Large Congregations and Small Congregations… and Jewish Education

If you are a parent and at all religious, one of your challenges is religious education for your child. In Reform Judaism, the model is pretty simple: you send them to Religious School, and they have their Bar/Bat Mitzvah and are confirmed. if you can afford it, you send them to Jewish summer camp. But sometimes, and for some kids, that model breaks down.

When we started our daughter’s religious education, we were at a small congregation (under 100 families)—Temple Beth Torah in Granada Hills. This meant that religious school classes were small, and the “tot shabbat” program was parent-run (I know… I was one of the parents running it). As time went on, this congregation hired a dynamic young female rabbi (since relocated to Australia) who imbued everything with spirituality. It was the ideal learning place for our daughter, who enjoys being the individual and being intellectually challenged. It was a good place for us as well: we were active in the congregation, and there wasn’t the emphasis on money and donations (it was a squarely middle-class congregation). But, as happens in small congregations, finances and the board led to the Rabbi departing for somewhere else and the closing of the school. This is where our problems started.

We relocated to Temple Beth Hillel, a larger 800+ family congregation in Valley Village. We enrolled our daughter in Religious School, where she made nary a friend. She found that the kids were all “stuck up”—they had parents in the entertainment industry or equivalent professions, they all went to the same snooty schools, and they didn’t accept outsiders. We had numerous problems with the clergy regarding the Bat Mitzvah, and left shortly thereafter.

From there we went to Temple Ahavat Shalom, a 400+ family congregation in Northridge, where my daughter knew a lot of kids from middle school. We thought it would be better, but… the kids all scattered to different high schools, and my daughter was the only one going to Van Nuys. They formed tight cliques of the kids who had been with the congregation since birth, and my daughter was never able to fit in. Again: the kids were more concerned with status than substance, and it grated. She’s never fit in, and this Confirmation Class year has been a particular challenge.

The normal saving grace (at least it was when I was young) is Jewish Summer Camp. My relationship to Judaism was defined not by my congregations, but by the Wilshire Blvd Temple Camps. Alas, events conspired against us there. My daughter when to Hess Kramer for a year, and then to Hilltop. These were a success. But by the time of the 2nd year at Hilltop, she had gone gluten-free. The temporary dining hall at Hilltop couldn’t accommodate that, and she didn’t want to go back to CHK, so camp stopped. By the time the new dining hall was up and running, she was too busy to get back to camp. So we didn’t have that to fall back on.

As I said, this year has been particularly bad. A combination of a heavy class load (especially being in the fall drama production, meaning she often couldn’t make it to religious school due to rehearsal) and the cliques at Temple made it difficult to get her to go. The planning for the year came across as very last minute, and often the academic workload of the students was never given consideration. We had hoped the Confirmation Class trip might help mend things—she loved DC and the politics, but didn’t make any lasting friends and the net effect was short-lived. The coup-de-grace was yesterday, when I received an email regarding the upcoming Confirmation Class dinner, scheduled for 5/31. I responded back, noting that this was a particularly bad night for such a dinner, being the night before finals for almost everyone in the Confirmation Class. In talking about this with my daughter, it brought up the whole issue of how problematic Confirmation Class has been this year—in fact, how problematic her Jewish education has been since we left Temple Beth Torah. It got us to musing about large congregations and small congregations, and how large congregations have turned her off of Judaism. Personally, I can’t blame her. I find it very difficult to find spirituality in a large congregation. My spirituality has either been found at camp or in small congregations.

The question is: what do we do for the rest of the Confirmation Class year. The current approach isn’t working—even if I made her attend the classes, the Confirmation Class service would have absolutely no meaning, and would leave her with negative, not positive impressions. The funds paid for this year are already sunk (except for the Confirmation Class gift). I’ve dropped a mail to the Rabbi and Educator asking for a meeting to work out some independent study approach.

What I’m thinking of is the following: First, we stop participating in the current Confirmation Class. It has no meaning to my daughter and is turning her off of Judaism. We require our daughter to attend some Jewish educational activity every month (an adult education seminar at AJU or a synagogue, a talk, a Jewish-themed play) and write it up. We also require attendance at one service, preferably across a mix of movements (Reform, Orthodoxy, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Chabad, Hillel) and congregational types (large, small, collegiate)… again, writing this up. These writeups get submitted to either the congregational rabbis or an equivalent (ideally, I’d love to get Sheryl’s email in Australia). Sometime during her Senior year, we request the congregation to recognize this work at a service. I think this could be the right approach: it would allow her to indulge her interest in history; it would also permit her to see the range of Judaism and determine what would be a reasonable fit.