In Praise of Messy Jewish Education: Reflections on a Midwest Independent Hebrew School Education

by | Feb 8, 2023 | Building The Jewish Experience | 0 comments

In an article in the Boston Globe Magazine In Praise of Drudgery (12/18/22), the author describes the boring jobs she used in order to find quiet time in a library, “stealing” hours of work and serving the goal in messy ways. “It was a random and inefficient education [reading books found on shelves], and I was a random and inefficient employee.” In the concluding paragraphs she writes:

The work that we now wave off as soon-to-be-eradicated drudgery—it was rich soil for my life. … With fewer books, the library today feels to me echoing and denuded, like a public square where a forest once stood. Clean, efficient, safe, sensible, useful, and optimally productive. It once smelled dank and mysterious—like a wilderness, like soil.

My Jewish educational experience was rather messy and inefficient Jewish education, yet it served as the soil in which my Jewish identity grew. I reflect here on both the loss and gain in that messiness, from which we may be able to learn something for today.

My generation had every reason to become Jewishly identified—and so many of us didn’t, as we all know. I had, on paper, all the elements statistical models indicate you need to become inextricably bonded and identified with the Jewish community: a “relatively” intense Jewish education which took well over eight hours of my week for several years; Jewish summer camping at Ramah and Massad; school year participation in Jewish activities (Habonim); and trips to Israel. In part, this is because I was the youngest child, benefitting from my parents being more settled, and their own Jewish commitments. And even with all those regression-model factors, I surely didn’t become everything you would expect of someone who had those experiences.

And yet, with all that, it is the Jewish education experience that stands out the most and that I want to describe for its texture and maybe impact, certainly on my own memories and on how I have been a teacher myself. To give away the ending now, when I’m asked how good my Hebrew is, I often answer—not fluent, but “better than the average bear,” which I immediately attribute to attending a four-day-per-week Hebrew school all through elementary school.

Those Hebrew school afternoons began and ended with an hour-long bus ride, a large part of the experience—socializing with the other kids for that long. (“In praise of a commute,” one could say.) It was so significant, that in my valedictory speech in sixth grade, I took my mother’s suggestion to thank the bus drivers also, without whom this would not have been possible.

I recall quite a bit of detail about my education at Cleveland Hebrew School (CHS). Maybe it is the friends, most of whom stayed together for those six years and some even beyond into high school, whose parents made the choice to send us to CHS instead of either a synagogue-based school only or an Orthodox school of some kind (this was before non-Orthodox Jewish families had day school options). Maybe it’s because I attended the same school and location through all six years of elementary school, four days per week. That’s simply a lot of time and consistency. And while some new teachers arrived, others were present the whole time. I also remember very specific scenes over those years, which illustrate the learning/teaching experience and how it potentially impacted us. These scenes show the range—and the achievement amidst messiness.

In one or perhaps two early grades, Mrs. O led us around the room singing Hinei Rakevet, a song for which I still know the melody and all six words, 60 years later. I don’t know her training, but I know from this memory that Mrs. O, with her positive nearly grandmotherly energy, knew about kinesthetic learning. And what was the song? Not about Israel, or Torah, or holidays. Simply the joy of Hebrew, communicated through music and movement as a connected group—importantly and literally connected, as we followed each other around the room in a line while singing, led by our caring teacher.

We can go to what you might consider the other extreme then, likely around third grade. Mrs. F, also the principal of the school, taught us in that year (and again in sixth grade). I recall her repeated English-Hebrew mix of instructions: “close the delet.” Messy. Laughable. And also, in its near ridiculousness, conveying the importance to her of our learning one single word. Every word counts. This specific phrase also reminds me that we were, on the downside, well within a closed classroom now. After hours of “regular school” we were seated in chairs, none too happily, and were to be in the room with the door closed—instructed, directed now, rather than moving “al galgalim” together around the room.

Then there was Mrs. P. She was a European immigrant, trained as a Hebrew teacher possibly in the same path as my grandmother, who taught Hebrew in Detroit schools, and probably even older than her. When my Bobeh visited town, my father would bring her to visit the Hebrew school, where she would meet up with Mrs. P to talk shop and memories.

Around fourth grade or so, we began to have Israeli teachers come to the school, one of whom was particularly memorable: Dolly K. We ended up knowing and studying with Dolly K for several years, many years it seemed. At this first “entrance” she was young, smiling, and buoyant in a lovely, youthful way, especially when compared to the strong women teachers I’ve already described. She taught us Israeli dances along with Hebrew, and early in her teaching she had a baby. We, all of 9 or 10 years old, joyously celebrated with her, and I believe she even brought her baby to school for us to meet.

Panning back the camera on these memories, I see that there was a different feel to having the Israeli teachers, relevant to learning and Jewish identity. This story already suggests how the feeling of being with Dolly K was palpably different. I can share other memories of the Israeli teachers (and yes, one or two were male), but thinking about Dolly K makes the difference clear.

