February 26, 2004
The Many Dimensions of Jewish Education
After a year's sabbatical in Boston, my family (a husband who is a Conservative pulpit rabbi, myself, and our three children aged 6, 11 and 14) returned to our home in Victoria, British Columbia. The sabbatical year had a profound experience on us -- one that we had not anticipated. We decided that after 16 years living in a small Jewish community, where we found ourselves stretching in ways we never intended, where open-mindedness and adaptability were the ultimate virtues, and teaching religious parameters and structure to our children was viewed as parochial, it was time to move to a larger and more engaging Jewish community.
Returning to Boston this past summer, our primary focus was immersing the children in Jewish schools that would nourish their souls and give them a more formal route to Jewish education. We wanted our three children to have the opportunity to be students at the table of great Jewish books and inspiring Jewish teachers. We wanted our children to organically weave Hebrew into their consciousness and feel rooted in Jewish texts alongside their secular studies.
Now that the three children are in day schools, we have a new view of the Jewish educational experience, and new questions to ask educators and administrators of Jewish learning. While we are thrilled that the children are studying in a Jewish milieu and that they are learning Hebrew as naturally as English questions arise, especially in terms of how Judaic subjects are taught in the upper grades. For example, how do we measure a relationship to Bible or the impact of studying Jewish thought? Is our goal to produce children who say they hate the Tanach because a teacher failed to inspire them or they tested poorly in that subject?
I've been saddened to see Jewish children turn away from limudei kodesh, the study of Jewish subjects, because the material is treated like general studies -- with grades and tests -- and is taught without passion. It is also disheartening to witness the lack of kavanah, of intentional thought, children give to the morning prayer service in many Jewish schools. Who sets the tone for prayer and who teaches them to pray? Who inspires them and challenges them to look into themselves and outwards at the larger world as they grow and develop Jewish identities?
Our three children, while content in their new schools, are stretched and overwhelmed with school work. Balancing this new dual curriculum is a daily (and due to homework, nightly) challenge. One of my primary roles has become the encourager -- each night assisting the children, rewarding their incremental gains and helping them see the whole picture -- the Jewish in the Jewish school, the enormous strides they've made, their incidental accomplishments, because the level of discouragement they feel is often immense. I often feel saddened that the sheer amount of work they have discourages them from taking the time to appreciate the content of what they are learning.
Children are attending Jewish day schools in record numbers. This growth certainly indicates the strong desires of parents who want their children to be Jewishly literate and secure in their Jewish identities. But increasing the numbers of students in day schools is not enough. We must address the issues of how these schools teach Judaica and what impact these experiences have on the blossoming of Jewish identity; we must evaluate the relationship between impassioned teacher and student, between learning and living.
Susan Berrin is the editor of Sh'ma, a Jewish journal of ideas, and the mother of three children. Reprinted with permission Jewishfamily.com