While I am off this week, my mentor, teacher and friend Dr. Gabe Goldman of the American Jewish University in Los Angeles has graciously taken up my offer to contribute some thoughts on Jewish education. Enjoy!
Is Your Child Getting a Good Jewish Education?
Is your child getting a good Jewish education? My wife and I raised four children and we realized early on in parenthood that this question would challenge us more than any other question about our children’s development. How do parents even know what a good Jewish education is? Does a “good Jewish education” mean that our children are able to read Hebrew, to say prayers correctly, to know our people’s history? Does it mean that our children like school? Does it mean that we can see academic progress from year to year?
Not only parents but Jewish educators struggle with this question. Nor can we turn to our colleagues in public education for help. We judge the success of American public education by such criteria as; the percent of the total population of children enrolled in school, the percent of children that graduate from high school, students’ academic progress and the number of students that are accepted into colleges and universities. Given the optional nature of Jewish education, these criteria simply do not apply. By virtue of what national Jewish surveys and population studies ask, we can surmise that our Jewish leaders evaluate Jewish education based on a single criterion - does it contribute to students growing into adults who participate in Jewish life? This is called “adult Jewish identification” and it’s something that is very difficult to determine which factors, including home life, friends, Jewish summer camps, etc. contribute to it. This means that we cannot say with any certainty which educational philosophy works best, what subjects should be taught, how they can best be taught or what criteria to use in measuring success.
Does this mean that parents have no way to know the quality of their children’s Jewish education? No. It means that parents have to rely on their own experience and instinct about what makes for good education. For example, my wife and I never paid much attention to our children’s protestations that they didn’t like to go to school. Of course, we thought, given a choice of wandering through the woods, playing video games or just hanging with friends vs. going to school, who would not complain about going to school? On the other hand, we paid particular attention to our children if they told us they did not like their teachers after the first few weeks of class. My four decades of experience in Jewish education convince me that there is a direct correlation between how much students like their teachers and how much they value their educational experience.
Each parent needs to ask the question, “What do I hope my children gain from their Jewish education this year (as opposed to sometime in the future)? Chances are likely that they will easily be able to articulate three or four major objectives such as: teaching children how to participate joyfully in Jewish holidays; learning Hebrew in ways that make them want to continue to learn the language; developing good character traits; and so forth. These reasons will become “mile markers” by which parents can evaluate how good their children’s education is.
Articulating these goals will also help parents understand how they can best assist with their children’s education. There is little chance than any Jewish education will have a lasting impact without real and consistent parent input and support.