October 6, 2005
Teshuvah for Tots Sets Right Tone
The concept of repentance is hard enough for grown-ups to get, so how do educators make the central themes of the High Holidays real for children?
While projects like tempera-painted honey dishes and party-whistle shofars are de rigueur, preschool and elementary school teachers take seriously the idea of having the High Holiday message of personal accountability set the tone for the whole year.
The Jewish Journal spoke with a few educators to get their thoughts.
Nettie Lerner, director of Chabad's Garden School preschool on Pico Boulevard, teaches about God's closeness during this time of year through analogy:
"We teach them the story of the king in the field. The king is in his palace the entire year, and once a year he comes out of his palace to meet with all the different people, to get to know them and see how they are doing. He does this for a month all around the kingdom and then goes back to his palace and feels like he knows how to be a more effective king," she said.
The Garden School also uses the High Holidays to establish rules of engagement among the kids.
The school practices conflict resolution, where a teacher stops the offending action and has each child articulate feelings and establishes empathy. Then, together the children and teacher come up with a resolution.
"We do this over and over, and that's how we're able to bring this concept of teshuvah to a preschooler," Lerner said.
At Stephen S. Wise elementary school, director of education Metuka Benjamin encourages teachers to use project-based activities around the High Holidays to emphasize Jewish peoplehood.
"First and foremost, we want to help children understand that being Jewish means they are part of a community," she said. "This community has a shared history, ancestry and value system. We want them to understand that there are Jews all over the world, yet there is a connected spirit that ties us together. At this early age, understanding community is critical to helping them acquire a sense of pride about their backgrounds, while also feeling tied to Jewish friends and family here and around the world."
Rivka Ben-Daniel, director of Hebrew and Judaic studies at Heschel West in Agoura, has the whole school -- and parents -- blowing shofar every morning leading up to the High Holidays.
She concentrates on the idea of cheshbon hanefesh, an accounting of the soul. The word "chet," Hebrew for sin, comes from the root of deviate -- indicating that someone has missed a goal they set.
Ben-Daniel has students break into small groups to write a personal and communal "Ashamnu" confessional prayer, focusing on wrongdoings the class may have done as a group, and, privately, what they have done as individuals.
"We put them on paper and then we go to Malibu Creek Canyon, one grade at a time, and we read out loud the class sins, and we say goodbye to the sins and promise to start anew and welcome a new year by promising to strive to be better for the coming year," Ben-Daniel said.
Ben-Daniel goes through a similar exercise with teachers, asking them to account for their wrongdoings with students, teachers and parents.
"We ask the teachers to acknowledge what they have done wrong and to ask for forgiveness, to forgive other people, and to forgive yourself for what you have done wrong," she said.
In addition, teachers are asked to write goals for themselves "in an area where they want to improve in their educational lives."