October 24, 2002
Hebrew School Horror Stories
The institution that once caused tremors in students has come a long way, baby.
Randy Fried will never forget the day he almost had a police escort to Hebrew school. Like many other Jewish students around the country, the then-preteen class clown ("I was a Hebrew school teacher's worst nightmare") tried every excuse in the book to avoid going to his weekly bar mitzvah training class.
He faked sick. He faked homework. He probably would've faked his own death if it meant skipping the "Shema" for a day. One afternoon, Fried got into such a heated argument with his parents about blowing off class, that a neighbor called the cops.
"Two officers showed up, and one asked my dad, 'Is there a problem, here?'" the 24-year-old recounted, chuckling at the memory. "So my dad said, 'My son refuses to go to Hebrew school, and he has to learn his religion because his bar mitzvah is coming up.'"
The officer looked at Fried's father for a moment and then said something along the lines of, "Well, Hebrew school is very important." He then asked Fried if he needed ride in the back of the squad car to get to class.
Panicked, Fried declined and said it wasn't necessary. Without another complaint, he let his dad drop him off at the former Temple Beth Torah in Alhambra for class.
Now, the Arcadia resident is a sixth-grade Hebrew school teacher at Sinai Temple on the Westside. Having been on both sides of the desk, Fried is not alone in feeling that Hebrew school has changed a lot since those days.
Edith Singer, a veteran teacher at Sinai Temple on the Westside, said that she's noticed significant differences in children's attitudes during her nearly 40 years of teaching. "I know there was a time when kids said, 'I hate Hebrew school,'" said the Holocaust survivor, who began teaching in 1965. "I don't hear this anymore. I think it's out of style to hate Hebrew school."
If Singer is correct, 11-year-old Daniel Yosef, who attends classes at Temple Emanuel in West Los Angeles, is right in style. "I think I learn a lot in Hebrew school," said the chipper sixth-grader after returning from a Sunday morning class.
His best friend, Raif Cogan, 11, admitted that while he'd rather stay home and play Nintendo, the pre-bar mitzvah classes are not that bad. "It's not the funnest thing in the world," said Cogan, who also attends Temple Emanuel, "but it's not terrible."
Both Yosef and Cogan believe their worst in-class crime -- and that of their peers -- is talking during class.
Talk to any Hebrew school graduate and he or she is likely to have a Hebrew school war story.
A writer living in Los Angeles, Gilah Yelin Hirsch recalls her escapades in Hebrew school as an 8-year-old in Montreal, in 1952. "The mornings were spent in Yiddish and Hebrew studies while the afternoons focused on English and French. One morning, I asked my Orthodox [Bible] teacher, in Yiddish, why God was always referred to as he, while the names and pronouns were interchangeably male and female, i.e. 'umvorchim otach.' ['And you (F) shall be blessed.'] He grabbed me by my long, red hair and threw me out of the classroom," she said.
Deborah Jacoby, 30, of Sherman Oaks, remembers the time her older brother was sent to the principal's office for making out with a girl on the bimah and then trying to convince administrators the act was a "double mitzvah," because it happened on Shabbat.
It seems that even the most well-behaved kid could -- especially in the old days -- turn into your average Hebrew school delinquent.
Fried and a buddy made their teacher so angry that he threw a book on the floor and stormed out of the classroom.
"Because it's not 'real school,' kids don't take it as seriously," Fried said. "What kind of trouble can they really get in? What is the [school director] going to say, 'You can't have a bar mitzvah?'"
Singer attributed the problem to fatigue. "Kids are tired in the afternoon, especially when they've spent the whole day at school. Maybe they have their mind on homework, and it makes them a little restless," he said
Singer said that while she used to have problems keeping her students in line, those issues have disappeared over the years. "Now they respect me because I'm over 70. I have difficult children, but I put foot my down," said the Czechoslovakian native.
"I take them very seriously," she said. "I treat them with a lot of respect, and they give it back to me."
Singer has noticed that in general, younger teachers tend to have more disciplinary problems than their experienced counterparts.
Deborah Kreingle, a Hebrew school teacher at Temple Isaiah in West Los Angeles, said she's been teaching "longer than Moses was in the desert." "We don't have any discipline problems," the West Los Angels resident said.
"The program is so fast, that we're always running out of time," she said. "The kids are never bored, because there's no time for it."
Most teachers agree that the decline in behavior problems can be credited to parents. Singer thinks that kids today know that when it comes to their Jewish education, they are in it for the long haul, whether they like it or not.
"Parents don't promise the kids that after their bar mitzvah, they don't have to go [to Hebrew school] anymore, which is what they used to do," she said. Along the same lines, Fried has noticed that parents seem more involved, which makes the children feel the classes are important.
Class size and hours spent in class have also changed. Singer has about half the number of students she had 20 years ago, and the classes, which used to meet three times a week, have been reduced to two -- a common trend.
With reduced hours, teaching students to speak Hebrew has become a lower priority than teaching them to read the prayers in time for their bar and bat mitzvahs.
"I feel bad that we don't have time to study Hebrew as a language," said Singer, who remembers a time when there was more emphasis on language and vocabulary. "Now we have to spend the time on reading. I think it comes from the rabbis from the Conservative movement who wanted to focus more on reading and knowing the prayers."
There are also more school activities that take away from academic class time. Many schools now include music, art and library programs, as well as field trips.
Fried said that one of the biggest differences he noticed, as compared to his Hebrew school days, are the classroom discussions. While he remembers a lot of lectures, teachers are now encouraged to promote questioning and discussion. As such, he said, programs have become more interactive.
"We talk more about 'why,' as opposed to 'how to,'" Fried explained, "like, why do we believe in God, and why do we say these prayers?"
Above all, Fried said, his best teaching tool is the ability to use his experiences as a reformed prankster to reach his students. He often shows the kids his old Hebrew school report cards, which contain teachers' comments about his constant gabbing and short attention span.
"My philosophy is that we need to teach them that Judaism is fun, so they don't do what I did. We need to try to tap into that crazy energy in a creative way," said Fried, who believes that his rebellion was, in part, due to strict teachers and boredom.
While it appears that the heyday of Hebrew school horror has passed, kids continue to find ways to keep themselves entertained during their weekly classes. Yosef, Cogan and their cronies admit that a small amount of Hebrew school mischief still exists.
"We use the same desks that belong to the day school kids during the week," said Cogan, stifling a giggle. "A lot of times, we go through the desks and play around with their stuff."