| If you asked Jewish people about the single most influential experience that turned them off from their heritage, the majority would say "Hebrew school."
Instead of being an engaging, enlightening, or even an educational experience, Hebrew school is known more as a rite of passage; it is something to be endured and overcome. Our parents didn't like it, but they sent us anyway. We didn't like it, but we are sending our children anyway. What is now known as "part-time" or "complementary" Jewish education has such a poor public image, "Hebrew School Drop Out," is the name of a clothing line and a stand-up comedy show.
It's almost expected that children will not like Hebrew school and until now, very little has been done to change that.
Founders of the Partnership for Effective Learning and Innovative Education (PELIE), Carol Auerbach, Ricky Shechtel and Diane Troderman know what's wrong with Hebrew school, and they are working to fix it. They created PELIE in 2007, a nonprofit whose mission is to improve complementary Jewish education in North America, change the perception the public has about the field, and attract new investors. They gathered the support of major Jewish philanthropists like Stacy Schusterman of Samson Oil and today PELIE contributes between $500,000 and $750,000 a year to research, assess, highlight, adapt and fund part-time Jewish education models that work. PELIE also works to bring technology into Jewish education programs, and it makes available to communities an education assessment tool that is adapted from one used in the secular world.
"About eight years ago, Carol Auerbach headed a Jewish Funders Network breakfast roundtable for those interested in funding Hebrew school. All the other special interest tables were full, but not hers. Carol sat all alone. I sat with her because I, too, was interested in funding what has been called 'the black hole of Jewish philanthropy,'" says Shechtel. "That lonely breakfast was the impetus for us to create PELIE, and now, we no longer sit alone. There is a buzz, an excitement and a level of attention out there surrounding complementary education, and PELIE has helped to create and harness that buzz."
Funding for Jewish education is a "Catch 22." There are few funders for part-time Jewish education because it feels so unsuccessful. And, it remains an unsuccessful way to educate Jewish youth because the lack of funding does not allow for the innovations, professional development and technological advances necessary to improve the system. In fact, PELIE executives say the issue is not to fix the current system, but to investigate, fund and highlight congregational and non-congregational models that are working around the country.
"We have to be concerned about the future of the Jewish identity. Our best chance of continuing the Jewish legacy is to encourage children to be proud of their heritage," says Auerbach, founder of the Isaac and Carol Auerbach Central Agency for Jewish Education. Of the Jewish children who are engaged in Jewish education, 80 percent, or about 200,000, go to Hebrew school. "As long as anyone of us can remember, the system has been weak and was not engaging or inspiring kids. Complaints about Hebrew school were large and heavy from parents and children, but no one was doing anything."
Overhauling Hebrew school is no small task, but they went undeterred, created PELIE, found like-minded investors, and got experts to tour the country to find models of complementary education that were creative, effective, engaging and even fun. Programs that have been exciting young learners teach conversational Hebrew, for example, as opposed to teaching children to read and write the Hebrew language for prayer purposes only. They use technology, experiential learning and parental involvement.
One of PELIE's goals is to "change the nature of the conversation about Hebrew school," says Troderman, of the Harold Grinspoon Foundation and a PELIE board member.
Rather than working to turn the big ship - the institution of Hebrew school - around, Jane Slotin, PELIE executive director says the situation is more akin to investigating all the little boats that keep popping up in the harbor to see what they are doing and how they are doing it. "Let's talk about what does work, not what doesn't work," Slotin says. "There is a lot of exciting transitioning right now. A system basically known to be top-down is shifting to bottom-up as families, communities, and even kids create meaningful, impactful experiences for Jewish engagement. Jewish learning is a life long journey, and ignoring this arena where most of our kids get their Jewish education will cost us in the long run. As Derek Bok of Harvard said, 'If you think education is expensive; try ignorance.' Kids are our future, and they deserve the attention and funding it takes to connect them to their Jewish legacy."