Stuart Schoenfeld’s (1987) essay “Folk Judaism, Elite Judaism and the Role of Bar Mitzvah in the Development of the Synagogue and Jewish School in America” recounts how, in the 1930s and 40s, rabbis and Jewish educators banded together to impose attendance requirements on families that wanted to celebrate their sons’ b’nei mitzvah in synagogues. Though this newly instituted requirement succeeded in increasing synagogue membership and religious school enrollment, it led to unintended and unfortunate consequences that affect us to this day—a high drop-out rate after bar/bat mitzvah, a reduction of Hebrew instruction to decoding from the Siddur, and proliferation of non-synagogue venues for the celebration of b’nei bat mitzvah. After summarizing Schoenfeld’s research and reviewing the undesirable consequences of the attendance requirement, I describe several alternative models of the religious school that have successfully communicated to parents and children that the goals of religious education are broader and deeper than bar/bat mitzvah preparation.
The Law of Unanticipated Consequences, first coined by sociologist Robert Merton (1936), is one of those observations that calls our attention to, and deepens our understanding of, phenomena we may have noticed, but not thought about very much. It states that things don’t always turn out the way we expect, particularly when we are trying to apply a relatively simple solution to a complex problem. It warns that the solution we propose might lead to results that we never imagined. These surprising outcomes might be welcome. For example, the scientists who formulated the birth control pill 50 years ago, predicted that it would limit unwanted pregnancies, curb worldwide population growth, and end global poverty, all of which it failed to do; they did not predict that it would enable women to marry later, thereby hastening their entry into professions.[i] Alternately, an action might have negative effects. For example, the laws of Prohibition, intended to curtail the alcohol consumption of Americans in the 1920s, had the unanticipated consequence of driving the production of alcohol underground, and consolidating the resources of the organized criminals who controlled its distribution.
Stuart Schoenfeld’s (1987) essay “Folk Judaism, Elite Judaism and the Role of Bar Mitzvah in the Development of the Synagogue and Jewish School in America” offers a striking example of the Law of Unanticipated Consequences as it applies to Jewish education. The article recounts how, in the 1930s and 40s, synagogues and central agencies of Jewish education banded together to impose attendance requirements on students whose families wanted to celebrate their b’nei mitzvah[ii] in a synagogue, thereby minimizing two trends that concerned them—the low rate of synagogue affiliation, and the correspondingly low rate of enrollment in synagogue schools. Though this mandate succeeded, in that it led to an increase in synagogue membership and school enrollment, it also had unintended and unfortunate consequences that affect us to this day. Schoenfeld’s article is worth revisiting for two reasons: it gives us a larger context through which we can understand a number of the problems plaguing religious schools today; and it can help us think more critically about the unintended consequences of purported solutions that Jewish educational institutions are undertaking today. After summarizing Schoenfeld’s research, and exploring the more negative consequences of the attendance requirements, I will describe some recent attempts to separate religious school from bar/bat mitzvah preparation, thereby minimizing these consequences.
The problem facing synagogues in the 1930s and 40s, Schoenfeld (1987) writes, was that “far fewer than one-half of American Jewish families were synagogue members.”
[O]verall, from the end of mass immigration until after World War II, far fewer than one-half of American Jewish families were synagogue members. Organized Jewish schools enrolled only a minority of school- aged children and many received tutoring only before their bar mitzvahs. (p. 71)
Realizing how important the bar mitzvah ceremony was to parents (the folk), educational leaders (the elite) who were interested in increasing the enrollment in Jewish schools joined forces to set minimum educational standards for bar mitzvah celebrations.
One way of strengthening synagogues and synagogue schools and enforcing a higher level of adherence to elite norms was to use the folk expectation that Jewish boys would have a bar mitzvah ceremony as a basis for pressuring otherwise reluctant North American Jews to become more involved with the synagogue. (Schoenfeld, 1987, p. 72)
Schoenfeld (1987) unearthed a collection of documents that attest to the concerted effort taken to impose these requirements. A 1937 editorial of The Reconstructionist “included this succinct statement of strategy and tactics”:
In order that these rites may not represent merely the attainment of certain ages, but also the accomplishment of certain minimum education, it would be necessary for the national organizations, such as the United Synagogue of America and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, to set up for their respective constituents standard requirements for bar mizvah(sic) and for Confirmation. (p. 72)
In a similar vein the Chicago Board of Jewish Education (BJE) mandated, in 1938, that all congregations affiliated with the BJE require all boys to have “a minimum of three years’ attendance at a daily Hebrew School of recognized standing, or evidence of the candidate’s fitness, to be determined by the Board of Jewish Education through examinations” (p. 72).
