Tag Archives: Hebrew school

Five Reasons Not to Substitute Convenience for Expertise with #Jteens

It pays not to compromise with sushi

Ever have bad sushi? Don’t compromise with sushi or Jewish education

A Hat Tip to Seth Godin, marketing guru, for this post’s idea–my take on his  “Never eat sushi at the airport”.

Seth tends to cut through the chaff to get to the kernel, which is why he writes: “Don’t ask a cab driver for theater tips, Never buy bread from the supermarket bakery…Proximity is not a stand in for expertise.”

So, with a nod to Seth, here are things never to do:

1. Never accept an inferior product when it comes to something like education.

2. Don’t rely solely on what other parents are doing when it comes to seeking out the best experience for your child. 

3. If it takes a little longer to get somewhere where there’s a better program for teens, go for it.  That message, that you’re literally ‘going the distance’ speaks louder than most.

4. Belonging to a youth group is a very good thing for Jteens to do, but it doesn’t substitute for a Jewish education. The goals just aren’t the same.

5. Don’t use the same criteria for choosing a Jewish education experience that you use for an “after-school activity”.


These Questions Weren’t Answered in Hebrew School

Jew street

Will Jewish Teens Find Answers Here?

Hebrew School may answer questions like “what do I need to know for my Bar/Bat Mitvah” but there are many questions Jewish pre-teens have about Judaism that most schools just don’t have the opportunity to answer.

I was teaching a class to eighth graders called “What Makes Me Jewish?” and for an opening ice breaker, I asked them (95% of whom ‘graduated’  a typical Hebrew school, 100%  had become a Bar/Bat Mitzvah) to respond to  “A question I have about Judaism is…..” with one of their most pressing questions.

This exercise is interesting on two levels. One, it lets us know what students of this age wonder about. On another level, it demonstrates quite candidly, though from a very small sample, what Hebrew School can and can’t accomplish.  It does help make the case for continued Jewish education.

The questions ranged from the very general to the very specific.  Some are humorous, some reflective, some painfully poignant.

All are worth noting.

I have not left any question out. Here are their questions:

What does Judaism think about Heaven and Hell?

What is mysticism?

Why are tattoos bad (sic) in Judaism?

Why do we bow to the ark/G-d, if we aren’t supposed to worship idols?

How does the Jewish calendar work? When is the leap year and why?

Why are the jews (sic) always the scapegoat?

If we believe in G-d, why does the beginning of B’reisheet (Genesis) use the plural form of G-d? (this questioner clearly has done some studying of the Bible to ask this question)

What are the different values or points of view between the different types (sic) of Judaism?

Why do we have kashrut rules?  (yes, this student wrote ‘kashrut’ instead of kosher!)

What is it like to be a teen in Israel?    (interesting, this student’s question was not exactly about Judaism, but an inference made about Israeli teens).

How do we know that everything in the Torah is true? (notice that the questioner doesn’t write “if everything” but “that everything”)

How many religious Jews are there in Israel?

How many rules of the 613 do we actually follow these days? (immense credit is given for knowing the number of mitzvot –   commandments!).

Why are we looked down upon as Jews?

What do kosher Jews (sic) think about Jews who don’t keep kosher?

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What do you think of these questions?  As an adult, how similar or different are the questions you have? Did you have these questions as a teenager?

Photo Credit: Flickr JP

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Hiring Jewish teen aides? Five things to know

I guess the title of this post already lets you know there’s some advice coming.

But I’d rather start with asking you to give advice, to a pretend student named Rachel.

Rachel absolutely loves working with kids, and has done so for the past several summers at a Jewish camp. The kids love her, she has a lot of patience, and everyone has said that ‘she’s a natural’.

And naturally, she’s thinking of majoring in elementary education.

If she went to college, in four years, she would earn a teaching degree, and may even decide to go for an advanced degree.

Fortunately for her, college finances are not a problem.  She is undecided about college however, because just last week she was offered  a job as a classroom aide at an after-school program.

For her, it would mean a real job and money. Now.

Besides, she wouldn’t get to work in a real classroom until her junior or senior year in college and she could save money for college to show her parents that she is willing to help.

The after-school program really thinks that Rachel will be an excellent role model for the younger students, and taking the job would mean that she could make an impact on those children now.

What should Rachel do—work as an aide now or continue her education?

(You probably see where I’m going with this. Please continue reading because you know I have to ask you: what is your advice for Rachel?).

So, right about now, you might be thinking that this is a no-brainer. I even find it challenging to think that anyone would recommend that she forego her own education in favor of the immediate: earning some money even though she’d be using her talents and skills.

