Closing the Jewish Education Gap
Jan 17th 2016

In my three and a half years so far at Beth Tzedec, I have been fortunate to participate in a number of professional development gatherings with other synagogue educators, both locally and from across North America. Regardless of the purpose of our gathering, be it improving teacher supervision, exploring new ideas in experiential education, or learning how to be better recruiters and marketers of our school and programming, the conversations always come back to questions about the size, function and operation of each synagogue in which we work. 

I have been looking at very important figures: among the children of our members from Grades 1 to 8, what percentage are not enrolled in either Jewish Day School, our Synagogue’s supplementary school or another supplementary Jewish learning program? The answers I get from my American colleagues are less than five percent. Put another way, in these congregations almost every child is engaged in formal Jewish education. 

At Beth Tzedec, we estimate the figure to be 25 percent. We work hard to gather as much data as we can from families about where their kids go to school, and it seems that from Grades 1 to 8, around 50 percent of our kids attend a Jewish Day School, while another 20 percent are learning either in the CS|X @ BT (Congregational School Experience at Beth Tzedec) or at another supplementary program in the city. About five percent report that they make arrangements on their own with a tutor. 

One quarter of our children are not receiving a formal Jewish education. Why might this be, and what can we do about it? 

For many parents whose children are now in Grades 1 to 8 and who themselves participated in the supplementary school system, their experiences may have been less than positive. A recent study in the United States found that Jewish adults who experienced no formal Jewish education as children now have a more positive relationship with Judaism than adults who received a one-day per week Hebrew school education as children. The field of supplementary Jewish learning was, frankly, a mess for far too long. We recognize that many parents carry their experiences with them and are hesitant to expose their own children to anything that resembles what they went through. 

Today, for many parents, they feel there simply isn’t enough time. Children are more programmed than ever before, with many of the most popular extra-curricular activities imposing strict attendance guidelines and multi-day per week obligations. Our challenge is to figure out how to get the same family buy in! Between activities, homework and time with friends and family, the hours are just not there, especially for an experience that may not be as highly valued or be of as high in terms of quality and relevance as hockey or dance. 

But we are making changes. Over the last three years at Beth Tzedec, we have reshaped our school to focus on learning that is meaningful and relevant to the lives of our kids. We teach not as in the past; very little work is done at desks, and we use as few textbooks as possible. Instead, our faculty engage their students in activities and experiences that form real connections and meaning with the subject matter. 

Our school does meet at a fixed time on Sunday mornings and our mid-week learning has some flexibility, both in terms of time and location. We recognize that today’s world of after school programming and horrendous traffic makes it difficult for every student to be at Beth Tzedec on a weekday afternoon, and we do our best to accommodate this reality without losing sight of how we want to teach. 

Come see our new CS|X (Congregational School Experience). Email me or call to learn more, or book a tour to see our school in action. If your children or grandchildren are part of the 25 percent, let’s work together and give more Jewish children the opportunity to embrace our past and inform our future