In Defense of Reform Sunday School Education

I read Beyond BT’s recent article by Azriela Jaffe, Vaccinating Our Children Against Prayer, with great interest. Based on my own reform sunday school and temple experiences, I also felt that those experiences not only vaccinate Jewish children against prayer, but also against any interest in Judaism in general. My theory was that having no Jewish background, rather than a negative background, gives people more of a blank slate when it comes to approaching Judaism for the first time. I theorized that when these “blank slate Jews” do come into contact with frumkeit for the first time, it will be with a more open mind because they had no preconceived notions based on negative Jewish experiences.

But based on later experiences working with a number of Jewish, not-yet-religious college students, I have come to a different, though not mutually exclusive, conclusion.

I worked for three years in a community kollel in the United States. In the “kiruv” portion of my job, I worked primarily with Jewish college students at four different campuses running programs, giving classes, organizing Shabbatonim, organizing trips to New York, and trying to refer students to programs in Israel.

The students I was able to come into contact with were a minority of the Jewish student population at the campuses to begin with. They were a self-selected group of people who were interested in identifying with and participating in something Jewish, but I was never able to meet the majority of the Jewish students.

But within that already self-selected minority, it is interesting to note the Jewish “denominational” background of those minority of the Jewishly identified students. 90% of the these students were identified with either the conservative or reform movements. The remaining 10% or so came from an “unaffiliated” background.

Had I been a greater teacher, I would have been able to communicate with each person on their level and in a language that they understood. However, I was not such a great teacher. I found the conservative students the easiest to speak to about Jewish things. The next easiest group of students to speak to were the reform ones, but they were still harder to connect to, in general, than the conservative ones. And the most difficult to connect to were the ones from an unaffiliated background.

My impression was that the main thing that separated these groups was the extent to which there was any “common language” or “frame of reference” that they shared with Judaism and/or myself. To the extent that these students had any Jewish background at all, whether it be an awareness of the practice of certain mitzvos, certain famous stories in the Torah, or knowing a few common Hebrew words, I had some frame of reference, some common language with which to have some kind of jewish conversation with them.

The other problem with having no common language or frame of reference is that there were few values or morals that could be used as a frame of reference. Even without any specifically Jewish knowledge, someone with some of the values that are, on some level, shared by Judaism, is better equipped to relate to a Jewish message based on values, even if not based on more ostensibly “religious” aspects of Judaism.

So I think that having some Jewish background, even if it involves bad reform or conservative sunday school memories, gives those kids a leg up in two respects.

One, it gives them a somewhat greatly likelihood of having the propensity to expose themselves to occasional Jewish experiences during their lives to begin with. Without at least some jewish involvement, contact with frum people becomes less likely. You have to be in it to win it.

And two, those kids that had some Jewish background were, I think, more likely to have some common language or frame of reference, so that if and when they do come into contact with frumkeit, it enables at least some greater level of communication and connection. with Jewish people and Jewish ideas.

My main point is that even some level of affiliation by non-observant Jews is somewhat better than being unaffiliated. It’s at least a point to ponder!

-Dixie Yid

27 comments on “In Defense of Reform Sunday School Education

  1. Interesting both perspectives. I agree that both perspectives are true for diff people. For some, it’s better to start with a clean slate. And for some, they need a little framework to start with and go forward from there

  2. Gay Rabbis + Patrilineal Decent + Phony Conversions + Elimination of Kashrut + Elimination of Kohanim + Denying Har Sinai and the Exodus + Ignorance of Torah + Prayer Services in Churches + Women Writing Torah Scrolls and Wearing Talis and Tefllin + Frequent Orthodox Bashing = Reform Judaism

  3. My memories echo those of Ellen L.

    I was just in my hometown of Wichita, KS and had plenty of interaction with both the traditional synagogue I grew up in and the congregants. As walked the halls where I ran during Hewbrew School, looked at my confirmation picture, and stood on the bima where I was “Bar Mitzvahed” to deliver a hesped for my father, I was thankful for the positive memories of Judaism that I was able to use as a foundation towards the move to Torah Judaism that I made in high school.