Well, this is a bit of a stretch when it comes to Jewish education, but I’m all about stretching and pulling on those boundaries.

Why are our expectations for the education of our teens so low?

In many synagogues around the country, on a weekly basis, students get paid to work in Hebrew schools at the very age when they should be furthering their own education. Sure, their choice is not necessarily to go off to college to earn a Jewish studies degree, but why is their own education sacrificed in order to hire them as classroom aides? I’m specifically talking about the many students I hear about each year who say that they can’t go further in their Jewish education because they’re working as an aide at a Hebrew school and would be too busy.

Here’s FIVE reasons why it is not a good idea to hire our teens as aides:

#1. Why shortchange a Jewish teens’ education at this important time in their lives when they’re ready to intellectually grapple with Jewish ideas?

#2. Hiring teens creates ‘instant role models’ at your synagogue, but you’re also making a statement that really, continuing Jewish education isn’t nearly as good as getting a paycheck.

#3. Hiring teens makes the statement that there isn’t much to a professional Jewish educator, after all, someone who has just completed a bar/bat mitzvah is perfectly suited to help out in the classroom.

#4. Students working in these classroom rarely receive the additional support or training to deal with the many issues that come up or the questions they have.

#5. Instead of learning to change paradigms, and thinking creatively about Hebrew school options, students cycle through the very ineffective system that they experienced.

A recent study regarding the placement and retention of close to 3,000 public school teachers found that when they were student teachers, they should have been considered students, and not teachers in order to get the support they needed. How much more so would this hold true for our Jewish teens placed in classrooms? 

So, what is a Hebrew school to do?

Well, for starters, tell the aides that in order to work in your school they must be enrolled in further Jewish education (online, adult study, Hebrew high school—- something).

Yes, it’s difficult to find good teachers, but that’s a bigger issue and this doesn’t solve it. I doubt that you’ll be able to convince me that we’re not failing our youth with this practice.


What today’s Jewish teens are ‘okay’ with

KJeanPhotography. Use does not imply endorsement

My weekly experience working with a class of 8th graders serves as a counterpoint to the doom and gloom I’ve read about lately in studies that report on the current state of Religion in America (specifically those concerning Jewish youth).  

The students are upfront, forthright, and spiritually aware and are not afraid to talk about what they do and don’t believe.  They have already formed some really strong opinions about Jewish belief and practices, though it was evident from our talks that they are looking at Judaism through fogged glasses (no fault of theirs, their education has been limited).  

We need to pay attention to what they really need, and not what we think they need.  Even if we didn’t change anything about our current organizations and programs, and continued with things just the way they are, we’re already missing countless opportunities to help students create a meaningful Jewish experience.  

About 45% of these students attend this supplementary high school twice a week.  About 25% go to a Jewish summer camp (they see it as a social, not a religious experience, and go to be with their friends).  About 75% have older siblings that are or have been in the program.  Yet, most haven’t discussed their ideas, feelings, and opinions about God…either with their parents, siblings, or friends. 

Not because they wouldn’t want to, but because the subject never came up. I asked what they thought about that, and they said they were ‘okay with it’. 

When we talk about what their conception of God is, they are surprisingly articulate.  Some retain the ‘puppeteer’ idea (that God is pulling all the strings and is responsible for everything) while others see God as a ‘helping hand’.  Some don’t believe in God at all. These ideas will all be explored with them in future classes, but in the meantime, catch the following:

In the year immediately preceding their Bar/t Mitzvah they do not remember any serious prolonged conversation with a Jewish professional (educator/clergy). They were not asked about their beliefs, doubts, concerns, or what they thought about God.  They seemed not to expect more, and were ‘okay with that’ too.  

They remember that they were busy with the pre-ceremony stuff: speech writing, practicing chanting, public speaking skills.

When they were asked questions about their present and future connection to Judaism, predominantly it was through a youth group lens: would they join? Be involved? Take a position? 

I asked them about these things. It’s not that they wouldn’t have wanted to engage in deeper conversations, it’s just that they weren’t asked.  And yes, they seemed to be ‘okay’ with that.

I’m not. I’m not fine with ‘okay’. Not in the precious time we have with them. Are we settling for just ‘okay’ when it comes to how they will connect with Judaism? 

What if we began to have these types of conversations with our teens? On a regular basis?

Even if we create the smallest pinholes of opportunity, light can come flooding in.

It’s not that they’d mind, and actually, they’d probably be okay with that.

 
 

A young and energetic Hebrew School teacher writes….

