A few weeks ago, I was sitting in a nighttime Hebrew language lecture in Jerusalem put on by Yeshiva Talpiot. The topic, something about Hasidic thoughts on the High Holidays, sounded interesting to me, and since I wanted to improve my Hebrew, I figured I would try to sit through it and understand as much as I could. Despite the free cholent that was available after the lecture, the evening was a completely frustrating experience.
Every few sentences, I would understand a word here or there: Carlebach (refering to Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach); Shirutim (restroom); Niggun (Hasidic melody, often wordless); Chas v’sholom (G-d forbid). I could understand enough of what was being said to know that I would have really enjoyed the lesson had I been able to actually understand it. And as my thoughts wandered during the incoherent parts of the lecture, I began to wonder: Why had my 11 years at Jewish Day School and Hebrew School not provided me with a stronger foundation in conversational Hebrew?
This wasn’t a new phenomenon for me. In 2008, I spent seven weeks in Israel as a part of Alexander Muss High School in Israel, a program where you live in a dormitory in Hod Hasharon (30 minutes outside of Tel Aviv), take a class that teaches you Jewish history from the bible to present day, and then travel to those places in Israel where the history happened. However, a funny thing happened on my way through history in Israel: I realized that I was not prepared to participate in, or even really understand, a conversation conducted in Hebrew. I could ask a few simple questions, but I was hesitant to do so as I couldn’t understand the responses. It was an amazing seven weeks, but I came back feeling as if I had missed a significant part of the experience of being in Israel. At the time, I felt let down by the Jewish community, and promptly, whether fairly or not, decided that Hebrew school was not worth my time anymore. It’s in that state that I came to Israel a second time.
I was talking through my thoughts on this article with my father, and bluntly stated, “It seems like you’re just complaining, blaming everyone else for your problems. What if instead you offered some solutions?” As I thought about his words, I realized just how right he was. We often spend so much time complaining, that we sometimes forget to do something about it. How many people have been lost or turned off to Judaism, all because they found little value, and gave up, like I did with Hebrew school? How many people thought that Sunday School was all that Judaism had to offer, and picked up basketball instead of continuing past their B’nai Mitzvah? What if those people had decided to be part of the solution?
What is the solution (in my humble opinion)? I believe it starts with the need for Jewish institutions to reassess their purpose and to determine what they’re actually trying to achieve (academically, culturally and religiously) for their children. “More educated Jewish adults” doesn’t cut it. In this day and age, there’s just not enough time in the day for one organization to take on a task that big on their own, if we can even agree on what it means.
Even specialized attempts often fall short of their goals. A one- or two-day-a-week Religious school may attempt to teach prayer comprehension, and through this teach Hebrew; and this academic focus leaves many kids having learned neither kavanah (intention) nor practical Hebrew. They may attempt to teach Hebrew, in which Hebrew reading skills are developed, but comprehension falls by the wayside. They may attempt to specialize in experiential education, whereby youth have certain “Jewish” experiences, but they don’t know the basic skills they need to live Jewishly on a day-to-day basis. Finally, they may attempt to teach prayer proficiency, where their goal is to “prepare” their students for the Super Bowl of Jewish events, the Bar or Bat Mitzvah, and then send them off into retirement with a boat load of gifts.
And certainly an organization that attempts to do all of these things in the limited time they have, as many of ours do, is bound to fail. It has to, because Judaism isn’t something that can simply be conveyed through book learning, participation in MEGA-EVENTS, and by giving up a Sunday morning here or there. Judaism is something lived. It’s how we wake up in the morning, and how we go to sleep at night. It’s how we choose which food to eat, or not eat. It’s how we choose to interact with others in this world, and it’s the language we choose to interact with. It’s the blessing we bless our children with on Friday nights, and the time where we say we don’t need electronics to have a good time and experience each other’s company. If this is what Judaism is, then we need to start teaching a more practical, a more nuanced, more intentional version of Judaism that people want to incorporate into their daily lives.
If your goal is to teach Hebrew, then focus on Hebrew—the kind youth can confidently take to Israel and/or summer camp, and pioneer a joint youth/adult program where families can begin to speak Hebrew at home. If it’s to teach prayer, combine prayer skills with meaningful comprehension and set up a program by which students can continue to lead in their congregation and learn new skills. If it’s to learn Jewish music, expose them to all sorts of music from Reform to Hasidic, teach them about the origins of the music, and have them perform a community concert whereby they share their reflections about the music and its place in prayer.
This is the beginning of a journey to reinvent the way we experience Judaism in our everyday lives, and how we pass it on to our children. In this column throughout the year, I’m going to attempt to share my findings about what makes Judaism so meaningful (or not meaningful) to me here in Israel, and hopefully I can offer some solutions as to how we can incorporate those experiences into our Minnesota community.