Typically, Schoenfeld (1987) writes, smaller Jewish communities had more success than larger ones in imposing these mandates.
Minimum requirements were more effective where they were jointly imposed by congregations acting as a cartel. Joint congregational action, usually through the local board of Jewish education, was taken to standardize minimum regulations in Cleveland (1942), Cincinnati (1944), Minneapolis (1947), Schenectady (1948), Indianapolis (1949) and Bridgeport (1950). (p. 74)
A 1950 survey undertaken by the American Association for Jewish Education (a national umbrella organization that was the precursor to JESNA) attempted to ascertain how many congregations and communities had succeeded in imposing these requirements. Schoenfeld (1987) summarizes the findings as follows:
Fifty-one (45.5%) reported no minimum educational requirements for bar mitzvah. The remainder indicated that at least one congregation in the community made such requirements. Of the 112 communities responding to the survey, 107 had Jewish populations of less than 100,000. In communities of this size, minimum requirements were imposed by synagogues representing all branches of Judaism. For the five communities of over 100,000, no information was available beyond the fact that at least one congregation in each of these communities had educational requirements. The most common requirement in place was three years’ attendance, but some congregations required less and a few congregations required more. . . . The number of communities in which bat mitzvahs were held was not given; where bat mitzvahs were held, the educational requirements were the same for girls as boys. (p. 74)
These strictures were remarkably successful:
[T]he pattern of Jewish education in North America was substantially different before and after minimum educational requirements became widespread. First, the percentage of enrolled school-aged children approximately doubled. From the period of mass migration until World War II, from 25 to 30% of Jewish children aged 5–14 were enrolled in Jewish education each year. A study of enrollment between 1948 and 1958 showed an increase of 131.2%, raising the percentage of children 5–14 receiving Jewish education to between 40 and 45%. In 1962, it was estimated that of Jewish children 5–17, 53% were enrolled in Jewish education. Second, the setting of Jewish education changed. While in the pre-war period congregational schools were common, a substantial percentage of students were enrolled in communally sponsored Talmud Torahs, tiny hedarim, secular Yiddish schools, or were privately tutored. By 1958, the congregational school had become dominant, accounting for 88.5% of total enrollments. Third, it appears that attendance expectations changed. A 1918 New York report found that more than half of the students “dropped out” of class without completing the year. A 1919 Chicago report estimated a drop-out rate of one-third. By the 1950s, with a bar mitzvah ceremony usually dependent on continuous enrollment for a number of years, the drop-out rate was much lower. (p. 77)
While data of this sort cannot demonstrate causality, and while a number of factors—including the Holocaust, the founding of the State of Israel, and increased social and economic mobility—might have accounted, in part, for the increased enrollment of Jewish children in synagogue schools, Schoenfeld doubts that these were the only reasons:
While there was undoubtedly much enthusiasm for synagogue-building and a heightened interest in Jewish education, it is easy to overestimate the degree to which all North American Jews took for granted that affiliation with an expensive synagogue and a minimum of three or more years of Jewish education. . . . Certain features of Jewish education, synagogue affiliation, and family life become more understandable if the imposition of minimum educational requirements for bar (and by extension bat) mitzvah is seen as the outcome of a process of tension, conflict and accommodation between “elite” and “ ‘folk’ ” interest groups within Judaism. (Schoenfeld, 1987, p. 77)
In extracting this “payment” from the folk, the elite seemed unaware of the Law of Unanticipated Consequences. They seemed indifferent to the fact that coercion is a far cry from intrinsic motivation. While the folk followed the rules set by the elite, they did not necessarily become more committed to either Judaism or to the synagogue.
Coerced enrollment in Jewish education . . . was rarely accompanied by a change in the home environment. Tension between what the school taught and what the family believed and practiced remained an institutionalized part of Jewish life, with many students having a school experience that has been referred to as “Siddur and yelling.” Jewish educators, however, clearly preferred to have students under these circumstances than not to have them at all.
Instead of being a ceremony acknowledging full participation of the adolescent in sacred rituals, bar mitzvah appears to have become a ritual of discontinuity, the last time the boy was obligated to present himself as a participant in his father’s world. It became a ritual in which traditional commitments were affirmed and then ignored. (Schoenfeld, p. 69)
Had the elites of the 1930s and 40s considered all of the potential consequences of this attempt to mandate attendance, they might have thought twice. From this period on, the supplementary school became inextricably linked with bar/bat mitzvah preparation.
