - it is time to look beyond our walls and invite others to join in the success. Who knows? Such a program might even enrich the school coffers and more importantly, might even draw some new students who would never have given day school a second thought.
Dr. Erica Brown is Scholar-in-Residence for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. Dr. Brown's articles have been the basis for discussions on Lookjed in the past. See, for example http://www.lookstein.org/lookjed/read.php?f=1&i=3826&t=3826