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November 15, 1985 - Image 26

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1985-11-15

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Friday, November 15, 1985 THE DETROIT JEWISH NEWS

Who Cares About
Hebrew Schoo

Kids are bored, parents
are busy, teachers are
frustrated. And at
stake: the Jewish future

Craig Terkowitz

Special to The Jewish News

For some, religious school is a fun-filled experience .. .


f Mrs. Segal is typical, when
she drops Bobby off at religious
school at 4:15, it is likely that
neither parent nor son under-
stand what's at stake. The
mother undoubtedly believes she is
going through a Jewish social ritual,
preparing her son for a bar mitzvah,
and perhaps continuing a dying tra-
dition of Jewish education. The son
believes he is suffering through the
second school experience of the day
just' when he would rather be out
playing with his friends. As such, he
puts religious school in the same
mental box with piano lessons and
the other bothers of life.
Neither really understands that
what's at stake is the very identity
and continuity of the Jewish people.
Moreover, the schools, the parents
and the students will each blame
one another for the problems.
Jewish education has come a
long way from the original shtetl
cheder. Cheder literally means a
room, and starting in the 13th Cen-
tury, the local rabbi or melammed
did just that, converted a room in his
home for the teaching of Judaism.
With a threatening cane in one hand
and a Pentateuch in the other, the
rabbi endeavored to teach Bible to
the young Jew.
Emancipation of Europe's Jews
at the end of the 19th Century coin-
cided with the onset of modern polit-

ical Zionism So a desire to reform
the limited religious character of
chederim was overcome by emerging
Jewish nationalism and the revival
of Hebrew. At the turn of the cen-
tury, the so-called metukkan cheder,
or improved cheder appeared. The
moment for improved chederim,
dominated by such Zionists as
Chaim Weizmann, turned the tradi-
tional Judaic cheder into a Hebrew
school, still teaching Jewish
youngsters Bible and ritual, but now
adding conversational Hebrew, his-
tory and love of Israel as well.
American Jewish education
flourished in the 1920s with the in-
flux of idealistic, highly-trained
Zionist educators. And after World
War I, major Jewish communities
not only offered chedering, but
founded their own teacher training
institutions, such as Detroit's Mid-
rasha — College of Jewish Studies.
But American Jewish education
went through several disruptive
transitions during the decades that
followed. In most cities, the cheder
movement was taken over by con-
gregations. By the 1950s, the syna-
gogues themselves were relocating to
the suburbs in pursuit of their con-
gregants. Hebrew school, as it be-
came known, was held three to five
days per week after public school
and usually on Sunday, ostensibly
preparing youngsters for their bar or

bat mitzvah. This is the experience,
most parents remember, and prob-
ably believe is extant today.
But in the years since the 1950s,
two major trends began to change
everything. First, Jewish assimila-
tion accelerated. We can all re-
member witnessing ,the changes.
One Palm. Beach parent recalls .
growing up in the '50s in a very
religious home, where for several
weeks before each Pesach, the family
worked frenetically to clear all
chometz from the house. Last
Passover, this friend was shocked to
open his mother's cabinet and see a
shelf of non-Passover foods. "What's
that!" he asked. His mother an-
swered with obvious embarrassment,
"My chometz shelf."
A chometz shelf is actually not
as drastic a sign of assimilation as
the growing phenomenon of Jewish
children who do not even know what
Rosh Hashanah is. Two generations
removed from the identity-imposing
Holocaust-era, born of the American
born, today's children have no real
basis for a Jewish identity except
what they find at home. And that is
"Years ago, the child's Jewish
identity was taught at home," ex-
plained Bea Kriechman, principal of
the Adat Shalom branch of United
Hebrew Schools. "But today, when
we get them, they don't even know

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