Stop Blaming Hebrew School

Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year, is a wonderful time to assess the past year and consider what we hope to achieve, spiritually speaking and otherwise, in the year to come. It’s also a time when hoards of Jewish adults show up at a synagogue for the first time since Yom Kippur of the previous year and make self-deprecating jokes about their lack of Jewish literacy.

By Jewish literacy, I don’t mean Hebrew skills or the ability to keep up with the prayers, though that’s certainly a major obstacle for many Jews (including yours truly). I’m referring to a full array of knowledge such as what the holidays mean beyond a surface level, or other information like the Jewish stance on marriage, friendship, free will, business ethics, suffering, and so on.

Why am I harping on Jewish literacy? It bothers me when Jewish adults blame childhood circumstances for the holes in their Jewish education. If you’re forty-two years old and you get nervous when someone invites you to a Shabbat dinner because you don’t know the long version of the kiddush or even the short one, I don’t think it’s fair to blame your childhood rabbis, the denomination in which you were raised, the Hebrew and/or religious school you did or didn’t attend, or your parents’ lack of observance. Same goes for not knowing why your kids are making Sukkot decorations at their preschool, or that in Judaism giving charity is a mitzvah–which means “commandment” and not “good deed.”

You’re an adult. It’s time to take some ownership of this area, because you’re likely missing out on wisdom that would make your life more fulfilling and meaningful (which is a key point, though one I’ll save for another post).

There’s no opportunity as fruitful as the Jewish New Year to study an element of Judaism you never understood before, or to simply learn the basics (like naming the five Books of Moses, the Ten Commandments, and knowing the difference between the Torah and the Talmud.)

Being a literate Jewish adult doesn’t mean you’re obligated to become a religious one. Sure, adding new rituals could bring a welcome sense of rhythm to an otherwise chaotic world, but there are benefits to knowing the answers to basic questions as well as deeper ones, or least having people in your life you can ask such as teachers and rabbis.

When we’re at work, when we’re speaking to our children, traveling, or in any situation where someone might look to us as a representative of Jews in general, I believe we each have a responsibility to speak somewhat intelligently about who we are.

Let me illustrate that last point. I spent a good chunk of my junior year of college living with a devout Catholic family in Santiago, Chile. They had endless questions about Judaism. While nobody would expect me (or anyone) to know all the answers, I’m still mortified about the misinformation I spread. For example, I told them in Judaism there’s no mention of the afterlife. That’s simply not accurate, yet so many under-educated Jews seem to think so.

Eventually the questions got so complex that I asked my parents for reinforcements. They sent Joseph Telushkin’s Jewish Literacy  (this was in 1998 when accessing the internet required waiting in line at the university’s computer lab.)  Telushkin’s book has a page on everything you can imagine from history to rituals to philosophy. I’d find the topic my host parents wanted to know about then translate it into Spanish.

As you can imagine, I learned a tremendous amount myself. In fact, those eight months sleeping under a Crucifix in Santiago was the true beginning of my adult Jewish education.

A reference book was a great place to start. Nowadays, the internet provides excellent resources such as and a myriad of other options. Then there’s my personal favorite option of finding a rabbi, educator, or even a friend with whom you can study any area of Judaism that interests you. And every denomination in the Jewish “umbrella” offers group classes and casual study groups if that’s more to your liking. As someone who’s studied Jewish texts and issues of interest to me quite a bit in the past ten years, my personal goal in the next year or two is to brush up on my Hebrew. And by brush up, I mean keep up with my first grader. Sad, but true.

Folks, perhaps I’ve lost my sense of humor. Perhaps I need someone to explain what’s so knee-slapping funny about Jewish adults walking around with a sub-par Jewish education. The wisdom and insights contained in our holy books as well as the ancient and modern commentaries are waiting for us to discover. Let’s not waste another year separated from them.

(Photo: justmakeit)


About Nina Badzin @NinaBadzin

Nina Badzin is a Minneapolis-based essayist, short story writer, and a mother of four. You can also find her blogging regularly at Facebook: Twitter: @NinaBadzin

Comments. Add Yours!


  1. I apologize for the length of my response. This is an interesting post. I have a somewhat unusual perspective on this question, because I have chosen to be a Jew (as opposed to being born a Jew.)

