What I Learned in Religious School

by Ellie Klein Goldman

I am not a learned Jew because of religious school. My knowledge of mizvot and Jewish life cycle, my love of Hebrew Bible and Jewish text, did not come from religious school. I learned all that “stuff” as an adult. I took classes in college and in graduate school and from other learned Jewish friends who also don’t remember what they learned in religious school. From religious school, I got a very basic understanding of the Jewish holidays, the aleph bet, and Jewish ritual and history. I didn’t find religious school to be torturous (as it was for so many), and I don’t even remember being bored. I remember that it was relatively interesting, age appropriate, and that I forgot 85% of what I learned almost as quickly as I learned it. I can say the same for the state history I learned in fourth grade and the advanced math I studied in high school.

What religious school did teach me was that being Jewish means you show up and participate in your community, that every person matters, and that everyone has a valuable role to play. In religious school, I learned that Jewish holidays are celebratory and that personal milestones are cause for collective rejoicing at simchot. I learned that when it’s time for the Chanukah party, you show up with your potato peeler and dig in elbow deep until every 5-year-old has her fill of latkes, and you do it with true joy – whether or not you have kids.

My religious school was alive with engaged and active students and teachers. Even though it wasn’t very big or very fancy, everyone took pride in being there together. My religious school invested in me with faith, believing that I would go on to live a dynamic Jewish life and that I would want to create the same for my children. It turns out to have been a wise investment.

Today we are fighting an uphill battle, trying to pour a lifetime of Jewish knowledge into our children during the few short years they are in our religious schools. It is unreasonable to expect them to learn an entirely new language in 90 minutes a week, and it is a shonda that they feel a sense of failure if they can’t meet this expectation. We are not doing our kids or their families any service by defining religious school with progress reports, attendance requirements and homework. In an already stress-filled adolescence we have become just one more item on the to-do list. We are missing an incredible opportunity to provide relief from the chaos and instead we contribute to it.

We must rethink and reframe the way our young people encounter and interact with our synagogues and with each other. This reworking does not mean diluting curricular materials and it doesn’t mean that everything has to be “fun” or “social.” Rather, it means adjusting the environment, the attitude and—most important—the goals of our programs. It also means encircling our young people with loving Jewish communities from the time they are infants, and putting our commitment to do so above all else. Above all else. Young people who have positive relationships with Jewish peers, with their clergy and educators, and with their congregation will grow into adults who feel comfortable—and comforted in Jewish environments. This is a reachable goal, and most worthy of the energy and effort we all put forth every day.

Ellie Klein Goldman is the Associate for Youth Engagement at Temple Shalom of Newton, MA.