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Succeeding at Jewish Education: How One Synagogue Made It Work

by Joseph Reimer

Bibliographic information

TitleSucceeding at Jewish Education: How One Synagogue Made It Work
AuthorJoseph Reimer
PublisherVarda Books
Publication Date2001
SubjectGeneral Jewish-Interest Literature


In an era of social mobility, changing family life, and increasing pressures on children's time it becomes harder than ever for parents to teach their children about their Jewish heritage, and they turn to synagogues for help. But are synagogues meeting that educational challenge?

Joseph Reimer uses his experience and talent as an ethnographer to bring to life the drama of one synagogue’s struggle to meet this challenge and make Jewish education work. Reimer spent more than two years as an observer within the synagogue, studying the afternoon religious education programs for children, families, and adults.

As a result of his classroom observations, and his conversations with rabbis, teachers, and parents, Reimer comes away with important insights into what makes Jewish education succeed.

About the Author 

Joseph Reimer ---

Joseph Reimer is associate professor and former director of the Hornstein Program in Jewish Communal Service at Brandeis University. He has focused his research interests on the areas of the synagogue as a context for Jewish education, Jewish family education and the development of Jewish identity. Recently he has begun work on the conceptual basis for informal Jewish education. His book Succeeding at Jewish Education: How One Synagogue Made it Work won the 1997 National Jewish Book Award.

Dr. Reimer has served on the staff of the Commission on Jewish Education in North America and on the boards of the Covenant Foundation, the Rashi School and the New Jewish High School. He currently chairs the education policy committee for Birthright Israel, North America. He has lectured on Jewish life throughout North America and Israel and especially enjoys participating in professional development opportunities for educators in schools and informal settings. He lives in Brookline, Massachusetts with his wife Gail Twersky Reimer and their daughters Tamara and Ziva.



Chapter 1: The Educating Synagogue

Chapter 2: Educating the Adults

Chapter 3: The Temple Akiba School

Chapter 4: A Close Look at Classroom Learning

Chapter 5: The “Mandatory Hebrew” Controversy

Chapter 6: Synagogue Drama and Education

Selected Bibliography


A Close Look at Classroom Learning

After examining the philosophy of education that guides the work of the Temple Akiba educators and the structure that organizes their teaching within the school, we turn in this chapter to the next question: What makes it challenging for teachers to teach and students to learn in the context of this synagogue school?

An assumption underlies this second question, and it arises from the previous literature on supplementary Jewish education. It is that presenting the traditions of Judaism to modern American Jews—children or adults— is a culturally complex task, for there is no easy match between the basic tenets of traditional Judaism and the worldview of most American Jews.

In turning to consider the detailed interactions among teachers and students in the classes of this school, I have found this assumption helpful in organizing the observations. In looking at these classes, I have asked myself: How do the teachers and students handle the dissonance that arises between their modern—and, I must add, secular— perspectives on the world and the conceptual frameworks that characterize traditional religious texts and practices? In the classroom it is usually the teachers who take on the role of presenting the traditional text or practice and the students who react from the modernist perspective. But my primary interest has been in seeing how they work together to make possible a lively dialogue between tradition and modernity. For what has most fascinated me in observing these classroom interactions is how, for all they protest against traditional concepts, many of the students are invested in the dialogue and keep the conversation going among themselves and with their teachers.

In this chapter, the detailed observations of the learning and teaching that takes place in the classrooms will focus on the upper grades of the school and on the centerpiece of the Temple Akiba curriculum: the study of the biblical text.

Virtually all synagogue schools teach the Torah, but not many place the central emphasis that this school does on the close study of the text. The students begin studying the Hebrew Bible from the early grades. At first they learn the stories, then parts of the Bible through an edited edition; only in seventh grade do they open an actual Bible and begin their “face-to-face” encounter with the text.

Students at Temple Akiba acquire the competencies for engaging in close textual study in the religious school and Hebrew program where, as we have seen, much of the learning is a preparation for the encounter with the biblical text. The culminating point for the religious school curriculum are the classes that the rabbis teach in seventh and eighth grades that involve a close reading of the biblical text. Rabbi Davidman teaches Genesis to the seventhgraders and Rabbi Abeles teaches Exodus to the eighthgraders.

In an interview, Rabbi Davidman explained that while rabbis in many other congregations prefer to teach the students only during their high school years, he has chosen to begin teaching them during seventh grade as a way of helping to influence their choice to continue studying after their Bar or Bat Mitzvah. Perhaps he also wants the first connection between rabbi and child not to be in the very public encounter of the Bar Mitzvah ceremony, but in the more everyday context of the classroom. Significantly, he and Rabbi Abeles have chosen studying the biblical text as the basis for their first connection to these young adolescents.

