NEW YORK — One of my Wednesday afternoon Hebrew students approached me after class recently to tell me that for the next two months he would not be present at our Sunday religious school sessions. He had a sports conflict, he told me. Would I be willing to inform him of the Hebrew assignments in advance so he could work at home?
Normally I would have let such a request pass without thought, and given the boy a heads up on the Hebrew we would cover. My religious school class - consisting of 22 extremely well-mannered, bright fifth graders - is a virtual revolving door on Sundays and Wednesdays, with some students coming in an hour late and many leaving an hour early on both days. Why? Mainly for sports pursuits. Needless to say, under such circumstances it's hard to cover a curriculum and make sure everybody learns what they need to learn in order to be prepared for the Bar or Bat Mitzvah ceremony. But I flatter myself that with patience and creativity I manage to bring all my students forward.
This boy, however, gave me pause, because it's midyear, and he hadn't been enrolled in my class a full three weeks before making his announcement. He had already been absent from religious school for the entire fall football season. Now, it appeared, he would miss half of the classes during basketball season. God only knew for how much of the upcoming spring baseball season he would be absent. During his rare hours so far in class, he has been struggling with his Hebrew, and silent during our discussions of Jewish history and the Bible - mostly, I surmise, because he can't get to a level of comfort with the material. Contemplating his battle to squeeze a religious education into his busy schedule reminds me how many other children in my class - whose scheduling conflicts are less acute, but nonetheless telling - feel that squeeze.
Consider my pupil who did not attend Eve of Atonement Services (the holiest of the entire Jewish year) because he couldn't miss ice hockey tryouts. Or the boy who consistently leaves class early for basketball games, though - curiously - his mother has remarked to me he has little interest or ability in athletics. Or the little girl whose community children's theater exploits kept her up so late at night this fall that on the rare occasions she did attend religious school during rehearsal weeks, she invariably fell asleep in class.
Behind my revolving classroom door lies a sad reality about the pressures of contemporary life. Kids today who do not take the time to hone their extra-academic talents feel disadvantaged by the time they apply to college. Thus, parents push children early on to develop the competitive edge they need in such extracurriculars as sports and theater - starting them young with rigorous physical training.
But what about spiritual training? Aren't the habits of religious faith and the insights of sacred texts also worthy of rigorous attention? Do they not demand the same time and level of commitment? Sometimes I get the feeling that the parents of my students don't really believe that the skills we work on in religious school have much relevance to their children's future. I get the impression instead that they enroll their kids in religious school as simply a gesture of residual respect for the community into which they were born. I'm not alone. Many of my Christian friends who teach Sunday school also feel they are dealing in what is regarded ultimately as a casual, if not quite expendable, commodity.
Recently, the mother of one of my pupils came up to me after attending a family program at our religious school on the black Jews of Ethiopia. Her enthusiasm and surprise at the quality of the program were palpable. She bubbled over at how touching, meaningful, and informative she had found the story of the dramatic survival of this unique and long-threatened Jewish community. Then she burst forth, "If only my son had been here instead of at basketball practice!"
The history of all religions, I tell my students, is replete with examples of conflict between the temptations of worldly pursuits and the demands of God. Even the priests of the Second Temple at times found the entertainments and leisure pursuits of the Greeks more attractive than the study and worship their faith demanded. Yet, only a few fortunate human beings have been spared the challenges that make the rest of us yearn for spiritual consolation and renewal throughout our lives. In the end, the hard-won mental discipline that informs faith, provides moral direction, and gives us a keen sense of our spiritual heritage will prove a great deal more valuable than the best sixth-grade batting average.
• Dana Mack Prinz is a senior fellow at the Center for Education Studies in New York, as well as the author of 'The Assault on Parenthood' and 'The Book of Marriage.''