Participation in Jewish supplementary education in North America has decreased by nearly half in 15 years, according to a new study from a New York-based organization. But a brief survey of Vancouver after-school and weekend education programs suggests local kids are bucking the trend.
The report from the Jewish Education Project, formerly the Board of Jewish Education of Greater New York, is the first comprehensive continent-wide assessment of supplementary Jewish education since a 2008 report by the AVI CHAI Foundation.
Supplementary education – that is, after-school and weekend options offered mostly by congregations – is how most Jewish children get their formal Jewish learning. Despite this, little research has been done on the strengths and weaknesses of the sector, according to the report, titled From Census to Possibilities: Designing New Pathways for Jewish Learners, which was conducted with Rosov Consulting.
According to the study, total enrolment in supplementary schools has decreased at least 45% since 2006-2007. “While not so different than in 2006, only 16% (less than 2,000 students annually) of those ever enrolled in a supplemental program remain in a formal educational environment by senior year in high school,” notes the report. The number of schools has decreased at least 27% since 2006-2007.
Although the report surveyed Canadians, the American numbers overwhelmingly swamp nuances in the Canadian Jewish experience. An informal whip-round of a few local supplementary education providers by the Independent produced a far rosier picture. Most who responded to the paper’s inquiries have not only bounced back from the pandemic’s challenges but are doing better than ever.
Congregation Beth Israel’s Rabbi Jonathan Infeld said all post-pandemic programming is attracting more people than ever before, including growth in Hebrew school numbers.
“Despite the fact that 85% of our children attend Talmud Torah, our Hebrew school is thriving and growing,” he said. “A lot of that I believe has to do with the hard work and efforts of Rabbi [David] Bluman and the teachers, as well as solid Hebrew and Jewish education. It is well known that children leave the BI Hebrew school having learned real knowledge and with a strong and positive Jewish identity.”
Engaging young people in unique and hands-on ways is among the reasons for the success, Infeld suggested, noting the congregation’s involvement with the new Jewish Community Garden.
“At Beth Israel, we provide Jewish education in motion, where Jewish children are able to learn while literally getting their hands dirty in the garden,” he said. “This is an exciting addition to the scene of supplementary Jewish education in Vancouver that has already begun to teach Jewish children important Jewish values of protecting our environment, food security, gratitude for the food we eat and the land of Israel.”
Jen Jaffe, school principal at Temple Sholom, also reports great post-pandemic engagement. Over the last 10 years, she said, Temple Sholom School has more than doubled enrolment, reaching almost 200 students. More than 30 teenage madrichim are set to help in the classrooms this year.
Temple Sholom successfully navigated the pandemic, she said, through online learning. The convenience of that mode has not been abandoned just because it’s safe to gather again.
“Now, although back in person, we also offer midweek Zoom Hebrew classes for our Grade 4 to 7 students who find the convenience appealing,” said Jaffe.
The school’s continued growth has led to a second session of Sunday classes.
Schara Tzedeck has not resumed supplementary education since the pandemic and the congregation’s formal youth education has traditionally been limited so as not to detract from Jewish day school opportunities like Vancouver Hebrew Academy, said Rabbi Andrew Rosenblatt.
“Hating on Hebrew school has been fashionable at least since Philip Roth published his short story ‘The Conversion of the Jews’ in 1958,” the Jewish Education Project report notes. Despite this cultural trope, a recent survey found that 87% of kids surveyed like or love their experience with Jewish education.
While part-time Jewish schooling has been seen as an easier, more affordable form of Jewish education, the report notes that it is not cheap, requiring, as it often does, synagogue memberships in addition to possible other expenses.
Broader trends toward secularization that are affecting most religious communities in North America are reflected among Jews.
“Overall, about a quarter of U.S. adults who identify as being Jewish (27%) do not identify with the Jewish religion,” says the report. “They consider themselves to be Jewish ethnically, culturally or by family background and have a Jewish parent or were raised Jewish, but they answer a question about their current religion by describing themselves as atheist, agnostic or ‘nothing in particular’ rather than as Jewish.”
Many families tend to be looking for a cultural approach to Jewish identity, which emphasizes history, language and peoplehood over prayer and worship. Another aspect to note is the ethnic diversity of Jewish communities, with that diversity increasing among younger age cohorts.
“Successful educational programs welcome Jews of Colour, all family members from homes where more than one religion is practised, and all who wish to be part of the community regardless of gender identity, sexual orientation, class or ability,” write the authors.
According to the report, effective teachers have “transitioned from ‘a sage on the stage’ to a ‘guide at your side.’”
Maggie Karpilovski, executive director of the Peretz Centre for Secular Jewish Culture, is bullish on Jewish education but said institutions need to heed the warnings of this report. Her organization is trying new things both in terms of content and delivery, with one of their popular offerings a province-wide online program. They are also explicitly reflecting the diversity of families who may be intermarried, LGBTQ+ or otherwise seeking something that reflects their values.
“We are also adding an additional program that’s focused on Israeli culture because we are seeing that segment of the population growing quite a bit and they don’t fit the mold of the traditional synagogue,” she said of young Israeli-Canadians and Canadian-born kids of Israeli parents.
If anyone needed a reminder, the report should convince them that rote language learning and proscriptive religious training are out.
“The traditional brick-and-mortar Hebrew school is no longer working for a lot of families and families are looking for alternatives,” said Karpilovski. “Young people are so worldly nowadays. They are concerned about climate change, they are concerned about racism and discrimination. They are concerned about what’s happening in their world and Jewish education that takes that into consideration, that contextualizes
Judaism and Jewish life within the context of the world, has more success and holds more interest to modern families and kids.”
The Jewish Education Project report may carry bad news, but Karpilovski sees it as a chance for renewal.
“We need to be engaging young people in the design and delivery of educational programs because they are the ones who are going to tell us what is relevant and they are the future of this,” she said. “So, I really hope that this report opens the door for us to pay attention, to ask more insightful questions and to invite young people and their families to participate in the development of what Jewish education is going to evolve into over the next decades.”
The report, with more information, is available at pathways.jewishedproject.org.