Given this emphasis in the curriculum, it is appropriate to ask, What is the nature of text study in the school? I observed classes of both rabbis teaching in the religious school as well as several seventh-grade Bible classes in the Hebrew program. While no one class is representative, I have chosen to review two in detail: Rabbi Abeles teaching Exodus to the eighth-graders and Barbara Zimmerman, a Hebrew teacher, teaching Jonah to the seventh grade. These classes are illustrative of the styles of teaching found in the upper grades, the kinds of learning that the older students engage in, and the tensions that arise in these classes when these contemporary students and teachers join together in trying to make sense of traditional texts.

In presenting these classes, I am following the lead of Samuel Heilman, who, in his ethnographies of Jewish study, highlights two aspects of the dynamics that are relevant here. First, these classes are occasions for the public expression and performance of students’ and teachers’ identities as Jews. Neither students nor teachers are “simply” learning the text; rather they are approaching this group learning as an opportunity to give voice to their own understandings of themselves and others as Jews. Second, in so approaching the text, the students experience some cultural and cognitive dissonance between their view of themselves as modern Americans and what the text in its narrative expresses as a Jewish worldview. Together the teachers and students find themselves dealing with the dissonance and trying to cope with the realization that there is no easy synchrony between tradition and modernity.

Teaching Exodus

Rabbi Rachel Abeles teaches the eighth grade during the third and last period on Sunday. This particular class took place on the same Sunday morning after Passover as Paula’s class on Israel.

Rachel begins the class by asking the four girls and five boys assembled about their Passover seders. Tamar reports that at her family seder they used “old, traditional haggadahs,” but the “women outnumbered the men” so the seder was “real feminist.” Daniel tells of an “old friend of the family” who came to their seder, a “sixty-four-yearold Polish Jew, survivor of the [concentration] camps” who was “not as traditional as you’d think.”

In these reports one already hears the theme of tradition and modernity. The haggadot were traditional and old, but the seder was feminist and hence modern. The friend of the family was from the old world of Poland, but not as traditional in his religious observance as you’d think. The students seem to be balancing the categories of “old” and “new” in their attempts to describe their Jewish experience.

Turning to Exodus, Rachel asks Daniel to report on a conversation he had with his father after the last class about “his disillusionment with the God in Exodus.” Daniel reports:

Two weeks ago we read in Exodus that God tells Moses to tell Pharaoh to let the Jews go. But God said, “I’ll harden his heart.” God set Pharaoh up. God is a murderer too because He killed all the Egyptian firstborn.
Daniel is referring to the images in Exodus of God’s hardening Pharaoh’s heart so that even after several plagues Pharaoh does not set the people of Israel free from their bondage. Daniel sees hardening Pharaoh’s heart as God’s setting Pharaoh up to be the heartless opponent who God then has to knock down with the remainder of the plagues, including the killing of all the firstborn in Egypt. Daniel calls God a murderer for having “killed all the Egyptian firstborn.”

Although Daniel’s calling God a murderer might have taken her aback, Rachel responds calmly by asking if the killing of the firstborn Egyptians mirrors anything earlier in the biblical story. Jenny responds:

It’s an act of revenge, an eye for an eye. Pharaoh said to kill all the male firstborn [of the Israelites] and God then killed all the [Egyptian] firstborn. It’s not right. It should be “turn the other cheek.”

This is said with great adolescent excitement. With equal force Tamar rises to the defense. “Two hundred years of slavery, the loss of dignity, and the killing of their babies are much more than the [killing of] the firstborn.” But Joshua is not convinced:

Don’t confuse God with the king. God is supposed to be righteous. You can’t compare God to Pharaoh. God did it to prove that He is something. They [the Israelites] had lost their faith.

Joshua and the others are making good use of the detail of the narrative in developing their contrasting arguments, but Joshua is also developing an unusual reading of the story: God is acting in Egypt to restore the faith the Israelites had lost.

Daniel adds to their case against the God of Exodus.

It was not only the young of the [Egyptian] firstborn who were killed, but the old ones too. It must have been 10 percent of the Egyptian population.

He is accurately reading the text: in the plague against the Egyptian firstborn, God killed the firstborn males of all ages. Daniel is arguing that therefore this act is not comparable to Pharaoh’s order to kill the Israelite male infants. While Tamar cannot quite rebut these points, she is not about to give up. “You’re only human too. How can you see the reasons for this? You can’t say it was set up. Maybe it was predestined and not in God’s control.” Tamar cannot rationalize God’s actions, but can point out to His accusers that they too have only limited vision and cannot know why God acts as He does.

The students are delivering their statements in rapid succession and in highly excited tones. As one speaks, the second raises her hand and the third is commenting in stage whispers on why the logic of the other’s statement is faulty. The quality of their arguments is impressive, but there is the possibility that this debate could whirl out of control.

