The Conspiracy

Hebrew School in the Age of Skype: From Our NW Blog

Unless you are living under a rock, you know that the Internet is forcing pre-existing institutions to revolutionize and keep up with the times. Education is one such sector, and Hebrew education is changing as well. Logan Wall, one of our Northwestern bloggers, sheds an interesting light on the concept of how Hebrew schools would fare online:

Rabbi Jamie Korngold with Jake Streeck, Carmel Zucker for The New York Times.

Rabbi Jamie Korngold with Jake Streeck, Carmel Zucker for The New York Times.

Sunday’s New York Times discussed a small but growing trend toward online Hebrew-school studies. Rather than sit twice a week in a synagogue classroom, the student sits at his or her computer and learns from an online tutor, sometimes a rabbi, sometimes not. Those who choose this course are predominately unaffiliated Jews or simply those fed up with the bureaucracy of their local synagogue or Hebrew School program. There aren’t many—the article implied a belief that only a few thousand attend online-only Hebrew schools—but both traditional and online Jewish educators expressed confidence that the trend would continue to grow. And, as education explores and better defines its relationship with online media, I (no expert) also agree that Hebrew schools will be no exception.

I’m a skeptic of online-only education, especially in cases where the possibility of live, in-class education exists. But as a former Hebrew school student and former Hebrew school employee, I can’t say I blame parents who would rather go for the (slightly) cheaper route. After all, Hebrew school is, from my experience, just a thinly veiled Bar/Bat-Mitzvah factory. The point is to get students ready for the big event—it is less important that they understand the content of what they say than that they are able to say it. Maybe if I’d been given a better sense of the purpose of Torah and Haftarah trope, I would have learned them with more significance than just to forget them immediately after my Bar Mitzvah. If the purpose of Hebrew school is simply Bar Mitzvah prep, then I can understand the parents who would rather find a private tutor for their child online, and who would rather hire the rabbi on the opposite coast connected via the Internet than the kid down the block? It might, in the end, even be the better method of getting ready for a Bar Mitzvah.

Synagogues and Jewish communities need to ask themselves the same question more Jewish parents will be asking in years to come: Why Hebrew school? The answer lies beyond the Bar Mitzvah and beyond acquiring a cursory knowledge of Hebrew. In my first post on this blog, I asserted that there is wisdom in the idea of a minyan. Jewish tradition takes a similar approach to education as to prayer: You study with a partner, rather than in solitude. It fosters community. The purpose of Jewish education, that is, is to develop community as well as develop the intellect. And this is precisely what online Jewish education cannot offer.

If Hebrew schools wish to remain relevant, they need to re-orient themselves away from their current existence as Bar Mitzvah machines and toward the development of Jewish community among the young. They must learn to inculcate Yiddishkeit along with the ability to sound-out blocky script from lambskin parchment.

Full article here.

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