It is by now a commonplace to lament the significant drop-out rate from Hebrew school following the age of Bar or Bat Mitzvah.
Unfortunately, a majority of Jewish students will enter college — now reputed to be a place of widespread hostility toward the State of Israel — with no formal Jewish education beyond seventh or eighth grade. What understanding will they bring to the table of Jewish history or of Israel, or even of the basic ideas of Jewish thought?
This in an age when a prominent Hollywood actor/director blames all the world's wars on the Jews; when a Harvard dean ascribes U.S. Middle East policy to the workings of a Jewish cabal; when a trans-European poll finds that Israel is the greatest threat to world peace; when a Malaysian prime minister announces to a conference of leaders of Muslim countries that Jews "rule the world by proxy" (and then receives a standing ovation).
And does the average Jewish student even have a passing acquaintance with The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an early 20th-century forgery that purported to be the minutes of a secret meeting of Jewish leaders planning to dominate the world? Or that the Protocols were cited approvingly by Adolf Hitler in Mein Kampf, and are currently incorporated in the charter of Hamas, a party that was democratically elected to power this year by the Palestinians?
Well, let's ask that most common of all Jewish questions: Is the lack of formal Jewish education beyond the Bar or Bat Mitzvah good for the Jews? No, it definitely is not.
Albert Einstein is reported to have defined stupidity as doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results. I would argue that unless we radically change Jewish education, all the lamentations in the world won't yield different results.
Why do students drop out of Hebrew school? There are at least three key reasons I can think of. First, students are so overscheduled that they simply lack the time. Second, their parents are simply not committed to formal Jewish education. Third, by the seventh or eighth year of Hebrew school, students feel they are simply not learning anything, and it's therefore — quite logically — simply not worth their time.
I don't believe we can do much about reasons one and two.
But it is possible to fix the way Hebrew school is conducted so that children do learn. And if they do learn, then perhaps their parents will become more committed to Jewish education, and give it a higher priority among the mix of competing activities.
What can be done? We need to define a set of "best practices" and give public credit to those schools that follow best practices — offering those schools a kind of "Good Housekeeping" seal of approval.
And what might those best practices be? I would begin with two tools — tests and homework — that serve obvious pedagogical purposes, but even more important make a statement that Jewish education is to be taken seriously. This is key because today, few people really take Jewish education seriously — and the kids know it. That's why even normally good kids often act badly the moment they enter a religious-school classroom.
And what would really ensure that our kids are absorbing a significant body of knowledge is a standardized test — a kind of Jewish SAT — that every student in every Hebrew school would be required to take (and pass). Then, schools would be forced to teach (and the logic of tests and homework would be driven home), and students would understand they really do need to take Hebrew school seriously.
At a time of extraordinary pressure on enrollment, it would be difficult, if not impossible, for any one school to implement these proposals, for it would be too easy for a family to find a "better" (meaning easier) alternative. It doesn't just take a village to educate a Jewish child, it takes an entire metropolitan area!
Were this proposal to be implemented, it would undoubtedly cause an initial rush to drop out and leave our schools with smaller enrollments. But in the longer run, Hebrew schools would eventually become places where students actually learn, and families would return to the fold to make sure they don't miss out on one of the most important things we can offer our children — a Jewish education.
Alan Luxenberg teaches in two suburban synagogue schools and serves on the board of the Auerbach Central Agency for Jewish Education.