This past Sunday my congregation ran a fabulous program for our younger Hebrew school students. Together with their parents and grandparents they gathered in our auditorium and spent the better part of 3 hours building a scale model of Jerusalem from Lego. Yes, you read that correctly – the little multi-colored plastic building blocks that children love to play with. Families worked in teams, building individual buildings, or the walls and gates of the Old City. The project was oriented by a large map of the city as it looked in ancient times, with some modern touches added. It was magical to watch Jerusalem come together before our very eyes as each building found its place on the map. When the city was together the project leader gave a ‘tour’ of Jerusalem, with literally hundreds of parents, grandparents, and children surrounding the now three dimensional map.
The energy in the room was palpable. Compliments were flying left and right. What a terrific event! What a fantastic program! This is what a shul is all about! And I have no doubt the students emerged from the experience with a deeper knowledge of and connection to Jerusalem. This is not your father’s Hebrew school! But it certainly does reflect a growing trend in after school Jewish education. There is an increased focus on ‘experiential’ learning, and a deceased emphasis on traditional classroom learning. Doing is in – building, cooking, hiking, rope climbing, canoeing, arts and crafts. Sitting in a class room? Not so much.
On the one hand, I get it. We are in a competitive market place. Mostly our competition is fun. Soccer and lacrosse. Dance. Music lessons. So we feel a need to keep up, and to put out a ‘product’ that fits in well with people’s expectations. On the other hand, I confess I am a bit worried. I still want the students in my congregation’s Hebrew School to know how to read Hebrew (at least fairly well), to be able to participate in a service, to know the fundamental stories from the Hebrew Bible, and to understand how the Jewish calendar works. Experiential learning can help students with some of that, and maybe even all of it. But at a certain point the old classroom model has to come in to play. How will kids learn the language? Acquire the davening skills? Know the history of the Jewish people?
One of the great challenges for the Jewish community today is finding the right balance in the equation. Make it fun, experiential, doing oriented, but don’t leave out the hard work of learning a language, of the study of sacred texts – as texts! Or the – dare I say it? – memorization of certain key prayers! We need to give our young people more than just good feelings about Judaism and memories of fun activities with their friends. We need to give them knowledge that they can use to live meaningful, engaged, and connected Jewish lives. Some of that will come from the experiences we craft for them. But some of it will come the old fashioned way. After all, they call us the People of the Book, not the People of the iPad.