Home is Where The Hebrew School Is
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Home is Where The Hebrew School Is

Bypassing synagogue programs, growing numbers of families are hiring private tutors. Can shuls compete?

For 12-year-old Juliet, of Sleepy Hollow, getting to Hebrew school each week requires no carpool. Instead, on Mondays at 6 p.m. she waits in her living room, and Hebrew school comes to her.

First her two classmates, Aaron and Heather, are dropped off, followed by their teacher, Rabbi Reuben Modek, a tall, gentle, bespectacled 52-year-old man who wears a Bukharan kipa.

Filing into the warmly decorated dining room, an oil landscape painted by Juliet perched on the upright piano, teacher and students settle into their chairs, setting notebooks and workbooks onto the round, wooden table before them and nibbling on the doughnuts and fruit that Juliet’s mom has set out.

While Juliet’s pajama-clad younger sister watches curiously from the adjacent living room, their mom chats in the kitchen and the family’s fluffy Persian cats prance about, the three 12-year-olds and their rabbi pull out homemade siddurs and say the Shema.

For a small but seemingly growing number of families, home-based Jewish learning — whether with a personal tutor or in small groups, like Rabbi Modek’s Hebrew Learning Circles program — is offering an attractive and convenient alternative to synagogue-based Hebrew schools.

The vast majority of American kids receiving a Jewish education continue to do so in synagogue schools, and many of these programs have dramatically restructured and improved in recent years.

Nonetheless, anecdotal reports suggest that families are increasingly turning to private teachers and tutors — sometimes arranging to observe the bar or bat mitzvah in a synagogue, but often opting instead for private ceremonies in homes, restaurants, country clubs, Israel and other locations. One set of privately educated twins recently shared a bat mitzvah ceremony at Galapagos, a gallery and performance space in Brooklyn.

Harried families trying to balance the demands of work, school and numerous extracurricular activities — as well as those who have a negative impression of Hebrew schools or synagogues — report that home-based programs enable them to obtain a more personalized education for their child in less time, with more flexibility and on a more convenient schedule than they would in a congregational program.

“These days, a temple sometimes just doesn’t fit the bill,” says Juliet’s mother, Hope, who asked that the family’s last name not be used in order to protect their privacy.

In addition to Hebrew Learning Circles, created about nine years ago, a small cadre of for-profit and nonprofit resources are springing up to serve families like Hope’s.

In some cases going the private route can be far less expensive than synagogue-based Hebrew schools, which usually require a minimum of two to three years of enrollment and temple membership before allowing students to be bar or bat mitzvahed.

Such home-based programs aren’t the only option for those seeking alternate routes to bar and bat mitzvah: in many neighborhoods Chabad, the outreach oriented chasidic sect, helps families arrange personalized courses of study and inexpensive ceremonies, although their Orthodox approach does not appeal to everyone.

Along with the growth of independent minyanim and even the increasing accessibility of Jewish resources and information online, these alternative Hebrew schools pose a challenge to the quasi-monopoly synagogues once enjoyed in the fields of Jewish education and worship.

According to Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute, the trend reflects “the whole notion of personal training that has become part of North American culture.”

Individualized Hebrew schools make sense in a society of SAT tutors, fitness consultants, college application advisers, “people that help prep resumés and personal shoppers,” Rabbi Olitzky notes.

But some worry the phenomenon poses a threat not just to synagogues, but to the communal ideals synagogues stand for.

Some synagogues, like Congregation B’nai Jeshurun on the Upper West Side, are pushing back with policies discouraging the use of private tutors. “While exceptions are made for special-needs kids, the shul will not schedule bar or bat mitzvah ceremonies during Shabbat morning or community mincha services unless a child “meets the requirements for Jewish education in a communal setting.” Only day schools and congregational schools meet this requirement, and BJ’s rabbis will not officiate at the bar-bat mitzvah ceremonies of privately tutored kids.

Defenders of the home-based programs argue, however that they can be a portal into Jewish life for families that might never have considered joining synagogues. And they urge congregations to learn from, rather than deplore, their success.

