Recently we were both witness to a discussion on a Jewish Facebook page as a parent asked a question about looking into Hebrew school options for her first-grader. Forty-four comments (and counting) later it was clear there were a lot of people seeking to share information about the program they run or attend, but the original question remained unanswered.
Living in the Boston Jewish community, we are blessed with choice, but that also puts a burden of responsibility on us to choose, and for many it is hard to know what the choices are or what questions one should ask. We wanted to try and help with that process.
The questions people ask often start with a sense of time pressure: When should I start (and the rest of that question, often not stated, is, in order to have enough time to learn what needs to be learned for bar or bat mitzvah)? Then, the next question is where; where shall I send my child? But, perhaps before when and where, you should ask why?
Why do you want a Jewish education for your child?
This is a question we asked our congregants as we embarked on a process to redesign our learning programs. We wanted to uncover the values and motivations lying underneath the effort it takes to schedule and bring children to a Jewish education program when there are so many other choices about how to fill time. While we suspected that the signature moment of bar or bat mitzvah—a young teen standing on the bimah chanting Torah and leading a service—would be front and center in the answer to this question, we instead heard that people are seeking community, connection to traditions and family, and values to guide their children through life. So, before you ask when to start and where to enroll, ask yourself, why are you researching religious schools?
When should your child start religious school?
This is the question we often see as a starting point. For us, it’s clear that Jewish education and connection to the Jewish community is a lifelong endeavor. There is not a time that is too early or too late to begin, but there are good reasons for starting sooner rather than later. The first is that Jewish education is not a standalone pursuit. Jewish learning is ideally embedded in many Jewish experiences, and whatever institution or program you choose can only provide a part of the experience and learning; the rest has to be supplemented with holiday and Shabbat experiences—at home and in community, and with social action and social moments, because Judaism is a lived religion. The learning you seek for your child is also about learning for you and your family. Many Jewish learning moments happen at home, and you are your child’s best teacher. Family education and participation in Jewish learning experiences mean that you will gain tools for modeling Jewish life and living so your family can live Jewishly and with joy.
With this in mind, the sooner you begin, the sooner you and your child will feel a part of a community, and the stronger the foundations will be as you continue on your Jewish life and journey.
In terms of the learning that “needs” to happen, in most cases children can catch up and most schools and programs will have support in place to help those who are joining at a later point. The question we would like to ask as a follow-up is, why are you waiting? Our children are accustomed to participating in a variety of programs and extra-curriculars from a very young age—in our modern lives, Jewish education is one of the “activities” that families choose for their children. Our hope is that long after they may have finished playing soccer, doing gymnastics or performing in the school concert or play, they will still be living a Jewish life. So, if you are asking when to start, we hope you will begin as soon as possible, but know it is never too late to engage.
After you have answered the question of why and when, many parents jump to what: What will my child be learning (the content, the attainment of knowledge)? We believe we should also be asking how children will be learning and with whom. We consider the content to be the way we get to other aims of Jewish education: a connection to community, relationships with caring, supportive adults and peers, an understanding of values for how to live our lives, and the celebration of being Jewish.
How do you choose a program?
Living in the Boston area, there are a number of factors you can consider as you choose the program that is right for you and your family. For some, the question is about whether to send their child to a Jewish day school or focus on a religious school experience. For the purpose of this article, we are not looking at day schools, recognizing that in the Boston community there are some wonderful options for those who want a Jewish day school experience for their children.
In our context, the first question is whether to choose a synagogue-based religious school or an independently-run religious school (we admit a little bit of bias in answering this question). There are many, many options, and it’s important to consider the philosophy of the program, the convenience both in terms of geographical location and class schedules and, perhaps most important, a question about what other experiences and opportunities the religious school you choose could afford you and your children.
Once again, for us, Jewish education does not take place in a vacuum, but always takes place as part of a wider Jewish community and family. It is therefore important to ensure that both the school and the community align with your family’s Jewish identity and practice. We know that when children come regularly to a specific place, they gain a sense of being at home in that space; for synagogue-based religious schools, the comfort the children feel in the classroom then extends to a sense of belonging in the sanctuary, in relationship with their clergy and as part of a larger Jewish community. We suggest you think beyond education in isolation and think about the Jewish experience you want for your child holistically, inside and outside of the classroom.
If you do decide to engage with a synagogue-based religious school, then it’s important to be aware of the differences between the denominations and the experiences your child will therefore have. While there has definitely been a blurring of lines in terms of what different denominations are offering, there are still factors that are worth considering. These include policies or practices around family members of different faiths, egalitarian considerations and expectations of religious practices underlying the program and educational philosophy.
What additional questions should you ask?
Who will be supporting me and my child on our Jewish journey? Is the program facilitated by full-time professionals who will be available during the week to answer questions or concerns about my child’s experience? Will my child have access to and learn with clergy who may one day be officiating at their wedding?
What is the size and composition of the classes? Small classes may be good for individualized attention, but will your child have a sense of community? Larger schools offer more opportunity to find friends from either your own school district or new friends for a wider Jewish community, and the chance to befriend different children as larger groups are divided into smaller working groups for parts of the morning. Some schools combine grades to have a critical mass of students, so you should think about what will work for your child.
What is the aim of the educational program? As we suggested above, when you consider why you want a Jewish education for your child, it’s also important to consider what the aims of the program might be and what it is they want to share with your child.
We hope that everyone finds the right fit for their children and their family—a Jewish education and community where they feel a sense of belonging and connection because, in the end, that is the value.
Rabbi Danny Burkeman is the senior rabbi at Temple Shir Tikva in Wayland. Alison Weikel is the director of education.
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