Adult Ed? No. Sunday School? No. How About COMMUNITY Education?!

The Talmud (Kiddushin 29b) sets up an interesting question:

If a parent can only afford to send either himself* or his child to learn, who should go? The kid or the adult?

Let’s try both answers and see what happens

Send the Kid! The Argument for Hebrew School
I suspect many parents would say “send the kid.” Afterall, isn’t this the whole point of Judaism? L’dor v’dor, from generation to generation. Or to be more cynical: I’m not very Jewish, but my kid better know how to read that Torah portion, because it’s all about passing down the Jewish traditions.

The pro to this argument is that the kid brain is fairly malleable. While I as an adult am set in my ways, my child is not. Hebrew school teachers can expose my child to Judaism, Jewish life, culture, history and of course, Hebrew, and they’ll get into it where I cannot or will not.

There’s also the argument in favor of the teacher-student relationship. It’s very important in every culture to have the sage, the medicine man, the Rav — the person who is a non-relative adult, who cares about the future of the tribe’s children and passes on the ancient wisdom. Everyone needs a Mr. Miyagi and the Jewish community has that in rabbis and religious school teachers.

Unfortunately, there’s only so much you can do with kids. As homework piles up, as Hebrew school moves from three days a week plus Shabbat to Sunday-if-we’re-available, the time a child can commit to learning anything is minimal. Children also have to be entertained while learning, and keeping a kid’s attention is getting harder and harder.

Also, children are a part of culture. If the surrounding culture does not uphold anything Jewish, then the kids simply do not see the point. Hebrew school becomes just that — school. Do you have fond memories of algebra? Do you wax poetic with your friends about anything you learned in fifth grade history? Perhaps for some the answer is yes. But for the rest of us, as soon as school was out, those trapper keepers went into the trash. So too is the problem of Jewish education for kids. Once it’s not needed, it’s easy to discard.

Send Me! The Argument for Adult Education
Alas, the Talmud thinks differently than send-the-kid. Adult education is prioritized over childrens education. The logic is pretty simple: an adult can comprehend things on a higher level than a child can, and the adult can then pass on the learning to the younger generation, where a child cannot.

If we seriously prioritized adult education over children, which Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz does in his piece for EJewishPhilanthropy.com, the outcome could be greater engagement by adults who then bring children into Jewish life.

My own experience is that when parents are interested in Judaism and Jewish life, their children will be as well. This is something of a no-brainer.

There are also some amazing opportunities for adult Jewish education. PunkTorah, OneShul, and Darshan Yeshiva all provide this kind of learning either live and online or streaming at your convenience. I don’t have to mention the countless brick-and-mortar programs that exist as well, at all levels of Jewish knowledge and from countless perspectives, religious and secular.

But let’s be honest: if Judaism is our primary religion, the competing religion is the Cult of Busy. Can’t make it to class? Too busy. Can’t take time to download a podcast? No, too busy. Can’t read a 1,200-word blog post? You got it — too busy.

Busy does not mean that actual time is being taken up. Busy often can mean unmotivated, disinterested, or having such low mental bandwidth at the end of the day that anything involving serious engagement is out the window — there’s simply no room left for anything other than mindless entertainment.

This all makes sending kids easier. While I’m too busy, my kid is not. And I can command my child to learn, right?

Community Education (AKA The Middle Way Path of Jewish Learning)
Most religions have some version of a middle path. The term is mostly known in Buddhism, but elements of it can be found in Christianity, Greek philosophy and other traditions. For Jews, a middle path is the understanding that there are extremes and that our lives exist somewhere in the middle. This is expressed in the idea of the yetzer hara and yetzer hatov.

From this jumping off point, I’m offering a middle way path for Jewish learning. Call it Family Learning (as my colleague Rabbi Ron Herstik calls it) or call it Community Learning. It’s the same idea. We cannot, and should not, see Jewish life as either an adult enterprise too mature for a child’s mind or something we force upon otherwise completely secularized children so they can be more Jewish than us, or at least rid us of the existential angst of needing to be “good Jewish parents”.

At Darshan Yeshiva, our Family Conversion to Judaism program allows parents to actively engage their children in Jewish learning together. In Hebrew schools, parents should stick around and learn with their children (this isn’t bizarre — in fact, the great sage Akiva is said to have been illiterate and that he began his Jewish learning by sitting with what we today would call Religious School kids). In my experience, adults want to understand with what Judaism is, and as is often the case, it takes a child to help make that happen.

We don’t need Hebrew School and a separate Adult Education. We need Community Education. As the Jewish community becomes more secularized, we have to draw people back into the experience of intergenerational life and learning. We have to show that an eighty year old and an eight year old can engage Jewishly together and learn from one another. We have to stop making Judaism a monolithic museum piece that we can’t touch because we might ruin it. Judaism is not fine china that we have the potential of dropping and breaking. Judaism is like clay we mold in our hands into anything we want it to be.

So how do we begin?

Start with the Shabbat and Passover dinner tables
There are lessons to be learned. What’s the point of the candles? The wine? The challah/matzoh? Why have a “fancy” dinner anyway? We can all glean from the hagaddah or bencher simple, straight forward lessons that relate to our lives. We can also dive deeply into one verse or concept. It’s up to you. Perhaps bed time can be pushed a bit later and kids can learn that special days, like Shabbat and erev Pesach, have a meaning that transcends the day-to-day routine. Perhaps you don’t need to make that phone call and can spend an extra fifteen minutes reading something interesting?

Join the board
The older I get, the more I see that the complaints of the American Jewish world around synagogues are from people who feel outside while everyone else is inside. I can tell you that this is a cultural problem not because synagogues are bad places with bad people — but because most people who join boards and committees are not experts in organization management, hospitality, or anything that it takes to run an enterprise like a shul or school. They’re normal people, just like you. The difference is that they ran for something, or stepped up to volunteer. And once there, they may never receive the training they need.

Speaking from personal experience, the Jewish world goes in the direction of those who participate in it, and those who are outside can become very quickly inside. How else could a random tattooed garage rocker become the rabbi of the only multi-denominational, multi-national and multi-lingual conversion to Judaism program in the world? All it took was YouTube and a willingness to say “yes” to every leadership opportunity I was offered. So too can be true for you.

If we want Community Learning, it comes from being in the community.

The last step is small groups.

Start a havurah
Start a havurah (small friendship group) with a few people in your community. Make an effort to get kids together to play and learn, and with the adults engage with a news story that has a Jewish question behind it. Pick a text, nothing tough, and see what you can make of it. Have a beer or two. No big deal. Invite people of all ages and backgrounds. Diversity matters, not to help us check off a box of tokenisms, but to help us to be well rounded in our thinking, and especially to engage with people we would not engage with.

I understand why people want to break Jewish learning up by demographic and prioritize one form of education over another. But Judaism is taught through repetition and engagement. That means everyone needs to get involved. It takes a village to raise a child — it also takes a village to inspire an adult.

Sure, I see the value in a kids school and an adult program. But these should be smaller groups within the greater whole. If we do that, I think we’ll see amazing results.

*Sorry, the Talmud wasn’t particularly egalitarian here. I could have said his/her or degendered the quote, but it would have lost its point.