Dear Hebrew School Teachers, I Want a Refund
Three ways I feel you let me down and how you can do way better.
Dear Former Hebrew School Teachers,
It’s been decades since I was a student in your Hebrew school and you’re probably wondering why I’m getting back in touch. Simply put: I’d like a refund. And if that’s not possible, a promise that you’ll do better in the future will suffice.
In the formative years of my life, whatever I knew about Judaism was taught in your school. And while I learned some things from you that have stood me in good stead, looking back I wish so many things would have been taught differently. Here are three ways I feel you let me down and how you can do way better.
1. Judaism isn’t about guilt.
“You’re not celebrating this holiday?” One of my lasting memories from your school is learning about Jewish holidays that my secular-leaning family didn’t celebrate, and then feeling so guilty at school when my teachers acted disappointed and disapproving. (I’m a Hebrew School teacher myself now and I try very hard never to make my students feel ashamed or bad - that’s just not the Jewish way.)
For me, so much of Judaism was about feeling guilty and that’s a terrible feeling to impart to a child. Instead, I wish you’d encouraged us to do more and take a greater part in Jewish traditions in a positive way. I wish you’d bothered to invite us to synagogue for Shabbat and holiday celebrations, and told us what to expect. I wish you’d explained how much fun celebrating the Jewish holiday of Simchat Torah is, or how much fun celebrating Purim can be. I wish you’d invited us to Shabbat meals and showed us how to bring the Passover Seder to life.
I wish you would have imparted the message that we are all vital links in a chain going back thousands of years, that each of us is an important part of the Jewish people.
2. Jewish wisdom is accessible.
How could I have gone through years of Hebrew School and not known that the Talmud is part of the Torah? Or the names of the Five Books of Moses? Or what the difference is between the Mishnah and the Gemara? You had us in your class nine hours a week for years, but somehow when it came to basic Jewish literacy, you blew it.
Even though we were all driven kids, used to pushing ourselves in regular school and accustomed to studying subjects like math and science and American history in depth, somehow when it came to Jewish subjects, we were supposed to be content with watered-down subject matter and partial information. We never got homework; we rarely had tests. Would it have been so hard to challenge us, and expect the same excellence in Hebrew school that our other teachers demanded?
I thought of you, Hebrew School Teachers, this year when I stood before my own Sunday School class, this time as a teacher. My students were all used to being high achievers in regular school and I was determined to challenge them in Jewish subjects too. “This year we’re going to study part of the Talmud,” I told them, and they cheered. Cheered!
How I wish you’d told us something similar. How I wish you’d tried to do the same with us and showed us how ancient Jewish wisdom applies to our lives right now.
3. Judaism really matters in our lives.
You taught us that Judaism was nothing but stories, pleasant homilies that had little relevance to our lives. You told us it was unclear whether the stories and history mentioned in the Torah even really took place: I distinctly remember one of you telling us what you called “the legend” of Hanukkah. I grew up surrounded by kids of other religions and ethnic groups who were all proud of their own histories, while I was taught to doubt mine.
How I wish that one of you teachers had stood up in our class and pointed out that the Hebrew language we were struggling to learn has been spoken by Jews for thousands of years - and then shown us examples of Hebrew writings through the ages. How I wish that you’d told us the Psalms in our prayer books were written by none other than King David, who captured Jerusalem and made it his capital after ascending the throne in 877 BCE.
How I wish you’d explained to us that each time we face east when we pray, we are facing Jerusalem, and the Western Wall which is the sole remaining structure from the Temple in which our ancestors worshipped God over two thousand years ago. How I wished you’d told us about the many precious archeological finds that have been made at that site that show the Temple was built and worshipped in for thousands of years precisely as the Torah describes.
It took me many years before I stood in Jerusalem myself, at the Western Wall, and finally felt the power of Jewish history, my history, all around me. I wish you’d done more to help me develop those feelings of pride and connection sooner.
A friend told me that he wanted to embrace Judaism and become more religious but that, ironically, his previous Jewish education was holding him back, making him doubt whether Judaism was worth exploring. On behalf of him, and myself, and the untold numbers of our fellow students who endured years of uninspiring Hebrew School, and as a current Hebrew School teacher myself, let’s pledge that we don’t repeat the mistakes from the past and that we aim to pass on the joys, excitement and wisdom of Jewish life to our children and students.
A Former Student