    When my husband and I were looking for a rabbi who would marry us (which is harder than you’d guess) the rabbi told Jesse that I would end up being a more faithful Jew than he. (Not quite the case.) He grew up ultra-reform and I was enthusiastic and studying. We live in an area with a very small Jewish population, and for a while, we attended our one local temple regularly and I learned so much. Then, our temple had a change of rabbi, and that changed.

    We truly do not feel the current rabbi is a good spiritual leader and feel no connection with her. I had been considering formal conversion, but I don’t want her as my teacher, and I don’t want her teaching my daughter, so that has not happened. There are other synagogues in my area, but not nearby.

    All this is to say that you are correct — if someone wants to learn something they certainly have the resources. There are all kinds of books and websites available to help. But childhood rabbis (or adult rabbis) really can impact how we approach our faith, both positively and negatively. And by the way — L’shanah tovah!

  2. Hmmm..I agree that the lack of Jewish knowledge is atrocious…but I DO blame sub-par Hebrew schools and uncommitted parents. Yes, at some point, adults must take charge of their Jewish education BUT the dated and ineffective Hebrew Schools and parents who just don’t give a damn create the problem to begin with. Maybe we are saying the same thing: Understand where your lack of knowledge came from and then move on and take charge of it for yourself.

  3. Growing up the first generation daughter an Italian immigrant, educated in the Roman Catholic church and school, I had priests and nuns galore in my life.

    Italian and Jewish families huddle together in Brooklyn, complimenting and protecting each other against the onslaught of local bars and other influences never found in “our” neighborhoods. Arguing with my first cousin, the priest, I informed him that any religion was better than being a Catholic. He informed me that religion is religion and the traditions and teachings I learned would follow me the days of my life.

    The middle of that life introduced me to my brother’s ex-wife, who remarried an Algerian Jew in Paris, who converted and raised my Roman Catholic/half Italian niece in his faith. When I asked my niece about it twenty years later she had the same answer as my cousin. Religion is tradition and it teaches us who we are and were our people came from. She keeps a kosher house, and I have spent many a happy Friday night and Holy day with her family. It’s not the worn out cliche of “I have a friend who is …” It’s learning about how religion and culture provide the support children need to grow strong and understand the history of their people.

    I love this post and enjoy when you write about who you are in such loving ways. Your children will be thankful to you later for the time and caring you are giving to them and to your faith.

  4. I don’t think this means you’ve lost your sense of humor. I agree with you 100%. As adults, we are responsible for our own Jewish literacy. And that doesn’t mean we have to do it alone. Like you said, there are lots of resources out there.

  5. Powerful and so true. I run one of those adult education centers. Parents who make it a priority are so glad they did.

  6. I am one of the students of the prior commenter and I couldn’t disagree with this article more. I am NOT a blamer by nature but the horrible Jewish education that I received as a child had a major impact on my life for many years. Yes, I was one of the few that took matters into my own hands as an adult and asked Rabbi and Rebbitzin Koval to educate my kids, my husband and myself about all that was withheld from us, but it was a miracle that we even had the opportunity to ask them to do it. Many people had such a bad experience at Hebrew School that they practically have a phobia of anything that smells like Judiasm, let alone traditional, authenic, beautiful Judiasm. I never say this, but it’s really not their own fault.

  7. Hi Darlene–Of FOR SURE I think a strong rabbi in your childhood and adult life can make a big difference. The BIGGEST difference for children is what is reinforced at home though (in my opinion). The best rabbi/teacher/Hebrew school can’t replace excited and educated parents. (Again, my opinion . . . no formal studies here.) Though, positive Jewish summer camp is probably the next best thing to good stuff happening at home!

  8. Hi! We’re for sure saying the same thing. A good educational background and parents who back it up are ideal. What bothers me are people who use NOT having those things as excuses to stop learning as adults . . . as if there’s some sort of expiration on when we’re allowed to keep learning anything, Judaism included.

  9. Thanks Florence! And I love hearing about your Brooklyn experiences!

  10. Wendy–you and I are in agreement. I’m by NO means defending poorly run Hebrew schools AT ALL. The Hebrew school problem is its own problem and its own post to write about (more than a post, really). But like anything in childhood that might not have gone the way we wanted, we have a chance as adults to change it. Also, the real problem is not just the Hebrew schools themselves, but all the parents who are willing to keep funding those mediocre, outdated models. Those schools wouldn’t exist if parents weren’t willing to send their kids and pay for it. Sadly. 🙁

    That wasn’t a great answer to your comment. What can I say–you’re right. I still stand by my post though. I don’t we’re saying different things, really.