Unintended and Unwelcome Consequences of Linking Bar Mitzvah Celebrations to Jewish Schooling
The notion that the bar/bat mitzvah ceremony represents the culmination of religious school makes perfect sense if one accepts the conventional American notion that the purpose of schooling is to accumulate credits toward a diploma. That the folk would perceive the bar/bat mitzvah ceremony as the equivalent of the high school graduation is understandable.
Unfortunately, the elite too often succumb to this way of thinking, or at least this way of talking. When promoting their synagogue’s school, rabbis speak with pride of the proficiency with which their students lead prayers and/or chant Torah at their b’nei mitzvah. Educators warn parents that the consequence of excessive absences might be that their child will not be sufficiently prepared for the ceremony, and might need extra tutoring at the parents’ expense. Websites and synagogue brochures note prominently the number of years students must be enrolled in the school in order to celebrate their b’nei mitzvah at the age of 13. While synagogue professionals certainly have many other goals in mind for a child’s Jewish education, statements such as these reinforce the notion that the ultimate goal is bar/bat mitzvah preparation.
A 2007 AVI CHAI report summarized the problem in the following way:
Many congregations continue to tie synagogue education to the bar/bat mitzvah celebration, thinking this gives them leverage with families. It probably does, but the consequence is a distortion of Jewish education, which becomes focused on a one-time performance, rather than enculturation to a “way of life.” It also reduces Jewish education to a coercive experience that families must endure—i.e., they are instructed to attend a set number of religious services over the course of the year prior to the bar/bat mitzvah. The linkage also places a strong emphasis on the acquisition of skills needed at the event, rather than on the breadth of education necessary to live as a Jew. (Wertheimer, 2007, p. 6)
The most obvious unintended consequence of this way of thinking is the precipitous drop in enrollment in the year after bar/bat mitzvah. But two other consequences are worth noting—a distortion of the Hebrew curriculum, and the proliferation of independent bar/bat mitzvah venues.
Post-B’nei Mitzvah Dropouts
The linkage of Jewish education to bar/bat mitzvah preparation leads students and their families to assume that there is no reason to continue their schooling after the big day. Stories abound of seventh-grade classes in which students stop coming immediately after celebrating their bar or bat mitzvah, leaving only the few who will not turn 13 until the eighth grade. Schools have responded to this attrition with a variety of strategies, most of them unsuccessful. Early on, the Reform Movement attempted to abolish the bar mitzvah ceremony entirely, replacing it with Confirmation in high school. But this trend never took hold; a 1960 survey found that 96% of Reform synagogues had reintroduced the bar mitzvah ceremony (Meyer, 1988, p. 374; Meyer & Plaut, 2001, pp. 104–106). Some congregations ask their bar/bat mitzvah candidates to sign a pledge stating that they will remain in the religious school through Confirmation; but, of course, no significant consequences can be imposed on students who do not honor the pledge.
Some congregations have been able to retain their middle school and high school students by offering attractive programs that match adolescent needs and interests; one of these will be discussed below. But a recent census of supplementary schools shows just how prevalent this problem is: nationally, drop-out rates range from 35% in 8th grade and 55% by 9th grade, to 80–85% by 11th and 12th grades (Wertheimer, 2008, p. 10).
The consequences for synagogue life are also sobering. When parents associate synagogue membership with the celebration of b’nei mitzvah, they see no need to retain their membership in subsequent years. Thus, surveys of membership in Reform congregations consistently find that the distribution of families with children peaks when the youngest child reaches the age of 13.[iii]
The Degradation of Hebrew Education
A second unintended consequence of linking Jewish schooling to bar/bat mitzvah preparation has been the gradual narrowing of the Hebrew curriculum to the decoding of a set of prayers. This change did not happen overnight. In the 1930s through the 1960s, the rebirth of the State of Israel led to a keen interest in Modern Hebrew among teachers and students alike. But as the decades passed, the State of Israel came to be taken for granted, Israelis became increasingly conversant in English, and the belief that studying Hebrew was a way of supporting the State appeared increasingly dubious.
Throughout the 20th century, the interest of Americans in foreign languages continued to wane. With the exception of immigrant families, children in the United States are rarely exposed to a second language before they reach high school. At the same time, the most recent research on language acquisition challenges the assumption that foreign languages can be taught effectively through textbooks. In a recent article in the Journal of Jewish Education, Lifsa Schachter (2010) summarizes the findings of decades of brain-research on reading, and applies the lessons of this research to the teaching of Hebrew.
