I Hated Hebrew School, But I Love Jewish Studies

If you told me as a child that I would choose to study Jewish issues in college, I wouldn’t have believed it.

For nine years of my life, Sunday was my least favorite day of the week. The reason? Hebrew school. It forced me to wake up at an ungodly hour during the weekend. It gave me extra homework. It was expensive and challenging. It kept me from having sleepovers with friends on Saturday nights.

Every Sunday morning was like clockwork. My mom would wake me up and I would yell at her. I would groan and protest all throughout breakfast with my brother. But no matter how much I protested, I always had to go.

I was always bored at Hebrew school, which didn’t even happen at the synagogue my family belonged to but a random high school in my town. The classroom walls were papered with signs for Spanish, chemistry, or whatever subject was taught in that room during the week. I couldn’t bring myself to care about learning the Hebrew language or the stories of the Torah. As a child, I didn’t see the point to any of it.

Sure, I had great friends there. I met my childhood best friend at Hebrew school and since we went to different schools, it was the only time I saw her regularly. But for a few years, I struggled so much with learning Hebrew that I had to do extra tutoring and was separated from my friends even more.

Things got worse when my best friend left completely — her bat mitzvah was in January, and mine wasn’t until August.

Around that time, I began to feel myself losing touch with Judaism. I realized that I didn’t believe in God. My disdain for Hebrew school became more than just an annoyance about having to wake up early on Sundays or the difficulty of learning to read a new language. I felt like I didn’t belong because I didn’t believe in God. And although my rabbi and cantor were completely supportive of me and my lack of belief, I felt out of place and alone.

So I had my bat mitzvah and — finally — I didn’t have to go to Hebrew school anymore.

But my involvement in Jewish programming didn’t end completely. I participated in my synagogue’s teen youth group in high school, which I enjoyed because of the friends I made there and because it was less focused on prayers. But I still felt disconnected from the programming, particularly the lessons on Israel. Why was I supposed to care about Israel, a far-away country that I had never been to? It perplexed and annoyed me. I felt the same way about the Israeli programming at the Jewish sleepaway camp I went to every summer from ages 9 to 15, where a quarter of our counselors were Israeli. I felt disconnected from it all.

I began to reject all Jewish education and grouped it into the category of things in my life that were toxic and manipulative. I thought of Jewish education as someone else telling me how to practice my religion. Of course, now, I recognize my privilege in that I got the opportunity to go to Hebrew school and Jewish sleepaway camp. I know that there are a lot of Jewish families who don’t have the resources to provide their children with any Jewish education, and I am lucky to have had so many opportunities.

But back then, it didn’t feel pertinent to me at all, and for a few years, I went without any Jewish outlet in my life.

When I got to college, I started to critically examine my own Jewish identity. I didn’t go to any High Holiday services my first semester because I was studying abroad, and I felt a profound loss. Even though I’d never cared much for prayer, for the first time in my life, I missed the feeling of being surrounded by other Jews and being enveloped in the community. When I got to campus, I became involved in Hillel as a way to make friends and fell in love with the campus Jewish community.

When I interviewed the director of my university’s Jewish Studies department for a newspaper article, I realized how different collegiate Jewish Studies are from the Jewish education of my synagogue and sleepaway camp. I decided to give Jewish education another shot, and I declared a Jewish Studies minor. My parents, knowing how much I hated Hebrew school, were quite surprised and a little skeptical.

I was surprised, too, but my Jewish Studies minor has been one of the best decisions of my academic career. My college’s department doesn’t push me to believe in God or support Israel. My classes give me the opportunity to learn about Judaism from a purely academic perspective, alongside Jews and non-Jews. I’ve been able to research and write about so many different topics, ranging from Broad City and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend to messianism and divine election. My professors are my mentors and even my friends.

I also started to care about and advocate for Israel, but on my own terms. I continued to hear one-sided perspectives from Hillel and my Birthright trip, but I had newfound knowledge from my Jewish Studies classes that allowed me to think critically and examine what I was hearing.

Combined with my journalism major, my Jewish Studies minor is giving me the background I need to pursue a career in Jewish media, a space that I dream to work in someday. I regularly bring my Jewish studies work into my journalism work, and vice versa; recently, I interviewed the director of a Jewish advocacy group for my journalism class.

Next summer, I will be doing a month-long study abroad trip to Germany and Poland, where my group will visit numerous concentration camps and important World War II sites. I’ll be one of the only Jewish students on the trip. I’ve only ever learned about the Holocaust in majority-Jewish settings, like in Hebrew school or at Hillel. I am looking forward to the experience of learning about the Holocaust with those who aren’t personally affected. I’m sure it will be a meaningful one.

If you told me as a child that I would choose to study Jewish issues in college, I wouldn’t have believed it. But now I know it wasn’t that Jewish education and I didn’t get along — it was that I hadn’t found the right kind yet.

Image by Yedidiak/Pixabay

Deanna Schwartz

Deanna Schwartz is a student at Northeastern University in Boston, studying journalism, Jewish studies, and literature. Originally from Baltimore, she is an editor for her school's newspaper, The Huntington News. Deanna is a 2019-2020 Alma Ambassador.

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