“These kinds of organizations, however they are motivated ideologically, are providing something people clearly are looking for,” says Rabbi Olitzky.

The world of private Hebrew tutoring is surprisingly “hush hush” as one tutor puts it, with few tutors advertising or marketing extensively and many demonstrating a surprising lack of ambition in growing their businesses.

Nonetheless, families find teachers in a variety of ways. Some enterprising parents find individual tutors through their own personal connections or by asking around at synagogues, day schools, university Judaic studies departments and rabbinical seminaries.

In the New York area, Los Angeles and San Francisco, a number of small, young companies and organizations match children with private teachers and help families coordinate private bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies.

In addition to Hebrew Learning Circles, which recently incorporated as a nonprofit organization and which has 27 students and 75 “graduates,” there is Door To Door Tutoring, founded in 2002 by Joel Cohen, a former Hebrew school teacher who also works full time in finance, and Partners with Parents, established in 1999 by twins Laurie and Jesse Gerber. Responding to requests from clients, Door To Door and Partners With Parents added tutoring in other subjects, like math and science, as well.

In Los Angeles, Todd Shotz — a 35-year-old film and TV producer who is also a longtime Hebrew school teacher and bar mitzvah tutor — has for seven years run a business called Hebrew Helpers, mostly hiring actors and artists as tutors. He currently has 46 students, some in small groups and others one-on-one. In San Francisco the five-year-old group Jewish Milestones runs a referral service, one that not only serves families seeking an alternative route to bar or bat mitzvah, but also helps people find clergy for weddings, funerals and other lifecycle ceremonies.

Many of the people who run such programs say they have fond memories of their own childhood Hebrew school experiences and insist they are not trying to lure people away from synagogue programs.

“The synagogue should be the first try, but for some families it will either be nothing or us, and we want to give the kids and parents a positive experience,” says Laurie Gerber, whose program currently has seven Jewish studies students.

Most companies were formed somewhat by accident, by individual tutors who began getting more business than they could handle on their own.

Door to Door’s Cohen says that one private student “turned into five, five to 15, 15 to 25” until he was “tutoring every day.”

“I didn’t want to say no to these families,” he says. So he began hiring friends —young professionals, teachers, actors looking for part-time side gigs — and formed a business.

Hebrew Learning Circles’ Rabbi Modek, who has run several synagogue-based Hebrew schools, was leading a havurah in Nyack in 2000 when two parents asked him to tutor their children. More parents, hearing about the group, asked if their children could join.

“I discovered that the concept was phenomenal,” he says. “There was something about the kids’ and families’ motivation that was different, something calming about being in a home. There was a sense of ownership the kids had that they didn’t get in a more institutional setting. And it grew naturally from there.”

Rabbi Modek developed an extensive curriculum and hires college students and other part-timers, whom he trains as teachers.

Some parents get together, create their own programs and then collectively hire a teacher.

In Croton, parents Jason and Elissa Holzman joined five other families to create a havurah, which hires two Jewish Theological Seminary students as teachers. Classes for the children, who range in age from kindergarten to fourth grade, take place every Sunday morning in the homes of havurah members, with a different family hosting each week. Holzman’s next-door neighbor, whose children are older, has organized a similar program.

“Part of what is appealing about this is the opportunity to have a little more control” over the curriculum and “how material comes across,” says Jason Holzman, who attended a Conservative synagogue Hebrew school as a child.

The intimacy is also a plus.

“We’re forging a closer bond with these families than you would do in a temple.”

There is no single profile of the typical private Jewish tutoring family. According to Cohen, his clients are everywhere on the spectrum from “a day school student who wants extra attention to ‘Ohmigod, my daughter is 12, and can you help me through this process?’”

While many private tutoring families never join a synagogue, others combine the tutoring with temple membership, sometimes sending one child to Hebrew school and having another do home-based learning.

Gerber reports that her “most common customer comes in third or fourth grade because they can’t go twice a week to Hebrew school, or they have [scheduling conflicts with another activity] or a learning issue.”

“Some parents are scarred by their experience of Hebrew school,” she adds. “They want a positive experience for their children and do not want to risk it.”

