I began my Jewish education in rather unconventional ways. After graduating from a Jewish preschool, my overwhelmingly nonobservant, unaffiliated parents sent me to the Hebrew Academy of Cleveland — a “black hat,” mainline-Orthodox Jewish day school. My stint there lasted exactly one year. A combination of price tag and ideology put an end to my day school career forever.
The next stop on my educational journey could not have been more dissimilar. I was enrolled at the Workmen’s Circle School, a secular, Yiddish cultural school that met on Sundays and twice a week after school. My parents probably thought it was sweet that I was being exposed to the Yiddish language, but overwhelmingly the most attractive attribute of the program was that they didn’t have to be members of a synagogue or temple to send me there. My experience at the Workmen’s Circle was pleasant enough. I learned how to sing the Passover Seder in Yiddish, I made nice friends, and I felt Jewishly connected.
Around my 10th birthday, however, my grandparents approached my parents with an insight and an offer. They explained that while the education at Workmen’s Circle was beyond reproach, it was important for me to be connected to a synagogue community. They wanted me to know my way around a sanctuary, to have a relationship with a rabbi and a cantor, and to be attached to the hub of Jewish life in a congregation, its youth program and religious culture. They proposed that they would foot the bill for my Jewish education if my parents agreed to transfer me from Workmen’s Circle to the synagogue where they were affiliated. My parents agreed, and the next year I began religious school in the synagogue where I eventually celebrated my bar mitzvah, confirmation, and where I stayed all the way through 12th-grade Hebrew High School.
I am still in awe of my grandparents’ prescience. While I attended Jewish summer camps and went to Israel for six weeks during the summer when I was 16 years old, the synagogue was every bit as significant in my development as a proud, educated, affiliated Jew. In fact, I did develop a close rapport with my rabbi. And not a day goes by now, as a rabbi myself, when I don’t think about how important it is to be accessible to and personally engaged with the kids in my congregation. I became active in my synagogue’s youth program, which provided me formative leadership experiences, not to mention immense Jewish pride. My affinity for the synagogue as a sacred place, a warm community and a domain of prayer and celebration were all fostered by my synagogue religious school experience.
No religious school program is perfect, and many struggle to make the most of preciously little time to convey a massive amount of information and skills. Sunday mornings and after-school hours are not the most fertile learning times, and sometimes parents don’t hold up their side of the bargain as active partners in their children’s Jewish education.
Here in greater Washington, some organizations have proposed a fix to the challenges of supplemental Jewish education by offering low-cost programs outside of synagogues and temples. They use words like “convenient” and “fun” to promote their enterprise, implying that synagogue programs are inconvenient and boring. In my congregation and many others, we are utilizing cutting-edge curricula, the latest technology, enriching field trips, and creative pedagogy. Moreover, what was true in my childhood remains fundamentally important today: Jewish kids should know what the inside of a synagogue looks like; they should have a rabbi; they should feel that they are an important part of the religious life of the Jewish community that takes place uniquely in a synagogue context.
Before buying into the slogans and quick fixes, look at what your local synagogues and temples offer your kids. Help them experience the benefits of affiliation by starting them early and young. You may be surprised that what is offered today is not the Hebrew school product of your youth. Believe it or not, your kids might even like it!
Adam J. Raskin is senior rabbi of Congregation Har Shalom in Potomac.