Tag Archives: Hebrew school

What Happens to a Hebrew School Dropout?

by Beth Leibson (New York, NY)

My 11-year-old son, Ari, is now a Hebrew-school dropout.I am aware that that’s the name of a comedy act and a line of T-shirts. But, for me, the phrase is not a punch line, but a punch in the gut.

I imagine my response was just like parents whose kids drop out of high school: disbelief, sadness and helplessness followed quickly by a healthy dose of Jewish guilt. “Where did I go wrong?” “What did I do to cause him to reject my contribution to his heritage?”

I realize the situations aren’t exactly comparable. My son, Ari, won’t face difficulties getting into college or landing a good job—at least as a result of this decision. He won’t be walking the streets of New York stopping strangers and saying, “Dude, can you spare a kippah so I can cover my head in synagogue?” On the flip side, there’s no GED equivalent for the bar mitzvah (though an adult bar mitzvah is an option).

My goals for the after-school Hebrew-school program were modest: I knew he wouldn’t become a Judaic scholar, conversant in Jewish history or fluent in Hebrew. I just hoped he’d have fun being Jewish, make a couple of friends in the tribe, and possibly gain enough of a sense of Judaism that he could accept it—or reject it—with some knowledge base.

I suppose I could force Ari to go to Hebrew school. But I worry that it would backfire, that he would end up resenting his Jewish heritage.

When I was growing up, my household changed when my mother married her second husband. My mother was agnostic, her new hubby Orthodox, which made for an interesting combination. The family that had been only loosely affiliated with Judaism started to keep kosher and attend synagogue weekly. And my sister and I ended up at a Jewish high school. I felt like I was being force-fed Judaism as a result of my mother’s second marriage—and it gave me heartburn.

Of course, the effort backfired the minute I moved out of my mother’s house. While I retained a strong sense of Jewish identity, you would never know it if you watched my behavior when I was in college and my early 20s. I avoided synagogue and any Jewish event where my grandparents weren’t in attendance. I ate on Yom Kippur, a traditional fast day, and enjoyed sandwiches during Passover, the week when most Jews eschew leavening. In my late 20s, I married a non-Jew and did not ask him to even consider converting. Although I did warn him that any kids I might have—purely theoretical, mind you—would be Jewish.

My sister has stayed away from all things Jewish. To the best of my knowledge, she hasn’t set foot in a synagogue in the past decade, aside from my daughter’s bat mitzvah. This year, when I invited her to our very low-key seder, she told me it was “too Jewish” for her and her non-Jewish husband.

Eventually, in my 30s, I came back to the fold, drop by drop. I added elements as the whim struck, taking a deli-line approach; I picked what was fun or meaningful. I ventured back to synagogue on the High Holy Days, then branched into very occasional Friday night services. My then-husband and I took a trip to Israel and upon our return, he began—of his own accord—the process of converting to Judaism. And once we had children, the process accelerated. The kids thought challah was yummy, so we started to eat it every Friday night. I liked the notion of celebrating freedom, so we had seders at Passover. Of course, we did it in our own style, sitting on the living room floor with bowls of leavening-free chili in our laps.

Then my daughter, who has always identified herself strongly as Jewish, learned the Sabbath prayers at Tot Shabbat and asked that we say them—and provide grape juice—every Friday night. She’s still at it—and now lights the candles for Ari and me every Friday night.

Do I worry too much about Ari and Hebrew school? My daughter says yes; it is his life, she avers. I don’t disagree. It is his life—but I am his mom.

I want to send him into the world with a well-stocked box of life tools. That includes certain skills, such as the ability to tie shoes, use a pair of scissors, design and prepare an assortment of nutritious meals, balance a checkbook and, these days, safely traverse the Internet. It includes some basic habits, such as twice-daily tooth brushing, regular use of “please” and “thank you,” and proper tipping. I also want my children, my son, to have certain psychological tools, such as confidence, hobbies, a sense of humor, an ability to find joy in life—and a sense of who he is and where he comes from. I worry that Ari won’t have a clear sense of who he is and where he comes from as a Jew. It’s as though he’s missing the Phillips-head screwdriver in his toolbox.