Many other parents are intermarried, or grew up with no Jewish education — or, as Rabbi Modek puts it, “have allergies to organized religion and wouldn’t step in a synagogue if you paid them.”

Some are seeking more input over what the child learns.

“Every family has a very different set of needs and connection points,” says Gerber, adding that in selecting a curriculum “everyone has preferences about God, no God, Israel, modern Hebrew versus biblical Hebrew.”

Other parents seek out tutoring when Hebrew school isn’t working for their child.

Andrea Kott’s daughter enjoyed Hebrew school at the Reform temple they belong to, but after enduring her son’s constant complaints, Kott, who lives in Tarrytown, switched him to a Hebrew Learning Circle.

Not only was it more engaging for him, but it made for a more intimate bar mitzvah process. Many temples “treat bar mitzvahs like assembly lines,” she complains.

Perhaps most appealing for parents is that their children actually seem to enjoy the home-based arrangements.

“Instead of going from seven hours of classroom to more classroom, they go from seven hours of classroom to somebody’s house,” Kott says. “On beautiful days [Rabbi Modek would] take them outside.”

Susan Stremple, of L.A., recalls how her 11-year-old son Ethan, who participates in a Hebrew Helpers group, was “was so disappointed” one weekend when he had to miss a session.

Of course the relative convenience of tutoring versus Hebrew school is a huge draw for everyone, as stressed families juggle myriad modern-day demands of work, homework, commuting and numerous extracurricular activities.

“With synagogues, it’s a huge commitment,” says Ina, whose son Aaron is in the Sleepy Hollow Hebrew Learning Circles group and who found the commuting, volunteering and other requirements imposed by area temples “overwhelming to think about.” (Like Hope, she asked that her family’s last name not be published.)

Where many temples require one, two, even three afternoons of classes, private tutors often come to the student’s house once or twice a week and stay only an hour and a half.

While that may sound like a trivial amount of time, tutors and parents say that working one-on-one and in small groups, they are able to cover material far more efficiently and effectively than they would in a typical-sized Hebrew school class, where time often gets wasted with discipline issues or what one Manhattan parent calls “goofy, feel-good stuff.”

Says Kott, “When the [Hebrew Learning Circle] would get together, it’s not that kids weren’t dropping pencils and chatting. But there was more space for thoughtful process” than there would be in a traditional classroom environment.

David Klafter, an Upper West Side father whose daughter attended Hebrew school at the family’s synagogue for a while then switched to a group taught by a Partner with Parents tutor, said the small group was “more rigorous” than Hebrew school.

In addition to the rigor and convenience, parents and their children praise the informality and one-on-one relationships of the home-based approach.

“My sons were so comfortable and happy with Joel,” says Upper East Side mom Michele Teitelbaum, whose two children each studied with Cohen from fourth grade through bar mitzvah. “It was like having an older cousin around … My boys were beyond prepared for their bar mitzvahs, but also they got life lessons. Joel’s a mensch and a true role model.”

Ari Gold-Parker, a Hebrew Learning Circle grad who is now a sophomore at Harvard, remains in touch with Rabbi Modek, who he calls “Reuben,” and is still good friends with two of the other kids from the circle.

“Hebrew school age can be a really awkward, horrible time for kids,” he says. “Most people look back on that time with not-so-good memories, but having a small, informal setting with a rabbi who we liked made it feel very much not like school and helped us get engaged on a different level.”

Of course even the happiest home-tutoring families acknowledge that the setup is not perfect. Many lament that their children are missing out on the social aspect of being in a Hebrew school, and the feeling of belonging to a larger community.

“It’s a tradeoff but so far we’re pleased with it,” says Ina, of Sleepy Hollow, who recalls having a “great time” growing up in a temple youth group.

Kott, who continues to belong to a Reform temple, describes her temple as “a place you can go and physically share time and space with the people in your community,” whereas with Hebrew Learning Circles “you’re kind of in a bubble.”

“I happened to be friends with the other moms, but our paths don’t cross on a daily basis — we have to go out of our way to see each other; there’s no central meeting place.”

Next week: Tensions between private tutors and synagogues.

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