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Rethinking Sunday School

November 2, 2017

In my role as education director, I often talk with parents about their own experiences in religious school or their children’s experiences.  The children and adults who tell me that they love or loved religious school are definitely the outliers in these conversations (my husband happens to be one of them).

My own experience with religious school seems much more normative- I really hated going and would use basically any excuse to get out of attending.  When I knew that skipping religious school was not going to work, I often turned to bribery, negotiating with my dad that in exchange for getting in the car to go to religious school he would promise to take me to McDonalds on the way home for a cheeseburger.

Unfortunately, it seems that many parents are still fighting these same battles with their children on a weekly basis.  And it’s no real surprise because, despite it now being over twenty years since I finished religious school, we are essentially still educating Jewish children using the same model.  Though we like to think of many traditions in Judaism as being passed down from Mt. Sinai and, therefore, unchangeable, this model of supplemental Jewish education is not one of them.

The current “Sunday school model” was first instituted by Rebecca Gratz in Philadelphia in 1838 based on how she saw her Christian friends providing religious education for their children.  For nearly 180 years, we have been using this same model for the vast majority of our Jewish children.  While 180 years is not that long in the scope of Jewish history, lives of Americans looked drastically different at that time: there were only 26 stars on the flag; slavery was legal; and the telegraph and steamship were the new technology of the time.  Thankfully we have made a lot of progress in our country and yet we are still using a relatively similar model of Jewish education.  Why?!

This year, the HEA is currently in the process of completely reimagining Jewish education for our youth.  Who will be the next Rebecca Gratz?  What will the new model look like?  We don’t know, that’s why, in very “traditional” fashion, we are turning to you.

It is not uncommon in rabbinic texts, the tradition that some claim was handed down from Moses at Mt. Sinai, to see that when the rabbis are stumped by a question they look to what the Jewish people are already doing for an answer.  One of my favorite such stories features the famous sage Hillel, who forgets his knowledge of how to slaughter the Paschal lamb on Passover, if Passover falls on Shabbat.  When the elders of the community turn to him to explain how the practice is done, his response is, “Look to the Jewish community for the answer, for if they are not prophets they are the descendants of prophets.”  The great sage Hillel recognized how much wisdom lies within the Jewish community, far more so than just within the minds of rabbis.

Just like Hillel turned to the Jewish community for guidance, we intend to do the same as we reimagine Jewish education at HEA.  We need you, to bring your voice and your ideas for what your goals and dreams are for your Jewish child. Using principles of Design Thinking, we hope to generate a new model for Jewish education that fits our lifestyles.

If you ever argued with your parents about attending religious school or if you have these arguments with your child- please come!  If you are a non-Jewish partner helping to raise a Jewish family- please come!  If you are not currently having your child participate in Jewish education or even if you send your child to Jewish day school- please come!  You do not need to be a member of HEA to participate, in fact, those who have never stepped foot in HEA are equally welcome as those who come every week.  Diversity of opinion is what generates the most productive design thinking- so we need as many people present as possible.

I hope to see you at HEA on either November 12 from 9:30-10:30AM or November 14 from 7:30-8:30PM.  Please do RSVP to me, Rabbi Amanda Schwartz at by November 10.

Rabbi Amanda Schwartz recently returned to her hometown of Denver with her husband, daughter and dog after being ordained by The Jewish Theological Seminary of America where she also received a Masters in Jewish Educational Leadership. She is the Director of Education at the Hebrew Educational Alliance. She also teaches classes for Kevah and leads High Holiday services for Judaism Your Way.

Additional posts written by Rabbi Amanda Schwartz
Pregnancy, Parenting, and Pesach – In The Narrow Moments
Our Daughter Won’t be Opening Presents After We Light the Menorah
How To Feel Connected To The High Holidays When You Can’t (or don’t want to) Go To Synagogue

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