  11. Ruchi, I’ve been so lucky to have a few teachers just like you here in town. 🙂

  12. I agree with you completely, Nina. I am always one for taking personal responsibility and not blaming our past. As you said, we are adults, and that means accepting that our past influences who we are, but we make ourselves who we want to be (with G-d’s help, of course). Had a crappy Jewish experience growing up? Who didn’t?!?! (Well, you didn’t, Ruchi, and neither did many of the other teachers I’ve been blessed to find in the past two years). Get over it. There is no one to blame for your continued illiteracy but yourself. Conversely, you don’t have to get anyone else’s permission to fix it.

  13. Totally agree with you. I have some many friends that tell me they hate going to temple, aren’t going to send their kids to Hebrew school, but in the same breathe say ” my kids better marry someone Jewish”……interesting dichotomy

  14. Okay, I guess we do agree that you cannot use your bad childhood experience as a reason to opt out of spirituality as an adult, because if you do, you likely will be missing something wonderful. And I certainly see lots of people doing that. Unfortunately, it’s most of the people I know (outside of JFX, that is)!

  15. Unfortunately, the “bad” religion school experience is part of a horrible cycle. Parents had “bad” experiences, and therefore, negative attitudes and little actual knowledge, which means that they don’t support their children learning. If they don’t support their children learning, it makes it difficult to better religion schools. Also, I think that, in many cases, part of the problem is that things that need to be learned/taught are sometimes too advanced for school aged children…or that we are afraid to teach the truth…Everything is geared toward becoming a bar/bat mitzvah – which happens regardless of whether or not someone stands on the bima and reads Torah. the main event should be the education, not that goal of a big service and party.

  16. Thank you for suggesting that parents who are sending their children to religious school should at the very least actively attempt to participate in the process. Coming to terms with the fact that they are travelling through life with a 13-year-old perspective on God and Judaism might not mean much, until it comes time to get married or raise a child. It is in those moments, when a parent truly wants to provide everything for their child, that they realize: they can’t. They simply lack the knowledge base.
    This bothers them so deeply, that they do what is easiest- lash out and blame everything but their own ability to follow through. The only thing I would add to your words would be my own personal goal of including cantors as part of your short list of quality resources. I work hard with my clergy team to create an environment which encourages adults to reach beyond their comfort zones and into an area closer to what they expect from their children. Cantors are making a difference and giving congregants a whole other language of expression.
    Shanah Tovah.

  17. What a fabulous dialogue! As a 70 year old youngster who was ordained only two years ago, your comments jump right out at me. A dissection of our Synagogue Hebrew Schools is certainly warrented. However, of all the points made in this string, what is most meaningful to me, is that as adults, we are responsible for our base of knowledge. My Jewish education did not really begin until well into adulthood and continues today at an even more intense rate. I could go on and on (my children say I do) but I must fine tune my Yom Kippur talk.
    BTW, try Telushkin’s new book, “Hillel, If Not Now, When?
    I truly believe that although traditional Jewish education is important, we would serve Judaism well by putting emphasis on the ethics and tenets. Shana Tova !!

  18. Commenter JC raised an important point-our fear of teaching the truth. Judaism asks us to embrace some very complex concepts, is rife with unclear texts, and is a constant struggle to find balance between seemingly opposing things (or an acceptance of constant tension between things.) Though their have always been champions of truth in Jewish education, it has often followed a pediatric approach. Adults grow up to discover world-shattering truths like the real end of the Purim story, the probably rabbinic origins of the so-called miracle of the oil at Hanukkah. We’ve done a great disservice to several generations by allowing our fear of exposing our children to Judaism’s raw truths. Now I’m not suggesting we teach raw truth from the earliest ages. Some adaptation for age-appropriateness is necessary. However we must set the stage for the students so that they know that what they are learning is not the whole picture, and that over their years of study they will come to know much more about everything. (I stress the “over the years” part because Jewish learning never ends, and it is never too late to start.) Our children need to understand that there is usually more than one answer when someone asks them “what does Judaism say about…” My favorite answer when someone asks me such a question on a specific topic is “yes, no, and maybe.”
    As to the prime theme of this post, I wholeheartedly agree that adults simply cannot fall back on the excuse of a bad childhood experience in Jewish education. There are plenty of resources and opportunities for adults to learn. I had a secular Jewish education and grew up to become a professional Jewish educator-knowledge and skills acquired primarily as an adult.

