I wrote this article a few months ago. It is about Jewish education. It is such a difficult, complicated issue. I would love to hear your thoughts and opinions on it.
The other day I subbed for a local Hebrew school. The focus of the class was Rosh HaShana. I asked them what they knew about Rosh HaShana and they threw out words like round challah, singing, parties and apples dipped in honey. But when I asked them what the significance of Rosh HaShana is, none of them knew. I figured it was a memory lapse and that after a little probing they would remember. But probe as I may, the four students ranging from 3rd to 5th grades really could not remember what the days of Rosh HaShana are about. Finally I had to remind them that Rosh HaShana celebrates the Jewish new year.
Each child comes from a different family background. But still, wouldn’t you think that a Jewish person, of almost any age, should at least own the information that Rosh HaShana is the Jewish new year?
I often wonder if it is possible for every single Jew to be touched by Judaism. Because if Torah is truth, why does it often seem so boring? I have seen many a child (well, including myself going to day school my whole life) sit, staring blankly, daydreaming, while the teacher (and I’ve seen quite a few because of different jobs that I’ve had, including when I myself taught at a Hebrew school) tries so hard to tell the Jewish stories/laws in a way that might just spark something in their students.
Alas, the same students that are diligently working on their writing and math during general studies, just don’t connect to a lot of what they’re being taught during religious studies.
That day before Rosh Hashana when I subbed at the Hebrew school, as always, I was a little nervous. I knew that I was going to teach about Rosh HaShana. But I always picture uninspiring classes regarding Jewish holidays.
The teacher says, “One of our customs on Rosh Hashana is to dip apples in honey!” And then she asks the students why we dip apples in honey and then everyone says, “To have a sweet new year!”
To be sure, it is a lovely custom. But is it deeply inspiring to dip apples in honey in order to have a sweet new year? What are the kids really getting from this knowledge? Why specifically apples and honey? Why not just drink sweet Bedouin tea? Is there a deeper meaning behind this tradition? Without a more inspiring explanation, these students are given the space for their souls to fall asleep.
The challenge of a Jewish studies teacher
For the last ten minutes of class when I subbed that day, we played a game. I had a bag of random items. We pulled one item out at a time and needed to figure out what connection we could make between that item and Rosh HaShana. This game is great because it is actually quite challenging and forces you to be creative. It also often makes you understand the subject on a deeper level than you did before.
The last item we had to figure out was a sticky hand. One student immediately said that we should have a fun year. Suddenly, thank God, I had an epiphany. I asked the kids, “How long, on average does a sticky hand last?” After a quick discussion, we decided that it usually doesn’t last more than a couple of days. I said to them, “It is true that we should have a fun year but this sticky hand teaches us a good lesson. Today we talked a lot about tshuva (bettering ourselves, returning to a better path), a major aspect of the Jewish New Year. The sticky hand symbolizes things in our lives that are great and fun but they are fleeting. We take the hand, throw it all over the room, watch it stick to things and also watch it very quickly become very dirty. Within a couple of days it is unappealing and we throw it out.
“Tshuva may be much less ‘fun’ but it is something that leaves us with a good feeling for much longer. If we are working on being nicer and better people, that makes us feel really wonderful.”
I could feel the students sitting and listening to me as I was able (again, thank God) to bring more depth into our study of Rosh HaShana.
One Sunday last year a fellow teacher and I traded Hebrew school classes for the day. His class was pre-bar/bat mitzvah age. Since I was only going to be teaching them once, I wanted to do something a little different with them (also since I knew that they were an especially uninspired bunch of kids). After a short discussion with them, I gave them each paper and asked them to write what Judaism meant to them.
It was made clear that I would not force anyone to share what they had written. When we’d finished (I did it too), one brave student was happy to read her piece to the class.
What a sad reality she showed me. Judaism, to her, is coming to shul. OK… that’s sort of meaningful, right? Well, turns out that it is not so meaningful because she went on to read that she hates coming to shul but she knows it’s important so that she’ll be ready for her bat mitzvah.
Feel free to weep. The meaning of Judaism to her is something that she doesn’t even like and the meaning ends for her at the age of 13 (they do bat mitzvah at 13 in this shul).
I believe that when we feed people’s souls with depth and meaning, they respond. They wake up and they pay attention (even to the Hebrew school teacher). They participate. They laugh, they think and they go away with more connection to Judaism (hopefully). When our teaching lacks depth, we allow them to hide, waiting for the day after their bar or bat mitzvah when they no longer will be forced to go to shul or Hebrew school.
Our very difficult responsibility as teachers – whether in day school or Hebrew school – is to spark something in the students. Make them feel like there is something deeper and more meaningful than having a bar mitzva party. Make them feel an urge to come back for more, even after the age of 13.
P.S. Of course what goes on at home is a whole other ball game.