Educator tells rabbis: Value Hebrew schools

Barry Holtz recalls meeting a rabbi who was working with two bar mitzvah students.

One of the youths attended a Jewish day school. The other received his Hebrew education at the synagogue school. After the ceremonies, the rabbi commented, "Isn't it wonderful what a day school can do?"

The remark was not simply "rude and insensitive," said Holtz, an instructor in the school of education at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and a consultant to the Council for Initiatives in Jewish Education (CIJE) in Cleveland, Ohio.

It also showed that "the rabbi didn't value his own Hebrew school," said Holtz.

Because of that rabbi's attitude, chances are his religious school will never be successful either, Holtz added.

"The idea that Jewish education is a total failure and that we should throw up our hands is ridiculous," Holtz said. "If a community gets serious, a lot can be done."

On Sunday, Holtz shared his suggestions, culled from the CIJE's "Best Practices Project," at a conference for parents and teachers at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco.

Titled "A Vision of Excellence: Partnership for Strengthening our Children's Jewish Education," the meeting was a joint effort of the S.F.-based Bureau for Jewish Education and the regional office of the American Jewish Committee.

Nearly 100 people attended workshops on topics like "Making Hebrew Come Alive," "Creating a Family Friendly School" and "Inviting Tzedakah into the Bar Mitzvah Party."

Holtz, who also spoke at Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley the same weekend, cited examples of successful Jewish congregation schools and the principles they share. He then asked participants to think about how they could bring these traits into their own schools.

For instance, all good schools the CIJE studied "are driven by a clear sense of mission: a vision that underlies the school," he said.

"There's a clear sense of what they want to accomplish."

In most cases, successful schools receive strong support from the rabbi. He or she doesn't have to run the school or even be an expert in education. However, the rabbi does "have to help make the school a favorite child," Holtz said.

"The rabbis are keen on day schools for obvious reasons, but they need to support their own schools," he said. "Most kids still get their Jewish education in congregation schools."

A third key factor is "seeing the school as part of a bigger system, including Jewish summer camp, family education, youth group and junior congregation," Holtz said.

"This way kids don't see Jewish education as [merely] four or six hours a day in school but part of a greater thing."

Holtz refuses to divine the future direction of religious-school education. In fact, he insists the CIJE "is not taking a national temperature.

"This is just to say there are examples of success," he added. "A conference like this is good for raising questions, getting people excited and starting to think."

Robert Sherman, BJE executive director, agreed.

"We learn from success as much as we learn from anything else," he said. "In a world of congregational school education, we focus an awful lot of time on what doesn't work and what failed.

"We spend insufficient time on that which is working and making a difference."