  19. Yes—this is so true: “Everything is geared toward becoming a bar/bat mitzvah – which happens regardless of whether or not someone stands on the bima and reads Torah. the main event should be the education, not that goal of a big service and party.” I think people would be surprised to learn that you can become a bar/bat mitzvah without leading the Torah service . . . that it doesn’t have to be all about that. I wish there were different standards so that 13 becomes the beginning and not the end.

    I do think kids and teens could be engaged in advanced conversations. . . even in youth groups, etc. I’m sure many would appreciate real philosophical debates rather than making Israel out of cake batter or that kind of “stuff.”

  20. Absolutely! We are so lucky at our synagogue to have (and to have had) educated and vibrant cantors who round out the rabbinical team and are important part of conducting classes, etc.

    I agree with everything else you said too about adults lashing out when it’s time to teach their children rather than taking the chance to start anew.

  21. Rabbi! You’re the perfect example. What an inspiration to be ordained at 68. How true that the learning never ends. There’s more to learn that any of us could even hope to accomplish in our lifetimes. And it’s never too late to start.

    Shana Tova!

  22. I like your quote: “It bothers me when Jewish adults blame childhood circumstances for the holes in their Jewish education.” I totally agree. As one who became a Member of the Tribe as an adult, I’m really taken aback when born-Jews say to me, “Well, of course you know a lot. That’s because you’re a Jew-by-Choice” – as if the knowledge was suddenly dumped into my head the minute my conversion ritual was complete. I had to work hard for this learning – and I wouldn’t change a moment of it! If I can give myself a strong Jewish education, then anyone can. I do admit that I feel a certain amount of pressure from others around me when they find out I’m a JBC because then they believe that I have more knowledge than they do, which isn’t always true. I’m not afraid to admit when I don’t know something, and now rather than see the pressure as being unfair to us newer Members of the Tribe, I now see it as a positive challenge to stretch myself by learning and doing more.

  23. Great comment and thanks for adding to the discussion. All of resonates with me, especially this: “Our children need to understand that there is usually more than one answer when someone asks them “what does Judaism say about…” ”

    EXACTLY!! It’s all so complex and interesting and I think many, many adults would find the discussions rewarding and thought-provoking . . . if they’d be willing to try.

  24. What does it mean when you say that they will become a Bar/Bat Mitzvah regardless of standing on the bema leading a service and reading from the Torah?
    Is there another way? For this moment, please excuse my lack of Jewish literacy. I’m working on it!

  25. Jodi –

    That’s a great question. (I can’t reply to your post so I’m putting this as close as I can).

    When a boy turns 13, he becomes a bat mitzvah, which means a “son of the commandments.” That means he is old enough so that he is now responsible for following the commandments. This happends whether or not there is a ceremony.

  26. If you want a real Jewish education you have to go to the source, the land of Israel. Its not that you can’t be Jewish in other places, but its such a struggle. The main problem here is that people essentialize the ethnicity of being “Jewish” with philosophy of Judaism and no they are not one in the same. That was the beautiful thing about living in Israel, Jews from all walks of life, black, white, sephardic, mizrachi, ethiopian and so on.

  27. Terrific post, Nina. And I couldn’t agree with you more. Growing up, my parents raised me very secular with no Jewish education (other than their stories and family holiday celebrations). But I knew I wanted more. And when I entered college, I saw that as an opportunity to know myself as Jewish and learn about my heritage. It’s one of my proudest decisions. And I’m still a practicing Jew with a daughter in Jewish Preschool. And yes, while I certainly could blame my parents, it’s not their fault. It would have been mine had I not made those decisions for myself.

