Fifteenth-century education



“Moreover, what was true in my childhood remains fundamentally important today: Jewish kids should know what the inside of a synagogue looks like; they should have a rabbi; they should feel that they are an important part of the religious life of the Jewish community that takes place uniquely in a synagogue context.”

These words, written by Rabbi Adam J. Raskin of Congregation Har Shalom on our opinion page last week reminded me of similar words I had written many years ago and about the reason I first began writing about modern, non-Orthodox Judaism.

I know what the rabbi is speaking about when he writes about programs held outside the synagogue walls that are advertised as “fun” and “convenient.” I deeply understand their appeal. Held in a secular building, they offer a comfortable environment for interfaith families. With no ties to a synagogue, they are minus the additional financial burden of synagogue dues, building funds, annual appeals and fundraising galas. Offered only once a week, they are ideal options for busy, overscheduled families. With no rabbi, the families are free to create and celebrate a b’nai mitzvah ceremony on their own terms — with no synagogue board to answer to or congregation to cater to. And all of these attributes speak to single-parent households in a significant way.

I can’t argue with these advantages or why these factors make the alternative supplemental religious school programs so appealing. I can’t make someone reprioritize Judaism and make it higher up the ladder than soccer. I can’t help struggling families find more money to pay for membership.

I wish I could. Because these individual decisions coalesce into a communal loss.

I can argue, however, with the idea that Hebrew school has to be “fun,” that education needs to be fun.

I loved both secular and Hebrew school. But I never judged either by how “fun” they were. How did this happen? How did we come to think that the only way to educate was to entertain?

I was watching a commercial advertising an early-learning website. The mother’s voice was heard over the video of a little boy running. She spoke of how her son was a rambunctious little boy who had no interest in learning until she discovered this website. The video changed to the computer screen with an animated rocket ship shooting words followed by a second game of a monkey, swinging from branch to branch as the child correctly identified his letters. The final message? Now learning was fun. It was a game, and her son loved it.

We need to stop trying to make learning a game. We need to stop thinking that investment in computers and technology and 21st-century techniques is the answer. Yes, as Mary Poppins would say, a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, but too much sugar is bad for a child.

What we need to invest in is teachers.

Never, in all my days as a student and in all my years as the mother of two students, have I or my children ever come home from a class and said, “Wow, I learned so much from that game we played in school today.”

In fact, quite the opposite. I can think of the two most impactful Jewish education experiences in my children’s Jewish learning. One was a class where they sat on the floor in front of candles and talked about issues they cared about as they were guided by outstanding teachers who helped them see those issues through a Jewish lens. No computers. No high-tech. No electricity.

The other was an experience my son had. He was studying a Torah text about the plagues with the school’s educational director. The director knew my son well. He knew my son, at the time, was interested in Greek mythology. He showed Jules how each plague directly attacked each of the Egyptian gods, proving the Hebrew God was more powerful. He assigned Jules to research the Egyptian gods and match each up with the subsequent plague. He connected Jules to Torah by speaking directly to what he was already interested in. Brilliant!

In both cases, it was the teacher who made the difference. It was the teacher who ignited the spark. “Fun” in education comes when a student is excited about learning. Oprah called these “ah ha” moments. Think about when you’ve had those moments. When you connected the dots and learned something that was fascinating or exciting because you understood and were empowered to learn more.

There is a reason students spend hours debating one word of Talmud. There is a reason chevruta learning has been practiced for centuries. There is a reason deep, substantial discussion ignites a classroom.

We need to engage the mind and not worry about stimulating graphics.

We need to invest in techniques, not technologies.

We need to give talented teachers the tools and support to do their best and we, as Jewish parents, need to truly partner with our schools by living the lessons at home as best we can.

Yes, 21st-century tools are needed in our classrooms to engage today’s students.

But needed more, perhaps, are those from the 15th century.

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