Almost 20 years ago, I was at a conference of Hillel leaders, where I met a Reform rabbi from a big Midwestern university. Dinner was ending, and most of the adults and kids in the room began a raucous rendition of Birkat Hamazon, the Hebrew “grace after meals.” Birkat, or “bentsching,” is no mere “rub-a-dub-dub — thanks for the grub.” It’s a 2,000-word, all-Hebrew oratorio about gratitude, sustenance, Messiah, history, the holidays, charity, exile, return, and peace-making — basically, the Jewish greatest hits. Nearly all of it can be sung or chanted, often (if you’re at a school, camp, or conference of Hillel leaders) very loudly, with lots of time-honored shtick — table-banging, harmonizing, call-and-response, and the occasional “hey!” and “chirry-bim-bom.”
“This is where I feel for kids who grew up in our movement,” said the rabbi. “Most of them don’t learn the bentsching, and they just sit sheepishly until it’s over.”
I knew what he meant. Things might have changed since I was a kid, but my own Reform synagogue didn’t teach us birkat. When years later I first started to become more observant and was invited to Shabbat meals, I sat dumb through the bentsching. My wife, who spent a few summers working at Camp Ramah, patiently taught me the words and melodies. I still fake it through most Israeli folk songs, and plod my way through the Amida (that would be, ahem, what even Wikipedia calls “the central prayer of the Jewish liturgy”). But damn if I can’t sing a good birkat.
Jewish schools and synagogues spend a lot of time discussing what to teach the kids, especially if they are supplementary schools and time is limited. Most Hebrew schools teach the basics and probably more about the holidays, the big plot points from the Five Books of Moses, and the essential Jewish values, like tzedaka, gemilut hasadim (acts of loving-kindness), and, at least in recent years, tikun olam, or social justice.
Consensus breaks down when it comes to “skills.” I grew up in an era when “Hebrew school” meant we were taught the Hebrew alphabet, and thus were able to “read” a language we couldn’t understand. Schools and curricula have gotten much better at introducing conversational Hebrew, although with limited hours, there’s only so much a kid can learn. When it comes to liturgy, it depends on the denomination. Reform synagogues don’t teach many of the traditionalist prayers that worshipers are expected to recite in Conservative and Orthodox congregations. Whether that makes Conservative schools more rigorous or Reform schools more innovative I’ll leave for others to debate. But for the most part, Conservative kids can enter an Orthodox synagogue and know what’s going on, while a Reform kid would be lost in a Conservative or Orthodox service.
None of this, I grant you, gets to the “Why?” of Jewish education. No one wants to raise an expert Jewish “davener” who doesn’t understand the first thing about tzedaka or hesed. We want our kids to be literate, but we also want them to be mentschen, and experience their Jewish educations in ways that make them feel positive about Judaism and actually want to show up. Many schools have dropped rote learning in favor of “electives” that celebrate Jewish values through hands-on activities and experiences.
But what if the pendulum swings too far, and kids come out feeling good about Hebrew school but without the skills to join or lead a Jewish community — from the smallest havura to the largest congregation? I know how alienating it was to be invited to a meal or simha and feel like a stranger.
My friend Norman Levin, who has worked as executive director at both Conservative and Reform synagogues, told a story the other day about a Reform temple that taught its kids the full birkat. When asked why they bother, since most of the kids wouldn’t bentsch at home, the teacher explained: “Because birkat is the Jewish handshake.”
When it comes to Jewish education, I don’t have all the answers, and not even most of the questions. Jewish education is always going to be a compromise between tradition and innovation, “skills” and “values,” literacy and creativity. That doesn’t even include the accommodations that should be made to make the classrooms more inclusive for kids with special needs.
But here’s one thing I would do: close the bentsching gap. Teach the kids the words, the melody, and the shtick. Bentsching is both a concrete example and symbol of the kinds of “handshakes” that bring Jews together in community. Or you can probably come up with your own list of the Top Five Things Every Jew Needs to Know How to Do With Other Jews. It’s literacy in the service of community.
In 1992, on a trip to Rio, I shared a Friday night meal with some Brazilian Jews in the penthouse apartment of a world-famous jeweler. (Why am I telling you? Hell, I’m telling everybody.) Most of the evening had been an awkward Babel of bad Hebrew and worse Portuguese. And then they passed out the bentschers. Soon everyone was singing, and clapping, and harmonizing. For the first time that night, we Jews were literally on the same page.