  28. Great post, Nina. Loved your line: “adding new rituals could bring a welcome sense of rhythm to an otherwise chaotic world.” It’s why I love the holidays — and love tailoring them to the growing, changing needs of our family. (And it’s why I’ve launched — to help create an entry point into Judaism for folks whose lives are so busy that it’s hard to know where to jump in.) To study other parts of Judaism, though, I understand how hard it is to formulate a study pattern and create a lasting schedule with our busy lives. So, in the last few months, what has surprised and delighted me is that I’ve discovered so many wonderful tidbits, articles, and ideas on Twitter — like yours! Simply by scanning my Twitter feed a few times a day and following some bit.lys, I’m having “aha” moments, reading beautiful poetry, listening to new melodies, and making a mental list of what I want to know more about . . . when I have time!

  29. Nina, Your post puts responsibility where it should be,on the adult learner. I value parents’ decision to encourage their teens to further their Jewish education, because at least they recognize that there is so much more to learn! The teen years are a time when learners are able to grapple with new ideas and engage with Judaism in a more thoughtful way. Stopping one’s Jewish education at the age of 13 or even at “Confirmation” (16) makes no sense at all, and your post reinforces that. Thank you!

  30. I am a convert, by choice. By that I mean, I tried for my husband, then for my son and only succeeded when it was for me. Sadly and with compassion I can tell you in my conversion classes there were couples whose Jewish counterpart confided to us all they could not understand why their fiancee would want to be a Jew, or anyone for that matter. I was confused. Why I did not know until this article. I realize now, my husband never attended one class with me. Perhaps he is a victim of this background you all are talking about. He remembers special rabbis on Saturday afternoons who taught and gave out candy…with games and laughter, but speaks of little else. I am the proud receiver of the family Torah traveled from Russia in 1907 to the States which I hold for the children. It was passed from the Great Great Grandfather to my son’s Zeddie to me. It is in good hands.

    I have been privileged with the most brilliant rabbis, the finest scholars and do not know from this that you write. My son the same. We are relaxed but serious and committed Jews. Our extended family is the same way. That which binds us all regardless of how we thought our learning should or should not be, is Tikkun Olam and a commitment to the Jewish state, Israel. All else will heal if we are together and healing. Thanks Nina!

  31. This is a wonderful post. Thank you for it.
    I am the president of NewCAJE–a national organization of Jewish educators. I don’t know every Hebrew school director and teacher, but I do know many of them. I think people should take a second look at Hebrew Schools today. They bear little resemblance to the Hebrew school you attended. There are great materials and books and computer resources being used and truly dedicated teachers who love Judaism and kids. Check out Jewish music for kids and you will discover an exciting world. Family education is also a huge resource for parents. I could go on and on. Check out the program book of our annual conference and see what is going on. Make sure your school is sending their principal and teachers so they can bring home these exciting and innovative resources.
    Having said that, there are a number of important issues that make Hebrew School challenging. How many hours a week and a year does it meet? When a child becomes Bar/t Mitzvah today, they have had the equivalent of finishing 1st grade in terms of the face time they have had in school. I think Hebrew schools are doing a lot with their hands tied behind their backs.
    Schools offer few benefits and not enough in-service training to help dedicated teachers stay in their jobs and learn more.
    Parents often have different standards for homework and attendance for Hebrew school than they do for their children’s secular education.
    Working together with synagogues, parents and teachers these institutions could be strengthened for sure. One thing lacking today is text study–just an important feature of Judaism that is not being shared as often as it might with students. Oh, and let’s not forget, you can learn the basics before age 13 of some subjects, but the best of Judaism is the advanced material. Let’s make Judaism a life-long pursuit!

  32. Congratulations, Rabbi, on leading the NewCAJE!

    I agree wholeheartedly with what you said. I’m a big believer in using Jewish and Israeli music to build connection and teach Hebrew language — at home and in Sunday school. (For instance, a CD of music can be playing as kids come in on Sunday; it’s easy to put this into place and it’s such an upbeat way to start the morning.)

    I also believe that family education is key — because I’ve seen too many adults who drop-and-run at the Sunday school door, not just because they’re terribly busy, but sometimes because they’re embarrassed by what they don’t know. I taught a class to parents of young children at our synagogue and learned so much about how the divergent backgrounds resulted in different needs — but how everyone wanted more information about how to bring joy into family celebrations.

    It’s why I’ve created holiday kits for families — including a CD tutorial to help the parents know how to pronounce the blessings and what they mean. My hope is that this kind of an approach will serve as a jumping off point for further exploration.

