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Raising Jewish Children: Research and Indications for Intervention

Providing one’s children with formal Jewish education during the pre- bar/ bat mitzvah years is one of the most universal Jewish behaviors of American Jews. About three-quarters of America’s adult Jews received some type of Jewish education. Four out of five children raised as Jews receive some type of formal Jewish education–the highest levels of current enrollments–between the ages 10 to 13. Today girls are slightly more likely than boys to be enrolled in the pre- bar/bat mitzvah years.16

The most intensive type of schooling (hours and the extent of Jewish materials) is the all-day Jewish school, often called “Day School,” a.k.a. “Parochial School” or “Yeshiva.” In some communities, day school education is available from kindergarten through middle school and high school, in other communities only for some portion of that time. Some day schools affiliate with particular wings of Judaism. Conservative and Reform schools have increased in the past two decades, but many suffered setbacks during the American economic crisis. The majority fall under Orthodox auspices. A growing phenomenon is the community Day School, not affiliated with any wing of Judaism. Day schools are most likely to have enough time to emphasize the Hebrew language (although not necessarily with any sophistication or attention to grammar and conversational skills) and traditional text study. Some are marketed as Jewish “prep” schools aiming to produce students who can compete for the most prestigious universities. Not within the purview of this discussion is the emergence of Charter Schools with Hebrew curriculums.

The most common form of American Jewish education, “Supplementary School,” also referred to as “Talmud Torah” or “Hebrew School,” consists of several hours of Jewish education, afternoons after regular school hours and/or Sunday mornings. Curriculum offerings depend on the location and educational philosophy of the sponsoring institution(s). Periodically, educational reforms are undertaken to improve the dynamic environment and pedagogical standards of supplementary schools. In some locales congregations cooperate to create community supplementary schools. In recent years, the “elites” within the Conservative movement have chosen Day School education for their children. The vast majority of Conservative and some Reform Jews, however, continue to send their children to supplementary schools, and almost half of non-Orthodox American Jewish adults received most of their Jewish education from a supplementary school.17 During the elementary school and middle school years, as noted, supplementary schools enjoy a type of captive audience because they offer pre-bar/ bat mitzvah preparation. After age 13, however, attendance at supplementary schools plummets–especially for boys. Special high school supplementary programs, which are discussed in the next section, are typically structured independently.

The least intense form of American Jewish education for school-age children is the one-day-a-week program, often called the “Sunday school.” Some Sunday schools are offered outside of Jewish denominational and synagogue settings in private, free-standing schools. Additionally, some parents home school or hire tutors to provide Jewish education.

The most recent national data show (NJPS 2000-01 data) 11% of non-Orthodox Jewish adults attended Jewish day schools in their childhood; 33% attended two-day-a-week (or more) supplementary schools; 20% one-day-a-week Sunday schools; 5% received “other forms of schools (e.g., tutoring)”; and 31% received “no formal Jewish education.” The percentage of students choosing day school education has increased, supplementary school attendance has declined, and Sunday school and no Jewish schooling levels remained stable across the age groups. Outside of Orthodox communities girls are much more likely than boys to continue with Jewish schooling after bar/bat mitzvah. Among American Orthodox Jews rates of continuance (although not necessarily the subject matter) are roughly equal for boys and girls. The majority of Orthodox youth attend day school into their high school years.

Not giving one’s children any Jewish education whatsoever–especially in the pre- bar/bat mitzvah years (ages 10-13)–is associated with alienation from things Jewish. Students who do not receive Jewish education during these years typically grow up in very weakly identified or connected Jewish families, many of them the children of mixed marriage, especially with a non-Jewish mother, despite the fact that since 1983 American Reform temples accept children of Jewish fathers as normative Jewish children in their congregations. They are also unlikely to have a bar or bat mitzvah ceremony or event. In the United States, not “being bar mitzvahed” (sic) has great symbolic significance. Although according to Jewish law any Jew becomes bar or bat mitzvah–that is, responsible for one’s own religious life and actions– at the appropriate age (traditionally 13 for males and 12 for females, respectively), non-Orthodox American Jews tend to think of the bar/ bat mitzvah as a ceremonial rite of passage which makes one a bona fide member of the Jewish club. It is this centrality of bar mitzvah that gave the phenomenon of adult bar and especially bat mitzvah ceremonies such importance and sweeping popularity in recent decades. When frustration with the pallid success rates of supplementary school education sometimes leads critics to declare, “They’d be better off with no formal Jewish education!” this is not factual: the sociological reality is that Jewish education during the elementary and middle school years is the foundation upon which both simultaneous and later Jewish experiences are built.

The pattern of mutual reenforcement we observed in Jewish pre-school education continues in the elementary school and middle school years: having children enrolled in Jewish schools both affects and reflects the Jewishness of their entire family, increasing engagement with Jewish activities, home holiday rituals, and Jewish institutions.

By the 1990 NJPS, children not receiving formal Jewish education were unlikely to attend Jewish camps or participate in Jewish youth groups.18Thus, although for previous generations camping was Jewish education for some, and some researchers suggest the camping experience in particular provides ―an abstract feeling of solidarity with a worldwide community beyond one‘s immediate experience,”19 for the past two decades almost all children attending Jewish summer camp also receive some formal Jewish education. Like other types of Jewish education, camping is linked to the family, as Keysar, Kosmin and Scheckner point out.20

Nevertheless, mathematically, education itself has a measurable impact when familial factors are held steady. Day school from elementary through high school graduation yields dramatically positive results, as does supplementary school when combined with (or followed by) informal education such as youth group, camp, and Israel trips. For adults ages 18 to 54 who were raised as Jews but not Orthodox, among those attending Jewish day schools 80 percent married Jews, as did 73 percent of those who attended supplementary school for seven or more years, 65 percent who attended supplementary school for one to six years, and around half of those who attended Sunday schools. The combination of youth group, camp, and Israel trips also is correlated with an 80 percent inmarriage rate.21 Educational combinations are serendipitous and even more effective. “Intensive education” (i.e. day school or multiple-day supplementary school) and “education of longer duration” have a greater impact; and “more Jewishly engaged homes” promote more education, as well as providing family-based, home-centered informal education. Sunday Schools (one day programs are actually about two to three hours a week) are also divided, showing ―positive, negligible, or even somewhat negative‖ results on Jewish identity. Jewish youth groups had either strong long-term effects or ―more modest effects’; Jewish camping–especially those camps that were ―educationally intensive,” such as the Ramah camps, had ―fairly robust effects.”22 Israel trips may be “second only to day schools in terms of overall impact,” Cohen suggests.23 The more formal and informal Jewish education before age 18, the more measurable adult Jewish connections. Classrooms, camps, and youth groups each provide contexts for Jewish socialization, an effect magnified by multiple reinforcement.