This is the e-mail I received today:

 Hi Ruth!  How are you? I hope all is well! As my mom told you, I am now teaching at a local synagogue near my college. I am enjoying it a lot so far, but I’m having trouble coming up with new and creative lesson plans apart from the teacher’s guide. Can you recommend any good books on Jewish lesson plans that I could use for my class? I would really appreciate it!  

Isn’t this a really great e-mail? I love to hear from our graduates. Here’s why I think this e-mail is so wonderful:

1. the writer graduated our program with honors, received a teaching certificate and is doing precisely what we hoped she’d do–teach in a synagogue school while in college.    

2. She obviously enjoys what she’s doing and has a commitment to her students.

3. She is aware of what specific tools and resources would help her be a more successful teacher.

4. She is asking for assistance. 

So, now the bad news:

1. She may not be receiving any supervision at the synagogue school.

2. Whether or not she is, she doesn’t feel a comfort level in asking for help.

3. It doesn’t seem like there are peers who could help each other work this through, or even mentors assigned to her in her first, very important year.

4. Many of our best and brightest work in synagogue Hebrew Schools. They get little help.

5. We may lose her and her energy in a year or two, and this experience may even impact her years later. 

This e-mail is not unique, and I’ve heard similar anecdotes before.

I know there are some programs and initiatives now to tackle some of these issues, however most focus on day schools.

I just don’t know if they will reach THIS young woman.

Several months ago, I  crafted a proposal for a web-based support system for college-age teachers in supplementary schools that was submitted to a foundation.

It didn’t get funded.


what I learned about marketing from working at a Jewish Community High School

You would think it would be easy to market a product that has intrinsic long-term value, is priced well, offers tremendous flexibility, is an intellectual challenge, offers social experiences and networking opportunities, and even looks good for college.

You’d be wrong.

Welcome to my world where marketing a great product  is a struggle.

Here are just a few reasons why, with more to come in future posts:

1. The ‘point of sale’ is often at a synagogue Hebrew school, where we present options for further Jewish education. Need I say more?

For these 7th grade students, they’re in a year bursting with Bar/t Mitzvah invitations and parties.  Peeking over the horizon they can see the glimmering opportunity to be ‘outta here’ (as some  parents have promised them)…well, you get the point.

2. If students decide to come on board in 8th grade, it might be because they feel compelled  (internally or externally) to continue their Jewish education.  The choice to attend a community school could mean there were either no appealing options for further education at the synagogue (which may or may not have Confirmation Programs ending in 10th grade) or this student is really, really motivated.  Synagogues who have their own Confirmation programs  work very hard to keep their students there.  More about Confirmation programs later.

3. The ‘product’ we’re offering is impossible to explain to these students.  It’s like describing what college is like to a high schooler. You just don’t get it until you go.  Which is precisely why so many colleges have figured this one out a long time ago and created pre-college programs for 11th graders. The ‘try it, you’ll like it’ programming through free visits and orientations works.

4. Aha! you say, what about Orientations and Open Houses?  These programs do help when conducted at our school sites and both programs capitalize on the fact that potential students need to experience how great it is to sit in on classes, feel the ‘vibe’ at break time, have Q & A opportunities (mostly questions related to their fear of  ‘fitting this in’ ), and meet tons of teens who have made the choice to continue and are obviously happy.

5.The difficulty is getting the word out about these options. Synagogues that have their own programs can’t promote it. There are no advertising dollars to spend. Federations, straddling both the synagogue and communal worlds, can’t really get in the middle of this either.

6. Back to Confirmation programs, instituted as a life cycle ritual by synagogues to retain students after the infamous Bar/t Mitzvah drop-off year…all with good intentions.  What’s happened though, is that the end point has just been moved up, but it’s rare at that point for students to continue to 11th and 12th grade (for exceptions, read here).  Yet, that is exactly the time when teens are ready to engage in Judaism with some maturity, insight, intellectual rigor and curiosity.

7. When these students think that they’ve gone beyond all expectations in continuing even to this point, up to Confirmation…..imagine how hard it is to ask them to sign on for two more years?  This is also precisely the time when they are also at their busiest, participating in gobs of outside activities and prepping for college.

More school anyone? How about on a Sunday morning?

Yet, we’re doing quite well despite the above. Go figure.

I believe in what we have to offer–strongly–and as a result, marketing and promotion have become part of my job.

Imagine what impact we could have if we didn’t have such an uphill struggle.

How would you deal with any of these challenges? I’d love to hear suggestions, ideas, or expert marketing advice.


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