Schley: No surprise that Jewish students stop going to Hebrew School
It’s time to rethink high school supplemental Jewish education.
With dropout rates that many times exceed some of America’s worst urban high schools, it is clear that the current system is failing.
It shouldn’t be surprising that so many Jewish students choose to stop going to afterschool or weekend supplemental Hebrew school programs. Their dissatisfaction, however, is not due to disinterest in learning or dedicating time to study, as some have contended. As it is widely known, Jewish students tend to do well academically and are strongly represented at all of the United States’ top universities.
Jewish students don’t like supplemental Hebrew School because, unlike their other academic and extracurricular pursuits, they see no tangible reward for their study.
Supplemental Jewish education is almost exclusively informal. It provides educational content of questionable worth. Students quickly realize this truth and substitute their Jewish education with other more worthwhile curricular and extracurricular endeavors, which have definite and greater value. For example, substituting more honors and Advanced Placement courses not only provides high school students with a more rigorous education, but the chance to earn college credit and gain admission into a more selective college. By the same token, a good athlete can win a scholarship to college.
What will supplemental Jewish education do? As University of Michigan Professor David Schoem put it, “going to Hebrew School won’t get you into Harvard.”
Even when Jewish high school students don’t see the significance of receiving a Jewish education, they still seek value. When it comes to deciding to enroll in a supplemental program or choosing more valuable alternatives, there’s no comparison. It’s common sense.
This reality does not have to be the case. Jewish supplemental education can offer intellectually stimulating and worthwhile material to its students, and the Jewish community must make attempts to offer an alternative to “supplemental” education. The key is providing students with clear incentives that allow them to immerse themselves in a more strenuous Jewish education. One way to provide such appropriate incentives is for Jewish colleges and universities to enroll capable Jewish high school students in their respective colleges, giving the students the opportunity to study with professors at a college level for college credit with the ability to earn an associate degree in Jewish Studies upon their graduation from high school.
There are already numerous part-time and night school programs that exist, which allow high school students to enroll in — and graduate from — universities. And an associate degree could easily be completed over the course of a student’s time in high school. Students who might not be able to complete the entire workload during the academic year at the university could count AP classes from their secular high school toward their degree or take one-week or two-week long summer classes (which are already offered by numerous Jewish colleges, such as Gratz College and Jewish Theological Seminary) to earn the necessary credit.
Most importantly, such an honors program would benefit everyone involved: A degree-granting program would allow Jewish high school students to stand out in the all-too-competitive college admissions process because he or she has already shown the capacity for college level work with a college faculty. Graduates of such a program could choose to start their graduate studies (or career) at a younger age. Jewish parents, who might have previously seen post-Bar/Bat-Mitzvah education as a financial burden with few tangible rewards may send their children to such a program for the economic benefits of two years worth of paid private college education before graduation from high school.
Most importantly, such a program would be a less expensive and more practical alternative to day school education, which is prohibitively expensive for many parents who seek a stronger Jewish education for their children. Even the Jewish colleges and universities that would offer such a program would benefit from more tuition-paying students and a stronger, broader and more loyal alumni base.
When we, the Jewish community, do not have programs that demand the most from our Jewish students, we often lose the most capable and interested students at pivotal points in their lives. Supplemental Jewish education can work, although how we think about it needs to change. A program like the one I recommend not only gives the structure for educators to expect the most from their students, but also gives the students compelling reasons to stay in the classroom and continue their Jewish education. We should expect more from our Jewish colleges and universities. While maintaining both Jewish supplemental schools and college faculties, they have largely failed to create a framework to allow their student bodies to reach their full potential.
Today in America, religion is a matter of choice. Without providing our youth with the opportunity for a strong Jewish education, our community will undoubtedly continue to face an uncertain future. We need to reward students who choose to enter the classroom with an education of worth, not punish them with programs of little educational value.
As Jewish businessman Sy Syms put it, “An educated consumer is our best customer.” We need Jewish educators that feel the same way.
Daniel P. Schley is a senior at Dartmouth College, a past recipient of the Kathryn Davis Fellowship at the Middlebury College-Brandeis University School of Hebrew and a graduate of the Jewish Community High School of Gratz College.