What did the Israelis bring us? Well, they weren’t (older), European Jewish women. They brought youth. But there was more—they looked directly at you, looked you in the eye. They may have been nervous themselves—not as adept with American students as the longstanding Jewish women teachers who were American or European. But they were confident. And they bridged a key gap. I’m creatively imagining that the American/European women teachers, after Mrs. O, stood across the gap between us. They had already crossed the Rubicon, or the Jordan River in this case, and didn’t try to bridge it—they rather expected us to leap over it and maybe “become them” someday. In contrast, the Israelis seemed to reach out across a different gap to join with us, and in the process they seemed to look at us differently in some way—we were in a project together. For the American/European teachers, the project was relatively clear: to be a good person, to obey, and then to live as a Jew. For the Israeli teachers, the project was unnamed, and more deeply about identity. We did this thing together, and no one explained why—we were “being together” in something. Reflecting now, the difference in these images of gap-and-bridge summarizes much of my experience, to which I attribute an indelible Jewish identity.

In all my messy years of education at CHS, we learned Hebrew language from reading the Torah. Judaism was assumed in that sense. We didn’t “learn lessons” from Torah. Rather, it was the source of Hebrew in an independent Hebrew school program—independent of denomination, of course. My joke about this messy aspect was that we started each year with Genesis, and never picked up the story any later over the years. I also came to know useful expressions like vayakam—and he got up early in the morning (vayakam and delet—two words from my Hebrew education.) I also recall learning to read the Shema and being so surprised that that prayer I said nightly with my family was only one little paragraph.

I would be quite remiss if I did not describe, at least briefly, the force of nature who was Mrs. Ida M, wife of an important cantor, who was truly a musical creator herself. She taught us songs for all the holidays, met with us at least weekly, and attended the Israeli Song Festival annually, bringing back all the current songs to us. For every event and of course graduations, she created a “cantata” (how else would I know that word?), in which we danced and sang and were honored if we got a solo. She organized “model seders” leading to a lifetime of hearing a full class of young students recite in unison “Matza zeh she’anu ochlim, al shum ma?…” etc. in my head at every seder I attend. Vitally important: in those early years, she stood with her BACK TO THE PIANO while facing us, playing—pounding—the notes with absolute accuracy, as she taught us to sing melodies in her own quite unmelodic voice, and we brought out those songs beautifully, under her stern direction, as only children can. It seems it was nearly a moral obligation to sing the song as she insisted we do; each note mattered just as each Hebrew word did. Nearly every song I know today, from holidays to Israel, are ones I learned in those years from Ida M—and her commitment to this task is indelibly marked in my memory.

As is obvious, the majority of the teachers in this system were women, strong ones, and probably underpaid, as was my Bobeh. It was a messy Jewish education—in the best and worst senses—a redundant, rich Jewish education that took place in the middle of complicated lives. And yet it helped to forge my Jewish identity, and there may be something it can tell us about organic and messy education today as well.

To this point, I think of a bit of research I did in the early 1980s. I interviewed parents about their choice of Jewish education for their children, seeking the most diversity I could find in Hyde Park near Chicago. From my conversations, I landed on a distinction I labelled abstract vs. concrete patterns for their choices. Abstract reasons and associations coalesced around learning and education, mastery of skills for prayer and Hebrew, non-geographical Jewish community and the ability to “walk into a synagogue anywhere in the world and feel at home.” Concrete patterns, on the other hand, focused more on simply being with other Jewish children—wanting their children to have that experience of socialization.

Are they simply rationales for sending one’s child to a Jewish learning setting? I do know at least two things. First, we know that school systems are the larger world, beyond the family, that we experience in order to be socialized and leave our narrow home worlds. While my home world was well integrated with my Jewish education at CHS, the school also became one of the locations that “raised me.” Second, in an interesting turn, when I presented my interview results back then to a group of sociology graduate students, one Protestant student shared that she was stunned that Jewish schools had any expectation or goal of the student learning—anything at all—versus simply the social goals of being with other children. We know that Jewish schools, both as Jewish and as a minority culture, strongly expect real learning—it’s the structure around which everything is built. And yet maybe that perspective also validates the “concrete” folks and the educational messiness I’m suggesting—as well as its effectiveness, as at least one thread in the background tapestry which led to my never doubting (sometimes to my disadvantage, to be honest) my “down to the toes” Jewish identity. So impactful was it, that as an adult I wanted to recreate that Jewish education as an alternate path and imagined creating it for my kids.

As I look back on this education I’m calling messy and yet intensive, I believe some factors remain valid today, even with so many advances in the field. We experience Jewish education as full human beings, as well as teachers and learners. We don’t need a lot of guidance sometimes, if we dig deep on that. It will work for some and not for others, and there will be up and down sides even when it works. And it’s okay if it’s a little messy—there’s a whole lifetime to read beyond the first chapter of Genesis, which I eventually did. As my father would say to me when I was anxiously concerned that I had missed the Hebrew bus that day, “So you’ll become a Jewish scholar one day later.”

Shirah Hecht is a social scientist and occasional instructor (Gratz College) and Hebrew teacher. Dr. Hecht studied early egalitarian minyanim and has conducted Jewish program evaluation. She has presented and organized Jewish adult education in various settings and hopes to create and write about her experiences teaching Hebrew and Torah across ages.

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