  4. I, too, dreaded Tues. and Thurs. afternoons when I had to go to Hebrew school, but I actually felt a sense of pride going 3 times a week as opposed to my more shvach counterparts attending only on Suns. for their confirmation parties when they were 16. But I enjoyed a number of the extra-curricular experiences that went with Hebrew School and Sabbath school (yes, we went on Shabbos). That included going to the tail end of the davening and getting a kiddush afterwards. And all of us attendees participated in Purim (costumes, parading around the shul on megillah night, and hamentaschen), Simchas Torah (parading around the shul with flags), getting an Israeli penpal, etc. Most of my best home memories are related to our Conservative Jewish upbringing (seders, Chanukah, my mom decorating our porch for Sukkos). I believe because of the positive experiences, despite the negativity, that I chose to go further with it.

    I also suspect that the kids that have some affiliation are more likely to go on Birthright than those of no affiliation. That gives them greater connection, and possibly more of a likelihood that they will hopefully keep their Judaism all in the family, and the beat goes on. What I’m trying to say is, as long as Judaism is kept alive through the generations, I suspect the greater the likelihood that someone (and probably more than one someones) will find his/her way back to frumkeit.

  5. Reform Judaism Hebrew school has four main goals: 1) get kids ready to perform at their Bar or Bat Mitzvah; 2) teach kids to read and speak Hebrew; 3) teach kids to love and support Israel; 4) teach “Jewish values.” These schools do not oppose intermarriage and assimilation because their biggest financial supporters are intermarried and assimilated Jews. If this limited curriculum does overcome apathy and awaken a thirst for more, then it’s great. If however it turns off the students completely and makes them swear never to enter a synagogue again, then it’s worse than nothing.

  6. Great post. I tend to agree w/ Dixie Yid.
    Especially in “smaller Jewish communities”, those who are connected to their reform or conservative/traditional congregations have that sense of pride in their Jewish identity that can be used as a great springboard.

  7. Lechatchila is “from the outset” (what is best to do now starting from scratch).

    Bedieved is “after the fact” (what is best to do now after some error or bad judgment has already been made). However, Dixie Yid used this term in a comment above in the sense of “what, in retrospect, what the better choice under those conditions”

  8. Hmm, the range of conservatism is so great these days that it is hard to have a pat answer but, given the same hard choice, I still wouldn’t change my answer. But there would be different feelings behind the choice for sure. By the way, this is a real choice for some here, but it is mainly an unaffliated (or conser. membership without being active) choice because the active conservative jew will generally not consider the orthodox school anyway.

  9. AJ,

    Do you differentiate between students at such a school whose parents are Conservative and those whose parents are not affiliated?

  10. Ok BM, you have officially abstained from this forced choice. I am going to give some kind of answer. I think the Conservative Day school is better because I see it making the chance of intermarriage smaller. Once the secular Jew marries out, it becomes much harder for him or her to come back.

  11. My own personal experience was that the reform activities I was involved in laid at least the groundwork for the possibility of becoming shomer Torah uMitzvot later in life becuase these activities gave me a clear sense that I was Jewish (though I didn’t know what that meant at the time). I disliked Hebrew school, though I very much enjoyed (for social reasons) the reform youth group that I was involved in during high school. Neither one had much Jewish “content,” but they gave me enough of a Jewish identity and a good feeling about it to be curious when I was older regarding what the Torah might actually be about. So although today I don’t agree at all with the approach of the reform institutions I was involved in as a youth, I have to be thankful that (totally unintentionally) they perpared me to eventually be open to being exposed to Torah.

  12. DY,

    We ought to have the lechatchila discussion somewhere if not here.


    I wouldn’t pretend there was no alternative.

  13. Bob, yes, I think you’re missing the point a bit. We’re not in a lechatchila discussion. I was discussing a “bidieved” sitation, once kids are already grown up, what are the relative “merits” of an unaffiliated background versus a reform or conservative affiliated background.

  14. “Somewhat interested” parents can potentially find all kinds of interesting, uplifting, informative Jewish info (including videos) for kids on and through the Web. Who says some Reform Sunday school is better than weekend home schooling with the right materials? The parents could learn through this, too.

    If sites packaging such materials in a very accessible, coordinated way don’t already exist, they should be created.

  15. I think the defense is whether or not it is better than nothing.

    Here is an example: Someone not observant, but beginning to get somewhat interested, asks you if they should send their kids to the conservative day school or public school (let’s pretend there is no third alternative for them) What do you say?

