Jewish Education is Not Alright

By: Racheli Jian  |  May 26, 2024

By Racheli Jian, Senior Arts and Culture Editor and Layout Editor

Nothing is more heartbreaking than the reaction I get when I tell people I’m a Jewish education major. Often I hear, “Oh wow. Why?” or “I could never be around kids all day.” But the most gut-wrenching response I get is definitely, “A teacher? Aren’t you too smart for that?” 

This reaction, although only voiced by few, reflects a belief of many: that teachers don’t need to be intelligent. While it is a sad idea, it’s anything but new. George Bernard Shaw famously criticized teachers’ abilities in his quote, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” This lowering of the bar and lack of respect for education as a profession has many negative repercussions, more than people think.

Most YU students come from a yeshiva day school background. While a dual curriculum is nothing new or shocking for students, neither is the way we treat the classes, especially the Judaics. Countless times, I’ve heard people complain that the Judaic classes shouldn’t be graded, but rather, they should be lishmah, learning for its own sake. While I would love to be less stressed, this reflects a deficit that follows Jewish education everywhere: sometime in-between Siddur parties and Rambans, we stopped caring. I remember in high school our Jewish classes were “just a Judaic.” But no one would dare say that biology was “just a science” or that a higher-level class was “just honors.”

Jewish education has been put on the back burner, and I believe it has to do with the evolution of students’ learning. While The Little Midrash Says might be enough for a first grader, as students get older, they ask different questions. A student should not learn Megillat Esther the same way for 12 years, yet that is what happens, and no one bats an eye. Nobody points out that little is done to keep students’ learning trajectories in an upward motion, reinforcing the idea that teachers aren’t smart or deep thinkers. The curriculum given to teachers by their institutions doesn’t help themselves or the students. It hinders the teacher’s ability to challenge themselves and their students and leaves students without an appreciation for Torah beyond the elementary level.

Certain principles in preschool and elementary school Judaic studies can and should follow a student throughout their learning experience, but it must evolve with them. Uncle Moishy may have been a staple in helping kids understand that “Hashem is everywhere,” but when middle schoolers start to question this, there is no academic infrastructure to help them. Our religion encourages questioning, but if we do not at least try to help students find answers, they will be lost. 

A Tanach class shouldn’t just be a history class or story time. Even a kindergarten curriculum knows that students need to talk about G-d. Whether learning about Jewish history through the holidays or the parsha, preschoolers constantly talk about Hashem. While many Judaics fail to evolve with the students as they grow older, on the other hand, in an attempt to make Judaics more academic, as time goes on there is less focus on Hashem and more focus on the history or literary techniques in Tanach. While these are important and beautiful, we seem to forget who is the Author of the “literature” we appreciate.

When teachers focus mainly on surface-level components of Judaics, they neglect to address theological questions that most students ask at one point or another. It is imperative to every Jewish educator, parent, student, and person that we aren’t afraid to tackle a middle schooler’s or high schooler’s questions. There needs to be a deeper dive into having a relationship with Hashem and what that means as time goes on. The amazing thing is that we have an untapped resource to answer students’ questions: our Torah

It is common knowledge that there are shivim panim latorah; our Torah has many different facets. While the version of it that is a story is perfect for preschoolers, there are 69 other ways to look at it. Stereotypically, teachers who “can’t do,” wouldn’t bother looking further. Yet, most teachers understand that Torah has endless facets that are each meant to be looked at differently for each stage of a person’s life. Therefore, the question remains: If our Torah evolves to meet the different questions of a Jew, why are we telling our curriculum or our students not to?

If we can show students that what they learn is more than just a story or history, but rather, the essence of our relationship with Hashem, then classes will become much more than “just a Judaic.”