Religion & Beliefs

Stop Blaming Hebrew School

My weekly unsolicited email from Shalom TV, "America’s Jewish Television Cable Network," informs me that Michael Steinhardt, philanthropist provocateur, in a recent "rare, personal interview," launched into a tirade against non-Orthodox American Jewish education. Hebrew school, argued the hedge-fund tycoon … Read More

By / January 7, 2010

My weekly unsolicited email from Shalom TV, "America’s Jewish Television Cable Network," informs me that Michael Steinhardt, philanthropist provocateur, in a recent "rare, personal interview," launched into a tirade against non-Orthodox American Jewish education. Hebrew school, argued the hedge-fund tycoon and Taglit-BIrthright impressario, spitting the word out through clenched teeth (or so I imagine the scene), "has been, and continues to be, a shandah–an abysmal failure." In Steinhardt’s estimation, the ineptitude of this warhorse of an educational model is responsible for skyrocketing rates of non-Orthodox intermarriage, and the plummeting percentage of Jewish philanthropic dollars actually going these days to Jewish causes. (He sets the figure at 15%). "Can there be a worse term in the American Jewish lexicon than ‘Hebrew School?" he asks. "There were six kids in the 20th Century who liked it!"

I am still digesting the press release–the lack of a cable hookup means it will take me some effort to watch the actual interview. Other tidbits include Steinhardt inveighing against the use of "mythical" anti-Semitism as a "boogeyman" to "raise money" for Jewish organizations, and against an obsession with the Holocaust that hinders us from thinking "about what we want to accomplish and what we want to be in the 21st century." The "religion of Judaism," he says further, is "so deeply disappointing" in its "practice, its verbiage, its inability to reflect realistically upon our lives."

The only redemption he sees for the "moribund world" of the Diaspora is a relationship with Israel, "my Jewish miracle." He has no respect, mind you, for the political and business establishment of the country, which he described with adjectives such as "awful" and "less than glorious," and he does not seem to be in favor of living there all the time, either. "I have a wonderful house in the middle of Jerusalem," he says. "I love Israel. I love America. And," like Alec Baldwin in bed with Meryl Streep, "it’s a complicated situation."

I admit again that I am only relying here on the sampling of quotes provided in the press release, so I don’t feel justified launching a full critique of Steinhardt’s performance. Instead, I’d like to focus on the first salvo, the oft repeated claim that synagogue Hebrew schools are responsible for the decline of the Jewish people–a claim that is more or less akin to stripping your parents’ house of all viable woodwork, plumbing, and appliances and then wondering why they live in such a dump.

Firstly, it should be noted that Hebrew school has not been a failure, as it is largely responsible for the success of many who have spent time on the editorial board of Heeb, or in the Alpine fortress of Reboot, or the stables of the Foundation for Jewish Culture, or most likely, if you will pardon me, the inner sancta of Jewcy and JDub [Editor's note: I should just point out that I didn't go to Hebrew school, but several of my colleagues did].

Anyone who has jockeyed disaffection with the Jewish establishment into a successful career of personal expression on the American mass-media stage, including the Coen brothers (who, since "A Serious Man," I consider the patron saints of the genre), should reflect on the debt of gratitude he or she owes to this half-assed system of religio-ethno-cultural indoctrination. Things might have been far less interesting had the ingredients come out fully-baked.

But, snarkiness aside, the problem with blaming Hebrew School for the collapse of our millennia-old civilization is that such talk, to paraphrase Tevye, blames the cart for the inherent lameness of the horse; exonerates the many who fled the challenge of creating meaningful Jewish life for the sorry state of affairs they left behind, and ignores the implacability of the forces that made them flee in the first place.

For what created the supposition that two to six hours a week of afterschool guttarality could foment a firm commitment to the Jewish people? I don’t think this paradigm was determined deliberately from the outset, by committee. At the turn of the last century, there were viable models of Jewish education, and there was a critical mass of Jewish community prepared to embody them. And then there was mass immigration, and genocide, and breakneck assimilation–from a flummoxed traditional culture into a post-War America that was primed with petroleum to give Jewish people the greatest thrill ride they had ever experienced in a Gentile world.  And, at the end of the day, Hebrew School emerged because it was the best we were allowed to do. Speaking, gloves off, as a working rabbi and education director, trying hard to find ways to reflect the "verbiage" of the Jewish religion "realistically upon our lives," it is frustrating that, by consensus of the parents of my community, I can only educate their children for two hours a week with no homework, and that those hours come well after regular school hours, and that the expectations for behavior and attendance sometimes fall somewhere between a railway station and a monkey house–despite the fact that they are all, without exception, great kids. But this is roughly the extent of the concession that many American Jewish families are willing to make these days to their Jewish identities, and there should be a category of Nobel prize for whoever figures out how to put these parameters to the best use.

There is a lot of talk in circulation about "what we want to accomplish, and what we want to be in the 21st century;" what it will take to "get our groove back," whether that means summoning the "boogeyman," or replacing religion with spirituality, or pretending we’re Jamaican, or humping each other at younger ages with fewer prophylactics, or giving "Jewish barbarians" (Steinhardt’s term) free trips to an Israel whose only redeeming virtue seems to be that we only have to be there sporadically. Of course, it is the responsibility of those who care to come up with compelling answers to the question of why be Jewish. But these answers are getting shorter and shorter, and sounding more and more often like marketing slogans, and, at the end of the day, the lack of substance is less the fault of educators than it is the fault of Jewish consumers who don’t want to buy, no matter how cheap the cost. Beyond that, it is the fault of history.