Rabbi Urecki, spiritual leader of Congregation B’nai Jacob in Charleston, WV, responded to my post via Facebook. I have copied it below.
“I tend to feel that the problem with our Sunday/Hebrew school education is that it is based on the mistaken notion that religion is passed on by a third party. It isn’t. It is absorbed through experience. Real passionate and regular experience. And like exercise, it is a life long endeavor. Read the David Brooks piece in This weekend’s New York Times. Religion is about doing. And doing AND doing. Most families have other priorities and Sunday school, therefore, becomes two hours of learning about meaningless rituals that have no purpose.
“We educators can explain WHY we do the things we do but only if the home is positively acting on those practices. And making it a cornerstone of their life experiences. Sunday school is boring because we try to get our students to do things their parents are unable or unwilling to experience or practice. Or at least try to understand and practice themselves. Kinda like trying to teach kids the value of good nutrition and yet, their parents take them to McDonald’s or Wendy’s every day. Not sure why I would like to eat healthy either. And then imagine parents eating at those places but telling their kids they can only eat salad for the next couple of years . “Why?” “Because it is good for you. I had to do it when I was your age” “But you don’t now! ” “When you are my age, you can eat whatever you want but for now, eat as your told”. Yep, that oughta work.
“Your piece deserves much more, but this is the best I can do on the stationary bike this morning! Hope all is well with you and your family!
Ok, it’s not really volume 3c, it’s volume 1, but these things are becoming more of a problem because my son is going to be bar-mitzvahed next year. Fortunately, he has started to ask questions, and they are intelligent questions to which he has given some rather provocative thought. But let’s face it, not only my son and daughter, but the vast majority of Jewish children sent to Hebrew schools have found the experience boring and stultifying. We remember with either humor or horror the teachers we had, we are proud of the misdeeds we performed, and whatever we may feel about our kids going, we are thrilled to have that part of our education long buried in the past.
Our cat was dying last week (she was euthanized on 3-7-13) and from my son there were questions about prayer and souls. S. asked whether or not I pray, and I said that I did not. This is a tough one, because so much of Hebrew school these days is devoted to ritual. Truth be told, ritual is boring for the majority of kids. (And adults, for that matter, otherwise we’d be bursting at the seams on Saturday morning.) In the olden days, that is, when I went to Hebrew school, we had two days a week plus Sunday mornings. The Tuesday and Thursday sessions were devoted to learning Hebrew, so that it wasn’t that hard to learn the ritual. We actually reached 13 years old with a reasonable level of foreign language skills. Not that we appreciated it. Who wants to go to school after school? And the subject matter? Could anything be better designed to alienate most kids? I said that the lack of prayer in my life did not mean that there was a lack of hope, but that I didn’t have anywhere to address that hope. A life without hope is a tough thing, I said. (My father didn’t go. His father was the son of a shokhet, a kosher butcher, and he wanted as little to do with Judaism as possible, at least as far as I could tell. My father inherited what I perceive as an indifference, but family history is another story.)
He also asked if I believed in the existence of a soul. In spite of my general rationalist science views on things, I do believe that we have souls. Whether or not they are superintended or live on beyond us is another matter entirely. Could they have a guardian, a judge, a creator that watched over them? I don’t think so.
So why am I sending my kids to Hebrew school? Because I went (that’s a stupid reason)? Because we need a history and identity ( so we can be better tribalists)? Because community is important (it is, but why this one, of all communities)? Because I think that there’s value in the ritual (mostly no, but a little bit of yes)? Because I think it can foster some concern for others (yes, but I’m not sure we need to foster belief in a deity, especially one I don’t believe in myself)?
Feel free to jump in, anyone.
(By the way, I have no problem with circumcision performed on infants, either myself, my own kids, or anybody else’s for that matter. Just in case you were wondering.)