A Sunday Kind Of Love
The popularity and changing face of Sunday school.
fifteen years ago, many Sunday
schools were something of a
baby-sitting service. Parents
dropped off their children, went to the
mall or grocery shopping, came back a
few hours later, and that was that.
These days, most synagogues are
providing family education that tar-
gets parents as well as their children.
At Temple Israel, for example, par-
ents are likely to find themselves right
inside the Sunday-school classroom,
learning and participating with their
children, maybe doing a rap about the
parshah (Torah portion) of the week
or showing a homemade video focus-
ing on Joseph and his amazing coat.
With 1,600 students in grades pre-
kindergarten through 12, Temple
Israel's Sunday school is the largest in
the United States. At its helm is Fran
Pearlman, who has served as Sunday
school director for almost 13 years
and is retiring after this school year.
Her goal: Make Jewish learning
fun, accessible, meaningful. For most
Jewish parents, day school is simply
not a first choice. This is partly
because Jewish day schools are expen-
sive, partly because public day schools
in Metro Detroit are generally top-
notch, partly because these families
want a kind of diversity not found in
a school with all Jewish students,
At the same time, Jewish families
— but something is very different.
"Today, the issue is on the agenda,
which wasn't the case then," Bubis
says. "More and more federations and
national organizations and national
foundations are concerned and are
In Palo Alto, Calif, one family has
agreed to pay the entire Jewish educa-
tion of any student who cannot afford
it. "There was nothing like that 15
years ago," Bubis says.
"There are more endowments," he
says. "People care and are really trying.
It's a heroic attempt."
More good news: Jewish families are
interested. Professor Bubis says that 20
percent of all Jewish school-age chil-
dren are in Jewish day schools. Until
want to be associated with the Jewish
community. This is particularly true
in the Midwest, which has a higher
rate of synagogue affiliation than
either of the coasts.
"Sunday school is part of that insti-
tutional connection that Jews make,"
The whole idea of Sunday school is
actually quite modern. "When my
grandparents immigrated to the
United States, there were no Sunday
schools," she says.
Children received all their Jewish
education through life at home. The
next generation created Sunday
schools and everything was left in the
hands of professionals. Amid much
whining, children woke up early and
went for a few hours to Sunday
school, and that was the extent of
their Jewish education.
At Temple Israel, Sunday school stills
means teaching children, but it also
includes parental education and family
education, Pearlman says. "These are
experiences that go way beyond the
formal definition of a school."
A good Sunday school curriculum
integrates parents, Pearlman says. It
means . family programming on Sunday
morning, monthly family services,
independent learning for parents and
creative programs that involve the
children, siblings and mom and dad.
One second-grade program at
Temple Israel invites families to create
any kind of project focusing on the
Torah portion of the week. So if you
think you're the next Eminem or P.
Diddy, do a rap. If you're more con-
ventional, you might opt for the pup-
pet show presentation. Or do some-
thing entirely new.
But it doesn't end there. The idea is
that families will then continue ar
home, "practicing, observing and cele-
brating what they learn," Pearlman says.
A few parents grumble at first.
They're afraid, or they're wary of
change. Or they insist, "I'm just too
busy for this kind of thing."
Then they try it. And they love it.
"We always get positive feedback
once they do it," Pearlman says.
The cost for Sunday school at
Temple Israel: an average of $500 a
year (fees vary based on grade), which
includes books. "And Temple is fortu-
nate to have some scholarships avail-
able as well as individual considera-
tion," Pearlman adds.
The returns on the investment,
now, the bulk of these students were
in Orthodox yeshivot, and this group
still accounts for most of the Jewish
day-school population. Yet great
growth in recent years came from
Reform and Conservative families.
Day schools have received increased
funding since 1988, as have youth
groups and Jewish camps, Bubis says.
Now, the not-so-good news: Even
with all the interest from the larger
Jewish community, and the greater
funding, there isn't "anywhere near the
amount of money" required to meet
the needs, Bubis says.
The greatest day-to-day expense for
Jewish families is Jewish day school.
And this, Bubis says, is a necessity if a
family considers a strong Jewish edu-
"You have to be clear of your goals,"
Parents who want their children to
have only a "Jewish identification"
may find what they're looking for by
supplementing their Jewish home life
with a youth group experience or sum-
"But if you want an educated Jewish
child, you have to think of day school
for at least 10 years," he says. That's
right: thousands upon thousands of
dollars, and no dropping out after ele-
Go broke trying to pay for your
child's day school. Spend a fortune on
a bar mitzvah parry. Beg and borrow so
you can take your family to Israel. All
Fran Pearlman with some ofTevle Israel's 1,600 Sunday school students
Pearlman says, are amazingly high.
"We want to provide this genera-
non with quality opportunities [in
their child's Sunday school class], not
just doing things like helping hand
our dessert, but really participating
and finding programs that are intel-
lectually satisfying," Pearlman says.
"Our goal is to create and to build
and to mold literate, practicing con-
gregational Jews," she adds. These will
be men and women "comfortable
with the liturgy" and comfortable
with their ability to find answers to
whatever they want to learn Jewishly.
"They'll have a strong connection
to the State of Israel and Jewish peo-
plehood," Pearlman says. "Just to say
`I'm Jewish' is an empty feeling.
"People need to understand what that
means, and what it means to create
Judaism throughout their lives. That's
what we try to give them in the small
windows of time that we have."
this means nothing, Professor Bubis
says, if Judaism isn't practiced at home.
"Home remains the key institution,"
he says. Tell your daughter it's impor-
tant to learn Hebrew but never use it
in your home, and what's the point?
Have your son taught about tzedakah,
but never actually give a penny your-
self, and it's literally money down the
drain. Have your daughter learn in
school about observing the Sabbath
but never bother to light candles on
Friday night, and what will she care
"Remember," Professor Bubis says,
"no matter where a child is learning, if
it isn't emphasized at home parents
might as well take their money and
throw it against the wall." -17.