    And, what a wonderful time of year for this dialogue, when we can consider what we, as adults want to learn in the coming 12 months!

  33. Nancy Sheftel-Gomes

    Judaism is complex.
    My mother never went to Religious School but she was an expert on many things Jewish.
    She learned within a context.
    The challenge as a religious school director to take the learning off the page and create the context like my mother experienced
    What we are doing is providing a foundation for more learning.
    Whoever would expect that their child’s secular education culminates at age 13?
    Many parents have that expectation of religious schools.
    Being Jewish is many things to many people and as educators within a community we need to validate everyone.
    If we give the child a peek in the door and excite their love of learning perhaps their parents will come along with with them.

    Gmar chatimah tovah
    Nancy Sheftel-Gomes
    Education Director
    Congregation Sherith Israel
    San Francisco, CA

  34. I love the language you used: “a peek in the door.”

    When I substituted in a 5th grade classroom, I introduced the students to Hebrew script, which they didn’t know existed! Of course, we worked on writing their names. For another 5th grade class, I brought in the magnificent Moss Hagaddah that we used to talk about Passover. I always assume that my job as a teacher is to go outside of what the texts prescribe — and try to excite the kids.

    When I taught French 1 to undergrads, I remember the supervising prof being somewhat unhappy that I veered from the text to explore poetry and current events; he suggested that this info was appropriate for French 3 classes. My response then (and all these years later): “Dr. X, if that’s all I teach them, they’ll never be around for French 3.”

    It’s wonderful to hear so many innovative ideas.

  35. Gloria, that’s such a great attitude (what you said at the end.) Wouldn’t it be wonderful if when any of us didn’t know those answers rather than making a joke of it or feeling embarrassed, we simply . . . FOUND OUT SOME OF THE ANSWERS (as there is often more than one answer) !? 🙂

  36. Love this! My story is very similar by the way.

  37. I love that approach . . . a little here and a little there. At certain times in a our life a regular class would be impossible. With the internet, podcasts, and so many great books, there’s no reason people can’t get more information at their own pace.

    The holidays in a box sounds like a cool project, too.

  38. Ellen, yes, the issue is really the parents first and the school second. If the entire education is outsourced I’m not sure it matters how stellar it is. Doesn’t mean families need to live 100% observant lives. We don’t (I call us “Reformadox” and that post is on this site if you click on my byline up top). But Judaism has to be a positive, regular thing in the house for any out-of-the-house education to have any significant impact.

  39. I agree with you completely. As an Education Director of a Hebrew School, this is not a new issue, but it’s great that it’s being discussed.

  40. I am a convert and a rabbi, so I have not encountered these awful Hebrew schools that every talks about attending some twenty to thirty years ago. The schools I have encountered as both a student and a teacher have been vibrant, interesting places, with enthusiastic teachers and committed parents.

    I find it difficult to believe that so much has changed since then — did the religious schools of the eighties use whips and chains? We you smacked when you confused a samech for a mem? Probably not.

    I have suspected for a long time that the ambivalent feeling stems from a half-acceptance into American society, felt most strongly by those in the immediate post-War generation and less so (but still present)among the generations that follow: a vague feeling that one should avoid appearing too weirdly Jewish. And, in the wake of the Holocaust, there is also a lingering sense of ‘why?’ — a question of politics and identity, a question of theodicy and theology.

    So I agree: stop blaming the religious schools. You are the product of the environment where you grew up, and if you grew up with ambivalence, it is likely derived from the mixed message you heard all around you, something akin to “don’t give Hitler a posthumous victory — but don’t be weird.” But Judaism is counter-cultural by its nature, at least in the context of the Diaspora.

    By the way, having lived in Israel, I can say that moving to Israel does not automatically resolve this ambivalence: it just changes the terms of the discussion, as there is a different set of issues, largely related to the secular-religious divide. And the memory of the Holocaust is an even greater factor there.

    I do think that we need a coherent theological answer to the question of why, but it will take a long time to fully respond to that demand. In the meantime, though, do study; this stuff is fascinating.

    …and if you are hoping to find some way to avoid passing down the ambivalence to your kids, my best advice is this: find something to love about Judaism. There’s 4,000 years of Judaism for your purview, so something will attract you: cooking or crafts of history or philosophy or biography or…. Well, you get the idea.

    Kol tuv — all the best.