Jewish Education

Elissa Berg is asking for your assistance so that she can widen the scope of her dissertation and share with her colleagues what local parents want from Jewish education.

Upon retiring from 48 years in Jewish education, I still find myself writing and learning about the field. I am working toward a doctorate in Jewish Studies from Chicago-based Spertus Institute of Jewish Learning & Leadership, and my dissertation topic is “21st Century Non-Day School Jewish Education.

At my disposal, I have histories of Jewish education, numerous books and scores of scholarly (and not so scholarly) articles on the internet. What I don’t have is input from 21st-century Jewish parents, and this is what I am attempting to gather now.

Jewish education has changed dramatically since the first day I walked into a religious school classroom as a teacher. Then, the youngest students started with Sunday school. Second, third or fourth grade students began attending classes two or three days a week. There were lots of textbooks. Every student had a machberet for Hebrew writing.

Most teachers stood in front of the class and talked — a lot. There were music teachers and Hebrew songs, sometimes art or drama. Tefilla (prayer) was taught in the classroom and sometimes students had the opportunity to practice those prayers in a student service.

Students in Conservative or Orthodox programs were expected to attend Junior Congregation Shabbat services somewhat regularly. Some schools had a Shabbat attendance requirement. The schools provided textbooks and assumed that teachers knew what to do with them. Many did. Teachers taught a variety of subjects each year and sometimes decided what to teach on their own. Students might learn the same things over and over. (At least, that’s what they told their parents.)

Most schools did not have well-crafted curricula. There were few programs to help children who had learning difficulties. High school students and parent volunteers helped out with Hebrew reading and holiday parties. Students who quickly understood the material spent a lot of time waiting for the rest of the class to catch up.

Over the last decades we have learned a lot. We have learned to teach each child the way he/she needs to be taught, relating what we teach to the student’s lives. We know that what we teach should demonstrate how being Jewish improves our lives. What we teach should help the students to lead meaningful lives and to understand that knowledge of our holy texts will help them thrive.

Jewish Education Today

These days, Hebrew reading is being taught in small groups or one-on–one. We are not teaching conversational Hebrew, but we are using a variety of methods to ensure our students have the sound and rhythm of Hebrew in their ears before they start learning to read. Teachers use computers in the classroom and are able to access websites that enrich their teaching.

Whiteboards allow students to interact with the material. Textbooks are much improved and teachers have learned to create rich lessons with or without them. Using their knowledge of child development, positive psychology, etc., teachers create an appropriate atmosphere for learning and for building friendships. Our schools use the arts, literature, project-based learning, drama, independent learning, outdoor education, family education, etc.

Technology is our newest tool. Religious-school teachers and administrators have learned much from online instruction over these last months. Teachers have been impressed both with how the use of technology allows some reticent students to succeed and with how much technology helps the teaching of Hebrew reading. Homework is not a hardship when students sign in from home and play review games.

We teach Israel while showing live pictures of Tel Aviv and teach about Jews in Ethiopia while talking to Jewish Ethiopians online. My dream is that schools will add instruction time with online lessons on days that students are not in school. There is, after all, no travel time involved.

For educational planning, as for teaching, it is important to know one’s audience. Judaism is more than a school subject. It is a way of life. Thus, it is important to know our students’ families and to understand how they interpret what it means to be Jewish.

What new can we learn?

In 1958 Jewish educators, concerned about their efficacy, created the first national study of Jewish education. Looking for direction, educators decided to find out how Judaism was lived by their families and what parents wanted children to gain from attending religious school. Two thousand religious school parents in 22 communities were asked why they were sending their children to religious school and what they hoped the children would gain from the experience. What would we learn if we asked the same questions today? How might this knowledge change the education we provide?

Changing times

The American Jewish world continues to evolve. Many do not live in Jewish neighborhoods. Many do not attend synagogue/temple services, even if they are members of congregations. There are Jewish Detroiters who identify as “just Jewish,” not part of any particular denomination, and not necessarily interested in Judaism as a religion. At the same time, Detroit is replete with Jews living rich Jewish lives in myriad ways.

I am asking for your assistance so that I can widen the scope of my dissertation and, also, share with my colleagues what local parents want from Jewish education. I’m asking Jewish News readers with school-age children (and those planning to have children) to answer the following questions. No names or affiliations are required.

• What are the ages of your child or children?

• Do you send or are you planning to send your children to a day school or to a supplementary school?

• What are your aims in sending your children to a Jewish school?

• What do you expect your children to gain from the experience?

Please email your answers to, and I will send a summary of the results of both this survey and the 1958 survey to everyone who participates.

As Jews, we are enjoined to teach our children always, “when we sit in our homes and when we walk the paths of life, when we lie down and when we rise.” It is my hope that understanding the Jewish lives of our students and the hopes of their parents will help Jewish educators to inspire this generation of Jewish children.

Thank you.

Elissa Berg has been involved in formal Jewish education, family and experiential Jewish education in the metro area since 1974.

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