What we do, the little steps that we take—or don’t take—every day contribute to our identity. Is Ari denying who he is? After all, renouncing religions is much simpler than “passing” for a different race; it is eminently doable and sadly common.

I’m not giving up on Ari. He will continue to have challah and grape juice every Friday night—and to watch his older sister light the candles. He will continue to celebrate freedom on Passover, throw sponges at the rabbi at the Purim carnival and seek forgiveness around the High Holy Days.

I know my kids are getting mixed messages about being Jewish since their father and I divorced. In my home, we celebrate the holidays, march in the Israel Day parade and generally identify ourselves as Hebes.

My kids say that they are often asked, “Are you half-Jewish?” I know that choosing Judaism means, at least to some extent, picking Mom over Dad—a position neither child (nor I, on most days) relishes.

Judaism is a journey, and everyone takes an individual path. My daughter is taking what seems like a pretty straight line thus far, sticking to the major highways. I took my own spiral approach to identifying as a Jew, pulling away and then cycling back. And Ari will take his own path, though I do worry that he’s wandered off into a field for a nap.

The good news is that he asked to attend the synagogue’s Purim carnival this year—and then put in a plug for a chocolate seder, negotiating the details with his acne-phobic older sister. I am hopeful that this means Ari will wake up from his Hebrew-school nap, grab his well-stocked toolbox, and make a life for himself that includes the joy and pride of being Jewish.

Beth Leibson is a New York-based writer and editor, and author of the book I’m Too Young to Have Breast Cancer (Lifeline, 2004).

This article originally appeared in the Jewish Journal and on Jewishjournal.com. It’s reprinted here with the kind permission of the Jewish Journal and the author.

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Hebrew School Memories

by Jan Booker (Malibu, CA)

School meant public school.  Private school was for rich kids and we didn’t know any.  For South Philadelphia Jewish families, Hebrew School equaled in importance our secular education.

We didn’t go to Sunday School or religious school once or twice a week. Hebrew school was serious business: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday afternoon, after regular school, for two and one half hours, plus the same amount of time on Sunday mornings.  If you subtract recess, assemblies, art, gym and music, the time spent in Hebrew School equaled our daily secular school time.

We had several subjects: Hebrew, of course, where we learned to read and write using the first five books of the Bible as our text. But this was before the establishment of the State  of Israel when Hebrew was rarely used as a conversational language, so to this day I can read Hebrew, but my conversational skills are limited to about thirty unconnected words.  Then there was literature, where we studied the literature of the Jews, concentrating on writers like Sholom Aleichem and Peretz.  History was as expected, a history of the Jewish people, from Biblical times through the Diaspora, up to what was the  present for us.  In the days before and during World War11, we studied shtetl life and European migrations of the Jews.  For those who went to Hebrew school after the war, studies must have had a very different focus.  We had written  tests and oral exams and homework.  Probably our classes in Hebrew school plus our secular school education equaled what is taught in any Jewish day school, except we spent double the time in classrooms combining public school and Hebrew school.

I attended JEC2, which meant Jewish Educational Center #2, part of a network of independent schools called, usually, a “Talmud Torah” or referred to in Yiddish as “Cheder.”  This institution was not synagogue- affiliated but part of a central education system.  Classes and offices were housed in a building at Marshall and Porter Streets, a typical school building with three floors and a wonderful auditorium.  The building was a kind of art deco- style.  Wide front steps led to a center hall and then to the large auditorium, where typical school-wide events were held: plays and holiday celebrations, religious observances and special events. Many years later, the building was utilized as a senior center operated by Philadelphia Jewish Community Centers.

Attendance at this Hebrew school almost mitigated the necessity of belonging to a synagogue.  There was no need for additional opportunity for worship.  We celebrated all holidays through the school, and the entire family was welcome to join any event.  The children were involved in all aspects of presentation or observance.

