Introduction

There is only so much you can do in a 5-hour-a-week program if you want it to be about more than bnei mitzvah prep—and we are firmly committed to offering a well-rounded Jewish education. We don’t think we can get any more time from the families, but it’s really not enough time for quality second language acquisition.

This quote from a school director sums up a common tension in American part-time Jewish schools1 (also known as supplementary schools, religious schools, and Hebrew schools, most but not all of which are part of synagogues). Many parents send their children to such schools primarily to prepare them for their bar/bat mitzvah,2 but educators (and some families) are interested in graduates attaining Hebrew skills beyond ritual performance. For many centuries, Jews engaged with Hebrew as a language of sacred texts and liturgical participation, but since the revitalization of Hebrew in Israel, it has become a vernacular for a large percentage of world Jewry. This transition led to a dilemma: should part-time Jewish schools teach Modern Hebrew conversation and writing in addition to decoding and recitation of Textual Hebrew? How much time should they spend on Hebrew in relation to other subjects, like Torah stories, holidays, values, and God? Is it possible to do all this in the few hours per week that families are willing to commit to Jewish education as only one of many extracurricular activities?

As a professor who trains Jewish educators explained to us, the field of part-time Jewish education lacks a “cohesive understanding about what Hebrew is taught, what is the purpose.” And, as we learned from surveys with school directors, teachers, clergy, students, and parents, different constituencies have different answers to questions like these, even within the same school. This diversity of opinion often leads to a discourse of failure. If parents expect their children to understand the Hebrew prayers they are reciting and to converse in Israeli Hebrew, they will undoubtedly be disappointed if the school’s sole goals are decoding and recitation.

Research questions

The three of us—a researcher of Jewish language and identity (Benor), a researcher of heritage language education (Avineri), and a rabbi-educator (Greninger)—came together to investigate these issues. Our primary research question was: How is Hebrew taught and perceived at American Jewish part-time schools? Sub-questions included: How do educators, students, parents, and clergy perceive the rationales and goals for Hebrew education? Which types of Hebrew (Liturgical, Biblical, Modern) and which skills (e.g., decoding, recitation, conversation) are emphasized? Which curricular materials and teaching methods are used? What are stakeholders’ perceptions of their school’s approach and curriculum?

These questions could be—and have been—asked about other Jewish educational settings, including day schools3 and summer camps.4 We opted to study part-time schools because they have been and remain the primary locus of Jewish education for most American Jews,5 yet they have received little scholarly attention.

Audiences

We have multiple audiences in mind for this report, including school directors, educators, funders, and other Jewish leaders concerned with the success of part-time Jewish schools, as well as families who participate in such schools. We also envision that researchers of Hebrew education, Jewish education, Jewish languages, and heritage/minority languages will find this report of interest. Our hope is that this research will enable interventions to better align goals and methods among educators, congregations, and families, thereby strengthening diaspora Hebrew education and heritage language education more broadly.

Methodology

Our multi-phase study design6 was influenced by previous scholarship on Hebrew education in Jewish day schools and summer camps.7 The primary focus was on quantitative data collection and statistical analysis, with qualitative data and interpretive analysis serving to complement and illustrate patterns identified in the quantitative components of the study.8 The study was conducted before the COVID-19 pandemic and therefore does not investigate schools’ or support organizations’ transition to online instruction in spring 2020.

Phase 1 survey: School directors

The study began in 2018 with a review of previous scholarship and interviews with 20 experts on Jewish education, including scholars and staff members at umbrella organizations. Based on this information, we crafted a questionnaire for school directors about why and how their schools teach Hebrew. We received feedback on various drafts of the survey from those we had interviewed, as well as additional experts. The survey was pretested with several people who had previously worked as school directors and modified based on their feedback.9

In November and December 2018, we emailed 1,017 direct invitations to school directors of all part-time Jewish schools we could find in the United States10 (using lists obtained from several umbrella organizations, including national denominational groups, associations of educators, bureaus of Jewish education, and Federations). We publicized the survey through Facebook groups and email lists of educators. The survey yielded 519 usable responses, including responses from 58 schools that were not on our direct email list. This sample represented great diversity in school-synagogue connection, denomination, region11 (43 of the 50 states + DC were represented), density of the Jewish population in the state where the school was located,12 and school size (Table A). 

Table A

Given that there is no comprehensive list of part-time Jewish schools, we do not know how our sample is skewed. It is possible that full-time paid school directors were more likely to respond. Even so, 31% of respondents work part-time and are paid, and 5% work part-time and are unpaid. It is also possible that school directors of larger schools were more likely to respond, but almost half of the schools in the sample have fewer than 10 students in 6th grade.

Phase 2 surveys: Students, parents, teachers, and clergy

Based on responses to the phase 1 survey, we curated a sample of 8 schools from among the 111 school directors who responded that they were “definitely” interested in participating in a follow-up study. These eight schools reflected some of the diversity of the phase 1 sample. In April and May 2019, the school director at each of these schools invited members of four constituencies to take similar (but shorter) surveys: students (finishing 6th grade and, at smaller schools, 4th, 5th, and sometimes 7th grades), parents of those students, teachers, and, except for the one independent school, clergy. Out of 781 invitations sent for these stakeholder surveys, we received 376 usable responses—a 48% response rate. Individual schools’ stakeholder response rates ranged from 26% to 100%. It is not possible to determine how/if the sample is skewed. It is possible that constituents who chose to respond were more likely to value Hebrew or to be satisfied with the school, but we did receive some responses from constituents who were disgruntled and/or have no interest in Hebrew beyond bar/bat mitzvah. Table B lists the eight schools with their location, denomination, and size; the number of people in each group that responded to the survey; and the number of survey invitations sent to each group. 

Table B

 

 Following a parent consent procedure, students participated in the survey one at a time on a school device in a private area during school hours, facilitated by staff. School directors, parents, teachers, and clergy participated via email invitation on their own devices. Participants knew that the survey was optional and they could skip any questions or stop at any time.

Observation

With the help of research assistants, we conducted observations at these same eight schools, plus two additional schools that were originally slated to participate in the constituent surveys but decided not to (a small Conservative school in New Hampshire and a medium Reform school in Florida). We also conducted pilot observations at two additional schools early in the study (a medium Conservative school and a large Reform school, both in California). At each school we observed one or two entire sessions, including a class geared toward Hebrew and at least one other class. Other activities we observed included communal tefillah (prayer), snack/dinner, singing, Israeli dancing, Purim shpiel rehearsal, and drop-off and pick-up. During these site visits, we briefly interviewed some school directors, teachers, and clergy.

The 12 schools we observed represent a range of Hebrew approaches. Because this portion of the research included only schools whose directors indicated interest in participating in follow-up research, it likely excluded schools whose directors have little interest in Hebrew. We did not conduct observations at any schools run by Chabad or geared toward Israelis. Although we did visit schools in the sparsely Jewish states of Idaho and New Hampshire, we did not visit any schools in the Deep South.13

Review of curricular materials

We reviewed educational materials geared toward part-time Jewish schools through internet searches, an analysis of materials listed in publishers’ catalogues, and consultation with Jewish educators through listservs and Facebook groups such as JEDLAB.