School daze: So many years, so few memories

I could be the poster child for failed religious school experience. Oh, I put in enough years — from the time I entered elementary school until my 16th birthday. I can still remember the early days, walking home from “Saturday school” with my best friend from down the street. We’d take our time, blabbing away as we strolled the distance from our large Reform congregation to our homes. When we got older, we shifted to “Sunday school,” where our circle of friends expanded.

Most of my friends in suburban Baltimore public school were Reform or Conservative (the Orthodox congregations were closer to the city). And even though we Reform girls didn’t have bat mitzvahs, there were more than enough bar and bat mitzvahs to fill our social calendars in seventh grade.

Though I didn’t much care for Sunday school, I enjoyed being Jewish — especially the holidays. At home, we’d fast on Yom Kippur, light the Chanukah candles, have first- and second-night seders at my grandparents’. On Friday nights, my mother would cover her eyes and say a silent prayer as she lit the candles before dinner.

My family attended services on holidays and always the High Holy Days. I remember clergy cradling the Torah on Simchat Torah in shaking the lulav on Sukkot. I loved how the organ and chorus filled the sanctuary with music during the singing of the Sh’ma or my favorite song, “Ein Keloheinu.”

I know that religious school provided the basics on major holidays, Bible stories and famous Jewish figures like Henrietta Szold. We also “learned” Hebrew and memorized prayers, though I seldom understood anything without transliteration.

Lately, I’ve been searching for memories, mental snapshots even, of my favorite teacher or most inspirational lesson. I’ve wracked my brain to come up with some spiritual “aha” moment.

But nothing comes to mind. Only vague recollections of fun times socializing with friends. And when we attended services together, well, I do remember laughing our heads off. The tiniest thing would get us going; often my girlfriends and I would get uncontrollable giggles to the point of tears. That I can picture clearly.

One could blame age for my inability to conjure any educational highlights; I’m the first to admit running into more mental roadblocks these days than I’d like.

But why, then, can I recall first-grade spelling tests? Or the time my third-grade teacher promised us ice cream if everyone got 100 percent on their arithmetic test, but one sorry soul forgot to borrow in her computations, ruining it for the rest of us.

Maybe I just didn’t pay attention in Sunday school. But that flies in the face of my normal M.O.

No, I was bored. We were taught about our past and Jewish milestones, but without ties to the present or spiritual meaning.

What did the parting of the Red Sea have to do with me? Adam and Eve and a talking snake? C’mon.

I’m sure religious schools have grown far more sophisticated since my time; educators must recognize that unengaged students become disaffected adults.

At the Bay Area’s Bureau of Jewish Education, congregational school specialist David Monblatt agrees: “The schools that are the most successful are the schools that make the learning relevant.” Schools that fail to do so “face the largest obstacles — including lack of attendance post-bar and bat mitzvah.”

Did the Red Sea really part? It’s a question Monblatt had to answer when he was teaching. His response: “If you’re asking whether this story is true, you might be asking the wrong question. Rather, [the question is] ‘What truths are being passed on through this story?'” And in this case, “it is teaching us that freedom is so important to the story of the Jewish people.”

A good religious school, he says, “will take these universal truths that Torah gives us and share why they’re relevant. Schools are beginning to do that more and more, because it’s clearly something that speaks to students, and it really does work.”

Liz Harris is assignment editor at j. She can be reached at [email protected].

Liz Harris

Liz Harris is a J. contributor. She was J.'s culture editor from 2012-2018.