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What's the Right Time for Hebrew School?

April 29, 2010 By:
Aaron Passman, JE Feature
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Rosalind and Douglas Doman had done the math, and after crunching the numbers over and over again, they came to the conclusion that sending their children to religious school was a financial burden they weren't prepared to undertake. So, like many families, they put it off.

"We waited until the last moment when I knew, 'This is it -- either I send him or not,' " Rosalind Doman said of her eldest son Marlowe, now 26, who like all four of her children went through religious school at Or Hadash: A Reconstructionist Congregation in Fort Washington.

"All of them started in the third grade. I did think about starting them earlier, but it never worked out," she said.

According to the 2009 "Jewish Population Study of Greater Philadelphia," the area is home to just under 48,000 children in Jewish households, about 64 percent of whom have had some type of Jewish education between the ages of 5 and 17. Of those, 43 percent have been enrolled in a formal religious school.

The question of when to start a child's Jewish education, however, is one that has long vexed parent and Jewish professional alike.

The majority of educators insist that children's Jewish schooling should begin as early as possible, ideally in a Jewish preschool.

But Rabbi Philip Warmflash, executive director for the Auerbach Central Agency for Jewish Education/Jewish Outreach Partnership, said that, among most American Jews, "the tradition is that you come in as you start school, either in first or second grade, but definitely by third grade."

A Matter of Preparation

One factor entering into the "when to start" equation is affiliation: More observant streams of Judaism tend to start a child's education earlier -- indeed, most Orthodox Jews send their children to day school -- while the more liberal traditions have historically begun students closer to third grade at a synagogue school.

One person who has studied these trends in the Philadelphia area is Brian Mono, allocations manager for the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, who also served as project manager on the recent population study. Mono said that, based on an analysis of 46 synagogues from around the region, total enrollment in third-grade classes jumps by about 300 or 400 students each year, as a new group of children enters the system.

Many families putting their children through Hebrew school are looking to instill a love of Jewish culture and an understanding of traditions, according to experts. Others, however, are primarily seeking training for their offspring to become a Bar or Bat Mitzvah.

Steve Weintraub, religious-school director for Temple Judea of Bucks County, a Reform congregation in Doylestown, observed that for families starting their kids later, "some are enrolling their children just to become a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, so for them, it's usually 'How late can we start and still get a Bar or Bat Mitzvah?' "

In retrospect, Rosalind Doman said that she regretted that they didn't start their children earlier. "It was hard -- harder than if they had started at first grade," she said, citing Hebrew comprehension as the biggest hurdle.

If you're not sure when to start, where do you turn?

Warmflash replied that most people don't go to a rabbi for that advice. Rather, he said, they often scout out the educational options by visiting synagogues and following similar paths taken by friends, not unlike what a parent might do with any other school.

When Max Greenberg completed preschool and kindergarten at Temple Judea, his parents didn't skip a beat. Once Max, 7, shifted to public school for first grade this year, his parents, Stacy and Richard Greenberg of Warrington, placed him in Temple Judea's first-grade Sunday-school class.

"It never seemed like an option for me to wait, because I liked the idea of that consistency," said Stacy Greenberg. "It's not a fight; he likes going and he goes because it's part of his routine -- and he's been going for so long that he just can't fight it."

Going back to the Domans, the youngest, 13-year-old Noah, is currently a student at the Or Hadash religious school, and his mother said that the family pays about $3,000 annually for membership dues and Hebrew-school tuition.

Despite that amount, Rosalind Doman suggested that she was luckier than many: All of her children are about four years apart, so they were generally not involved in schooling at the same time.

'Not Cheap, But Worth It'

Anne Weiss of Broomall, on the other hand, has two children in Hebrew school with a third to follow. For her two boys, Jacob and Daniel -- ages 11 and 9, respectively -- she and husband Terry pay $1,350 per year on top of about $1,800 in membership dues at Congregation Beth El-Ner Tamid, a Conservative synagogue in Broomall.

Their daughter, Lilah, is 3; when she enters Sunday school in two years, the bill will increase by $550 -- and more once she hits third grade and begins after-school religious education.

"It's not cheap, but it's worth it," Weiss said, pointing out that her shul, like many others, offers assistance to those who qualify, a route they said they'll pursue if necessary.

Many synagogue officials note that they are willing to bend over backwards to help families get their young ones into the religious-school system, and not just for altruistic reasons: It makes sense for them in terms of business, too.

Many offer breaks on tuition for those with multiple kids enrolled. Others offer incentives like discounted or free tuition during first-year enrollment, informal learning opportunities, tuition freezes and more -- basically, anything to lower the fiscal barriers to entry.

Warmflash observed that synagogues get most of their members through families looking for Jewish educational opportunities for children, so creating easy access to that is crucial -- not just to getting them through the doors and fostering a sense of community, but also to the bottom line.

"And if while you have them there," he said, "there's a possibility that you may link them in for longer and make it a life-long commitment."

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