Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Re-thinking the "School Year"

In the past I've written about why I can't stand the term "Religious School" - because what we do in Jewish education is not described well by the word "religious" or by the term "school."  However, in one way we are exactly like a "school": we have a "school year."  I have caught myself using that term over and over again in recent weeks - "We are almost at the end of the school year."  "I am busy planning for next (school) year."  "We just opened registration for next (school) year."  As I sit with the notion of ending one year and starting another, I am struck by how stuck we are (and I am) in this mode of a "SCHOOL YEAR."

As a rabbi and mom, I wish there weren't a 'school year' for Jewish education.  I wish I could take my kids to synagogue every week for both study and prayer, in age-appropriate settings.  I look to my Mormon sister-in-law who goes to church with her family every Sunday - rain or shine, winter or spring, holiday or not.  From what I understand, the members of the church spend about an hour in communal prayer (with childcare / programming available for the very youngest kids who can't sit that long) and about an hour in learning / educational programs divided by age and gender (they have adult men's learning, adult women's learning, and kids programs for various age groups).  They join together for worship and study no matter which Sunday it is in the calendar year.  It could be a 'holiday weekend' (like Labor Day or Presidents Day weekend), a school vacation (winter break, spring break, summer break, etc), or just a regular old Sunday.  No matter what, the community is there to gather, pray, and learn.

I know this exists in the Jewish world.  In my congregation the best parallel is our Friday night worship, as we have Shabbat services every single Friday night of the year, and you will always find a critical mass of people together to worship.  The times vary, and the style of worship varies a bit, but there will always be a community there to gather and pray.  We have Shabbat morning study and prayer as well - our (adult) Torah study is pretty well attended, though our Shabbat morning worship does not draw a large number of congregants on a regular basis (it's mostly the friends and family of b'nai mitzvah students).

That being said, our Shabbat programming is not always feasible for families with young kids.  We do our best to offer kids programs on a regular basis (monthly, for example), but the piece that's missing for me is the whole-family, whole-community gathering for weekly study and prayer.  We arguably have that, but it takes place on Sunday mornings, is geared toward children ages 5-13, and is called "Religious School."  We have ~375 kids in our Religious School, along with about 50 teen TAs and ~25 adult teachers.  Kids participate in their educational programs, and parents frequently join in for a 30-min worship service (tefillah).  So we do have a weekly gathering for study and prayer for families with kids.  But it takes place during the "school year" and we take frequent breaks.  We never have Religious School on secular holiday weekends (like Presidents Day), during most school vacations, or for ~ 4 months during the summer.

Our Religious School schedule is determined by design - for logistical, practical, and financial reasons.  We know (or assume) that many of our families will not come on holiday weekends.  [We even went so far as to stop offering Religious School on the Sunday of Mothers Day because attendance was so low for many years in a row.  Mothers Day is now an official "Jewish holiday"!]  We know (or assume) that our families will not come during the summer due to vacations, summer camp, etc.  We also have a professionalized staff of teachers (unlike Mormon churches which rely on members to do the teaching, un-paid)... and our teachers need a break, time to plan their curricula, etc. (Side note: I, too, really enjoy and benefit from the down time that a break in the school year affords me!) Last but certainly not least, we only budget for a certain # of weeks of Religious School per fiscal year - somewhere in the range of 25-28 weeks of classes.  Again, that is due to the fact that we have a professionalized staff. 

However, given all these realities, I have found myself coming back to the question, "What if we did away with the notion of a 'school year'?"  After all, I assume that we do Jewish education during the 'school year' because we based our model after the public schooling model.  But we have already moved away from the public schooling model in many other ways.  And isn't Jewish learning a lifelong, year-long commitment?  Why do we abandon ship for four months every year?  What makes us so different from the Mormons, who commit to weekly worship and study as a family?  We are the "People of the Book," after all!  Could we consider a different model?  If we offered Jewish family learning on a weekly basis all year long (maybe on Shabbat?), would anyone but me be interested?  Has anyone in the world of Jewish education asked these questions before?   If so, where did the conversation lead?