Sunday, November 23, 2008

Shabbat School

My only direct experience with Shabbat School was as a student some 40 years ago, and based on that, I would say that there are potential problems that proponents of it will tend to understate. There are also potential advantages but not all of them are to the students.

I grew up in a Reform congregation (so there was no issue with writing, cutting, pasting, etc.) that had Shabbat school for the upper grades – the primary grades met on Sundays. One potential advantage of this was that students were there for the Shabbat morning service. We also had a service attendance requirement on Friday nights, and the result of this combination is that I still know most of the English text of the Union Prayer Book from memory. I find that I know quite a lot of useless stuff and that is one of the most conspicuous.

Having the students there on approximately 30 Shabbat mornings a year – instead of the 10 or so you might get for Junior Congregation – would seem to be an advantage if teaching the Shabbat morning liturgy is an important goal. But unless you have three days of school a week (two weekday afternoons and one weekend morning), it will be a strain to get both enough prayer time and enough class time. When I have supervised Junior Congregation it ran either 1.5 or 2 hours; in a 2-day school we could not afford to lose that much class time, nor would I have been satisfied with only one hour for Shabbat tefillah.

It seems to me that one of the reasons that Shabbat school is proposed is to eliminate the need to bring children an additional day for Junior Congregation, but I am skeptical about whether it would improve attendance. In my experience, both as a student (back in antiquity), and more recently as a teacher and principal, there are even more activities competing for students’ time on Saturday mornings than on Sunday mornings.

Also, here (this morning especially) the greatest problem with Sunday attendance is family vacations. We had about 50% absence this morning even though the public schools that most of our students attend are in session Monday through Wednesday, because families are blowing off not only religious school but also three days of regular school in order to take a 9-day family vacation only a month before the winter break! Those who want “family time” on Sundays may want it just as badly on Saturdays.

One potential advantage, which I've seen as a visitor to a Reconstructionist congregation that has Shabbat school, is that if school hours are synchronized with service hours, the attendance at the main service may improve – that is, instead of dropping children off, parents attend the regular service. This is indirectly beneficial to the students through the parents’ example.

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