  16. Exposure to some Sunday school content derived from Judaism could have a positive influence on some.

    But let’s get to the term “In defense of”

    What exactly is being defended here? Are we to justify basing a Sunday school curriculum on something other than Torah Judaism? If some students at a Reform Sunday school do go on to pursue Torah Judaism, isn’t that a consequence unintended and unappreciated by the administration and staff?

  17. DY’s kiruv experience makes a sponge analogy seem unexpectedly appropriate. With zero yiddishkeit, the sponge is bone dry, and the Torah Judaism beads up and rolls off on contact. However, if the sponge has already sat in a little fluid, regardless of toxicity, Torah can be absorbed much better. Purging that toxicity may be a long process, but would it have started without the poison? Once again, the analogy of Torah as water seems quite apropos.

  18. Definitely. But both perspectivces are true for different people. I just began to realize that regardless of good experiences or bad ones with Judaism, if the person never gets into the door, there will never be that good “first impression.” Having *some* Jewish background at least makes it more likely that someone will enter the door to begin with.

  19. Interesting perspective. In my journey I have encountered many kiruv-oriented Rabbis from a variety of outlooks, and nearly all have told me that they find it easier to work with Jews of no Jewish educational background than those who went to Hebrew School. It is basically a matter of needing to do less de-programming and less clearing up of falsehoods and misconceptions. As a Hebrew School graduate, I know that many students come out of the system with a combination of ignorance and resentment and an attitude of, “I saw Fiddler on the Roof, I read The Chosen, I learned to parrot my Bar Mitzvah tape, I baked challah once, and therefore I know all about Judaism and am qualfiied to reject it.” Having lived in both worlds, I start to question more and more whether the institutions of Torah Judaism and liberal Judasim truly speak the “common language” to which the author refers, at least in terms of the ways that we educate our children.

  20. IMHO, the actual teaching in conservative hebrew school (my experience) is not that bad and might certainly be better than nothing. It is the philosophy that “doing this much is good enough” and you don’t really have to do all the mitzvahs so strictly. This would certainly be magnified by reform as well.

    As David pointed out, the other issue that was part of my experience is that I was taught the rules but did not experience any of the ‘joy” of Judaism”. That is why many BTs start in a place like Chabad or NCSY where you find such joy.

  21. DY,

    You raise an excellent question. I had always been under the impression that a non-orthodox Jewish education (mostly of the after school and Sunday type) was a barrier to “later in life” teshuva. It always seemed to me that these types of programs (having experienced them) were generally either boring, mostly meaningless or otherwise not pleasant. They seemed to leave an impression of “Yeah, I did the Jewish thing, it’s not for me.”. At the same time, I think it may have made me more receptive to yiddishkeit afterwards for some of the reasons you have stated.

    Truth be told, for me, I found what I was being taught to be watered down and somewhat tailored for convenience (this was, obviously, later in the game — 14-15 years old) and asking myself is there a more “authentic” Judaism that I’m missing out on.

  22. I agree with this posting. I grew up conservative non-observant. I went to hebrew school in the afternoons and hated it as did both my sisters, one of whom has barely any Jewish identity at all (older), and one of whom has a strong identity, but is not the least bit observant (younger).

    My younger sister and I are still friends with the friends we had from those Hebrew school days. We also both went to Jewish overnight camps (Habonim and Hashomer Hatzair) which gave us strong Jewish identities. The older sister did not have the positive Jewish social experiences that my younger sister and I had and she didn’t go to a Jewish camp. I think this desire to hang with the “homies”, the people I was closely attached to growing up, contributed greatly to my affinity towards Judaism and eventually frumkeit.

    For my own kids, who are FFB’s, but have their own issues with school and Yiddishkeit, it has been a priority for me to give them positive Jewish experiences even perhaps not frum ones exactly. I don’t want them to go to the frummest summer camp, I want them to go the most fun Jewish summer camp (still frum). I want them to feel that their “homies” are frum yidden so they will want to affiliate with them when they are grown.

    Also, my husband and I both agree that reading Chaim Potok’s books gave us somewhat of a yearning for a serious Jewish life. Even though his books are not too frum, they reminded us of our Jewishness and the comfort we took from that.

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