Homework

Sermon delivered October 16, 2009, by Rabbi Barry H. D. Block


Several years ago, at a time of particular need, our devoted congregant Jim Patterson stepped into Jewish professional life as our Interim Executive Director. Jim is never one to shy away from a tough task, and this one was a doozy.

One day, Jim’s son-in-law saw him coming home from the Temple with a brief case, loaded down with work Jim would have to complete at home. Andy Heins, his son-in-law, was grinning like the Cheshire cat. For years, Jim had been chiding Andy for what Jim called Andy’s “homework.” Jim had repeatedly asked: “Why can’t you get all your work done when you’re at work?” Jim claimed that, in all his years as a senior insurance executive, he had never brought work home. Seeing Jim with “homework” brought Andy hours of pleasure.

Some of us are good at leaving our work at the office. Others of us, myself included, are notorious for failing to set such boundaries. Daniel recently asked Toni if he could put my phone through the shredder. Thankfully, it doesn’t fit.

Some of us have jobs that we can leave at the workplace. I have always thought that E.R. docs have it pretty good. Now, of course, I’m only fantasizing about the life of an emergency room physician. But it seems to me that they’re either on or they’re off. When the E.R. doc is off, she’s off. No homework.

But is that really true? Even the E.R. physician has to maintain his credentials, obtaining Continuing Medical Education. She may have obligations to her group of physicians, or he may have responsibilities to the hospital which continue in those “off” hours. The Toyota shift worker is paid for time spent reading required training manuals, but may nevertheless engage in other continuing education for his own advancement at the company when he’s “off.”

If our work is important, we will continue it, in a variety of ways, when we’re off duty. How do we know what is important to us? We spend time on that endeavor.

If football is truly important to us, we won’t let anything get in the way of being at the big game, or at least seeing it on television.

If working out is a priority, we will find time to stay in shape.

If reading is what matters, we will spend hours with a book.

“Homework,” in its classic sense, is something students do. Parents know that their children cover all the subjects in the classroom. At the same time, parents expect their children to continue that work at home. We know that “practice makes perfect.” Yes, homework is a pain. It gets in the way of all the other things our children would like to do and we want them to be able to do. But we insist on our kids’ doing the homework, not only so that they solidify their knowledge of mathematical concepts or so that they will do well on the spelling test, but so that they will develop a good work ethic.

Religious School homework is a topic that raises hackles. Jewish professionals, as well as some parents who are passionate about Jewish education, feel strongly that Religious School should be taken as seriously as public or private school. Folks in that camp include Day School advocates, who argue that Jewish studies will only be prioritized if they are taught as regular subjects in daily school. Like all other subjects, students’ report cards reflect their performance in Judaics and their acquisition of Hebrew. Day School parents expect their children to do their homework, all of it, including the Hebrew and Judaics.

Very often, in synagogues, where the religious education is supplemental to “regular school,” homework is a sore subject. Parents feel that they have committed themselves and their children to a specific number of hours in the week for religious studies, those being the hours allotted to classes on Sunday – and, for students in grades three through six, on Tuesday or Wednesday. Any additional time spent on Religious School or Hebrew homework would get in the way of students’ “real” academic responsibilities and their host of extracurricular activities.

In the primary and middle grades, our Religious School does not have homework, unless perhaps students are assigned to go home and ask their parents questions about their own family history and the like.

In Confirmation, we do require work outside of class. For many years, I assigned the infamous “Rabbi Block’s paper,” five pages about God, to summarize and bring some synthetic thought to a semester-long course. By some of the responses, you would have thought I was requiring a doctoral dissertation. Recently, I decided that I had to balance two competing needs: the desire for Confirmation students to think critically and synthetically about God, versus my priority of keeping students in Jewish education through grade ten. Given that choice, the decision was not difficult. Ever since I became Senior Rabbi, I have been having individual meetings with each Confirmation student. Now, some discussion of putting together all that we discussed about God is part of the conversation. The solution is only fair. The student is not asked to sit down, close the door, and be thoughtful on a subject that is critical to their lives, whether they know it or not. But I must be realistic: Judaism, in the minds of tenth graders and their parents, is important enough for students to come to class, not important enough for them to write that paper. I read those papers for a decade and a half. Most, though not all, of those papers were intelligent and meaningful. Would that Judaism mattered enough that I could still require that homework.

Our Hebrew teachers do assign homework. Some do it; others don’t. The ones who do the Hebrew homework learn to read Hebrew fluidly and are able to go further, to some understanding of the words and the prayers. The students who don’t do the homework have to be put through extraordinary paces in the Bar or Bat Mitzvah preparation process.

Doing Hebrew homework with Robert is a meaningful father-son encounter. Yes, I know I’m the Rabbi, but I also know that the majority of our students have at least one parent who can provide the level of assistance needed.

The real Religious School homework is not a Hebrew reading drill or a writing exercise. It’s not even circling the prefix and suffix, a pretty sophisticated exercise that I’m proud our second year Hebrew students can do.

The real Religious School homework can’t be assigned.

The real Religious School homework is living a Jewish life at home. The student who learns about Sukkot at Religious School will retain that knowledge if she eats in a Sukkah at home that week. The student who studies Jewish history will not forget what he has learned as soon as he walks out of the classroom, if his parents’ bookcases are filled with Jewish books, and his parents have something to say when he comments on something he heard in Religious School. The same can be accomplished if the parents know nothing of the subject but know how to use the Internet! The student who learns about tzedakah will figuratively earn an “A” in Religious School, if she participates with her family in righteous giving to the needy.

All of us have a Jewish homework assignment, whether we have children or not. Our assignment is to live our lives as Jews, to reinforce and deepen our knowledge. The more we practice Judaism, the more we will want to know about our faith. The more we know about Judaism, the more we feel competent to practice it.

Let us all proclaim that Judaism is important to us, and therefore worthy of our time. Then, let us all find our own Jewish homework. Then, may our lives be enriched by our faith.

Amen.