Growing up as a Reform Jew, I never fully realized the implications of my religion until I was a few years removed from it. The majority of the kids in my hometown, Chappaqua, New York, are Reform Jews. It was the norm for kids to go to Hebrew School starting in elementary school up until seventh grade, when one becomes a bar/bat mitzvah. On mitzvah day, a Saturday service would typically be followed by a party at night. Mitzvah season, however, was defined not by the religious aspect of the day, but the party. Many Reform Temples, including the one in my hometown, do not teach young kids religion in an engaging or enjoyable manner. This leads to other factors motivating young Jewish kids to become a bar/bat mitzvah besides religion. After dropping Hebrew school in fifth grade, I have been able to better analyze what truly motivates kids to continue their Jewish education.
When kids start their Jewish education, they are not at an age where they can be fully intellectually engaged in what they are learning. In many Reform Temples, Judaism is taught in a way that is not appealing to children. Kids learn objective facts about Judaism, memorize prayers, learn the Hebrew alphabet and read stories of the Torah with little analysis or conversation. This creates a disconnect between the students and their religion. No kid is motivated to learn difficult material that, on the surface, isn’t fun or intriguing. This causes Hebrew school to become more of a burden than a powerful learning experience and prevents kids from connecting with their roots.
However, for kids who do go to Reform Jewish Temples, there’s one incentive that gives them the ability to push through the torture that is Hebrew School – the party. Being bar/bat mitzvah becomes more about having a night that belongs to you. Everyone at the party chants your name, all of your family and friends are there and everyone is talking about your big night the following Monday at school. Hebrew School is often not a place where Reform Jewish kids think they will obtain Jewish enlightenment. It is rather the route that must be taken to get to the party.
My decision to discontinue Hebrew School and not become a bat mitzvah had nothing to do with my dislike of the religion, but everything to do with the lack of love I had for it. Hebrew School became a nuisance for me. If I was learning under the correct system, perhaps my thought process as a fifth grader would be completely different.
More interactive material for students to engage their minds is necessary. Instead of memorizing Hebrew prayers without knowing what they translate to, kids should be given the platform to get creative. Stories, poems and art can be made about the people and topics discussed in the prayers. This way, the students can relate to and understand the people they are talking about in prayers. With a change in the education system, kids experiencing Reform Judaism can be granted the opportunity to truly admire and love their own culture and religion.