So I totally get that sitting around with friends bashing your collective Hebrew school experience from the 80s is pretty much a national Jewish sport, and that we’re all so “traumatized” and “tortured” by the years spent in the cantor’s office memorizing our haftarah portions while wondering when his shiny black hair piece was finally going to fall off that now we’re all refusing to send our own kids to Hebrew school, complaining that it’s a waste of time and they’re not going to learn anything anyway.
But I’m here to tell you that sending my kids to Sunday morning religious school at our local Los Angeles area synagogue is quite possibly the best thing to happen to me post-childbirth since the prescription for Percoset that I got following my two emergency C-sections.
Admittedly, my perspective is slightly skewed because I’m also a Hebrew school educator, but only part-time, one morning a week, in-between writing books, journalism assignments, and my full-time job as an online magazine editor (I want to make it clear that I’m not really this rah-rah sheket b’vakasha…hey! Hebrew school teacher spokesperson; I don’t wear t-shirts with the name of my synagogue on it).
But I do have a genuine love for teaching and am also a glutton for self-punishment (I teach 8th graders), so every Sunday I spend two hours imparting my astonishing Jewish wisdom to a motley crew of pimply, hormonal junior high students (admission: I want so badly to pop their whiteheads). The best part: My kids get to come with me, spending those same two hours in their own classes, braiding challah, making recycled water bottle Kiddush cups, and singing songs about the Jewish holidays. The first thing my 6-year-old son Boaz says when he awakes Sunday morning is, “Can we go to Hebrew school now?”
Not that Hebrew school programs aren’t lacking in various different areas, and I agree that paying for your kid to sit through annual Passover screenings of The Prince of Egypt is dumb money, but don’t you, if even in a remotely nostalgic way, want your kids to have that experience? One of my fondest memories growing up is being sent to the rabbi’s office because my third grade Hebrew school teacher thought that I was making fun of Maxine, a girl in our class who had a lisp, when I was really laughing at all the shirtless Israelite slaves in The Ten Commandments. Back then, a true mark of coolness was getting reprimanded by the rabbi. That day, I was a hero.
Hebrew school can even serve as fertile training ground for a future career as a Jewish comic. Think about it: Woody Allen might never have risen to fame were he not able to pen that memorable scene in Radio Days where Jewish children steal tzedakah money from the Jewish National Fund blue box. Not since the Garden of Eden has a venue been so ripe for stand-up talent. Why deprive your cute, funny children of that opportunity?
And yet so many parents claim that Hebrew school gets in the way of other important extra-curricular activities, like the tennis camp for which they’ve signed up their kid or Little League practice (remember, Sandy Koufax took off for Yom Kippur) or the 10,000 hours of figure skating lessons they’ve paid for because they saw Sasha Cohen win the silver in Torino and now have similar aspirations for their own clumsy child. I’m not saying your daughter won’t become a champion skater–look, I get it; I think Ayla, my 4-year old, stands an excellent chance of scoring a perfect 10 from the Russian judge on the uneven bars–but what I find hypocritical is when parents call Hebrew school a pointless time suck but then become a total tyrant when it comes to making their kids go to Mandarin Chinese classes three days a week. And they live in parts of LA where everybody speaks Spanish.
But what mystifies me above all else is when a parent contends that Sunday is the only day the entire family can spent together “relaxing,” a lame and truly confounding excuse if you ask me. First off, what happened to Saturday, the original day of rest? And secondly, in what universe is hanging out with your kids on Sunday morning relaxing? I don’t know about anybody else’s kids, but mine are screaming for juice boxes and cereal bars before I’ve even had a chance to pee. Don’t you and your significant other want two free hours to lay in bed and watch the Keeping up with the Kardashians marathon on TV while your kids learn how to make Hanukkah menorahs out of egg cartons and clothing pins or, if they’re in the confirmation class, read the excellent children’s book version of Lucy Davidowicz’s The War Against the Jews? I would–except I have to teach. But for you, it’s a win-win situation.
Hebrew school education is by no means perfect–for starters, they could do a far better job integrating Hebrew language immersion programs–but it’s a thousand times better than anything you’re going to teach them. It might be a lesson on kashrut, or a visit from the pathologically joyful Israeli scouts, or even just being surrounded for a couple of hours by other Jewish kids who aren’t going to think they’re totally strange for bringing a brown bag of matzah and Temptee cream cheese to school during Passover. It all adds up to something. If you get excited about it, they’ll get excited about it. So send them. And stop kvetching. Someday, your kids will thank you.
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