When I was about eight, studying Bible stories, I asked my teacher a question:  “Why,” I said, “if God knows everything, did He permit Eve to eat the apple.”  A curious look passed over the teacher’s face.  “Ask your mother,” was her answer.  It took quite a few years for me to understand why she didn’t want to deal with a reply.

We celebrated every holiday with a play to which parents and grandparents proudly lent their presence.  In my first year of Hebrew school I was in a Chanukah play.  Because so many of the parents, and all the grandparents, were immigrants whose English language skills were modest,  plays were presented in English and Yiddish.  My part was to run across the stage, stopping front and center, to announce in Yiddish, “Hannah is dead, Hannah has died, threw herself over the wharf and lies there with her seven children.”

When I think back to my seven years of Hebrew School, I am full of wonder at the quality of the teachers.  Mr. Blank taught Hebrew, a brilliant man who wrote fourteen novels in a language not yet used other than for worship.   Mr. Sankowsky taught us history.  I learned  years later that he was an accomplished artist whose work was exhibited throughout the city.  Dr. Levitsky, the principal, had a PhD, an impressive accomplishment in those days.  His wife, a striking exotic- looking brunette, taught us music and directed our dramatic productions.

We had no confirmation, no bat-mitzvah.  Those ceremonies were for more upscale neighborhoods.  Our parents thought them frivolous; it was the learning that mattered. In our South Philadelphia culture, boys were bar-mitzvahed but girls were also educated in Hebrew school in coed classes.

My memory is that there were no bar-mitzvah classes for the boys, who had to study with a Rabbi or Melamed (teacher.)  My brother was tutored by a special bar-mitzvah teacher who came to our house several days a week for a year.  My father, who lost no opportunity to increase the educational opportunities of his children, had Mr. Shafritz stay a little longer each session to teach me to read and write Yiddish.  So long as I knew the basic  Hebrew alphabet (Yiddish uses the same alphabet but substitutes letter vowels for the symbols used as vowels in Hebrew) he argued, it would be a simple matter.  It wasn’t, yet I can still work my way around large print in a Yiddish newspaper.  Book texts are somewhat harder and I give up easily.

Some families, eager to pass on their Socialist political leanings to their children, sent them to Jewish schools that de-emphasized the religious aspects of Judaism and focused on political and cultural issues.  I met many graduates of these schools several years later when I joined the Zionist youth group.

Janice L. Booker is the author of The Jewish American Princess and Other Myths, Philly Firsts, and Across from the Alley Next Door to the Pool Room, from which this reminiscence is excerpted with permission of the authorFor more information about her work, visit: http://www.amazon.com/Janice-L.-Booker/e/B001KCCS8E

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Crosses on the Wall

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

My father sent me to Hebrew school,
where mournful prayers kept me a prisoner,
preventing me from playing first base
for my beloved Little League team.
On the High Holidays, I dreaded wearing
my wool suit which made me scratch.
I looked all around the synagogue, bored,
counting the number of lights on the memorial wall.
I kept sneaking looks at how many pages remained.
Liberated at 13, I ran free, but was slowed by guilt.
Years later, I am a speaker of literature
at a conference at a small Catholic college.
Two nuns sit in on my workshop,
and on the wall floats a giant cross.
“So boychik, my ancestors seem to be saying.
“How are you feeling these days?
See how your lack of Jewish education has cost you?
Are you now playing first base for the other side?”

The author of twelve books for young adults, Mel Glenn has lived nearly all his life in Brooklyn, NY, where he taught English at A. Lincoln High School for thirty-one years.  Lately, he’s been writing poetry, and you can find his most recent poems in a new YA anthology, This Family Is Driving Me Crazy,  edited by M. Jerry Weiss.

If you’d like to learn more about his work, visit: http://www.melglenn.com/

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Filed under American Jewry, Jewish identity, poetry