Rachel, who has been mostly witnessing their debate, now steps in to introduce what she had planned for this week: a study of the question, “What was the real reason that God wanted to free the Israelites from Egypt?” The vocal students want to continue their debate, but Rachel is quite insistent that it end. She divides all the students— five of whom have not yet participated in the lesson—into four small groups and gives them the assignment of looking up a printed list of verses from the first twelve chapters of Exodus that will be the basis for their answering the question she has posed.

As the students spend the next ten minutes reviewing the texts and preparing their responses, I ponder Rachel’s role in what has taken place. She set the stage for the debate by asking Daniel to recall his thoughts from the previous class. She seemed to be building a bridge from the last session to the present, but she also must have realized that his rather heretical position would elicit strong reaction. Tamar is the one to take up the defense, but Rachel chooses not to take sides. She could have introduced a more traditional reading of God’s actions, but I recall from observing her in other contexts that her teaching style is to elicit free expression of opinion and not come on as the defender of the faith.

Rachel is walking around helping the groups of students. She stresses in a more didactic tone that they will need to base their statements on direct citations from the Bible. “In research papers you need footnotes. In Torah you need citations as prooftexts.” The students are following her directive in their groups. The ones who were active in the debate are active now. The others are participating in the small groups but are not the leaders. Daniel and his partner are the first to report:

In Exodus, chapter 2, verse 25 it says: “God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them.” God focused on the Israelites and called them “My firstborn son” (4:22). God makes a distinction between them and the Egyptians. Look at chapter 9:1–7. It’s making a distinction. They [the Israelities] are different and have to be judged separately.

Rachel asks the class if they understand the report. It is not clear that they do, as the argument is wrapped in verses and does not seem to answer the question posed. Joshua, in a teasing voice, asks his friend, “Where is the eye-opener?” Daniel admits there is no eye-opener, and he and his partner sit down.

Jenny and her partner are next:

God was afraid that if He left the Israelites in Egypt any longer they would convert and assimilate into Egypt. He could not allow that. Look at Exodus 5:19–33, which says that the people say that we’ve lost trust in God. It’s much easier to follow Pharaoh’s gods because God just makes trouble.

Time is now running out. Rachel quickly asks Joshua and his partners to report. Joshua says, “God has a bond to these people. Everyone has a bond with God, but their bond is the strongest. But if God has the strongest bond to them, why does He need to do all this killing?”

As that hardly answers the question posed, Rachel asks: “What is the real reason that God took them out?” Joshua responds: “So they wouldn’t lose faith.” Rachel hurriedly calls on Tamar and her partner, but before they can begin, the bell rings. As if on cue, the debate resumes.

Daniel: The reason God needs to go through all this is that there hasn’t been a lot of proof for thousands of years of the existence of God. So we are atheists and they too didn’t believe.
Joshua: If we were in another culture for a long time, we too wouldn’t be Jewish any longer.
Jenny: If times are good like now, God doesn’t appear. But in times of trouble He does.

These last speeches are delivered in rapid succession before anyone has yet moved. Having had the last word, the three get up and leave with the others. As Rachel is gathering her materials, I remark that was quite an interactive group. She responds that she cannot teach a frontal lesson in this class because they would struggle with her for control. “They have to be teaching each other for this class to work.” I ask about the students who did not actively participate, and Rachel says they “take turns being in and out” and “only one boy is consistently out.”

As we walk down the hall, Rachel takes pride in “insisting upon an intellectual standard” in having the students base their reasoning on citations from the text of Exodus. She notes that they were able to cite chapter and verse. I agree: they consistently demonstrated an awareness of the detail of the biblical text. Yet, the lesson as presented by Rachel did not hold together, and the question she posed did not receive an adequate response.

Rachel, like Paula, chose an interactive format and then ran out of time before being able to bring the lesson to its completion. In a once-a-week, forty-five-minute period it is hard to balance the counterdemands of participation and covering the material, and the bell caught Rachel short. Her choice to bridge back to the past lesson and to the students’ experience of Passover did not leave very much time for the lesson of the day. There was not the time to use the verses cited to develop possible answers to the question posed.

What this eighth-grade class has in abundance is intellectual engagement. The active eighth-graders place themselves in the biblical story and use the class discussion as a way of expressing and performing their own experiences as Jews in our culture. As Heilman points out, any serious group study of a traditional text involves some mixture of attempting to read the text in its own terms and interpreting the text in light of the readers’ contemporary experience. As these readers are early adolescents, it is not surprising that they lean more heavily to contemporizing than to working through the text in its own terms. In Piaget’s terms they are intoxicated with their newly developing capacities to play with ideas on a more abstract level. Yet, they do give the text its due by attending to its detail.


It is time for American Jews to put their love-hate relationship with Jewish education and the old paradigm that sustained it into the past.... At Temple Akiba, this is happening.... And if it can happen there, it can happen elsewhere. Thanks to Joe Reimer we can now understand far better not only what can happen, but how and why, in the drama of contemporary Jewish education.

- Jonathan Woocher, in his foreword to Succeeding at

Jewish Education

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