One of the most important findings from the research on reading, which maps areas of the brain that are activated when identifying print symbols, is the extent of the speaking-reading continuum. Reading begins as an oral process. . . . Words are stored in the brain as sounds and not as print images. (p. 77)
The current consensus among foreign language specialists, Schachter (2010) notes, is that reading should not be introduced until students are exposed to a language orally, and have a base vocabulary. This is antithetical to the current practice of teaching the decoding of words with which the students are barely familiar, that express concepts that are highly abstract.
In the supplementary school children typically spend two to three years learning the alphabet. From third to sixth grade they review the letters and vowel signs, practice reading parts of words, non-words, and clusters of words, often without relation to regular word patterns and sequences. They may even practice letter combinations that cannot occur in Hebrew words. They also practice reciting specific prayers and are taught a limited vocabulary. Despite all the time spent at these tasks, few can apply decoding skills with any fluency to untaught material.
After many years of study, students generally remain hesitant and unsure when sounding out new material. It is a rare learner who reaches a level of automaticity and fluency that allows for decoding new material with the ease characteristic of good decoders. Most children require extensive tutoring in decoding skills as part of bar mitzvah and bat mitzvah preparations. (p. 79)
Students who are exceptionally motivated can overcome all of these barriers, Schachter (2010) notes, citing Refuseniks in the Former Soviet Union as an example:
I witnessed the power of motivation when I visited an underground Jewish Sunday School in Moscow in the late 1980s. Despite untrained teachers and inadequate materials, these students, who came together only once a week for several hours, reached levels of achievement that would be the envy of all our institutions
What these students had and our students frequently lack is a goal of ultimate meaning. Learning Hebrew for the sake of the bar mitzvah and bat mitzvah ceremonies is not sufficiently motivating. It is too remote for most students until a few months prior to the event, and both the students and their parents know that there can be last minute tutoring so that the child will in any event be able to perform adequately for the ceremony. (pp. 87–88)
Linking Jewish schooling to bar/bat mitzvah preparation was ultimately self-defeating. The emphasis on performance at the prayer service reduced the Hebrew curriculum to the most difficult aspect of the language, diminishing most students’ chances of success, and wasting many hours of instruction.
The Do-It-Yourself Bar/Bat Mitzvah
With so many of the stakeholders reinforcing (either explicitly or implicitly) the notion that the crowning achievement of Jewish education is leading prayers and reading Torah at one’s bar/bat mitzvah ceremony, the logical next step was to bypass the synagogue altogether. Children of middle-school age could be trained to recite prayers and read Torah within a year, and their parents could then hold a private ceremony at their home or country club. While synagogues have often been accused of being “bar mitzvah mills,” it took a surprisingly long time for these true bar mitzvah mills to proliferate.
B’nai Horin (whose name means Children of Freedom) is a Jewish Renewal congregation located in Los Angeles. It offers a year-long bar/bat mitzvah preparation class that is open to any 12-year-old. The program includes Sunday classes and Hebrew tutoring, whose cost ranges from $4,500 to $7,000, depending upon the amount of tutoring required.[iv] Costs for the ceremony itself range from $1,000 to $2,000. Membership in the congregation (which costs only $360 per year) is encouraged, but not required.
While bar/bat mitzvah programs like the one at B’nai Horin have existed for many years, with parents being referred through word of mouth, more recent programs owe their popularity to the Internet. Googling “bar mitzvah vacations,” one can find (in addition to the tours of Israel that presumably complement the synagogue-based bar/bat mitzvah) a variety “unique,” “easy,” and “more affordable” ways to celebrate one’s child’s bar/bat mitzvah, including: Skype-based tutoring with a cantor;[v] cruises that include a day spent marking the ceremony at a “historic” synagogue;[vi] and a variety of other “destination” bar mitzvahs.
[i] May, E. (2010, April 25). Promises the pill could never keep. New York Times, p. WK13., http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/25/opinion/25may.html?scp=2&sq=Elaine%20May&st=cse
[ii] In those years boys comprised the large majority of b’nei mitzvah celebrants. Though Mordecai Kaplan introduced the bat mitzvah ceremony for his daughter Judith in 1922, it took a long time for this custom to gain acceptance in both the Reform and Conservative movements (Stein, 2001).
[iii] In the Conservative Movement there is also a drop in membership after the bar/bat mitzvah of the youngest child, but it is not as drastic as it is in the Reform Movement (26% in the Conservative Movement, as opposed to well over 35% in the Reform Movement; http://www.huc.edu/faculty/faculty/pubs/StevenCohen/MembersAndMotives.pdf, p. 5). I would like to thank Stuart Schoenfeld for calling this paper to my attention.