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Unpacking Jewish Education – A Framework to Help Parents

July 31, 2012 – 9:07 pm20 Comments

By Jonny Schauder
Jewish Education has always been a hot and complex topic. Galus Australis has published a wide range of articles on this topic in recent times.

Although I have never really thought of myself as an expert on Jewish Education, in my continuing adventure with the Glen Eira College Hebrew subject, I have frequently been asked for my opinion regarding this topic. I have also found it quite disappointing how many Jewish Education experts report that the topic is too complex and personal for refined dialogue.

Add to that, that few people would argue that there is any more complicated and extraordinary experience than the role of parenting. New parents realise the world is suddenly so much more bizarre, amazing and complex because of the rights and responsibility, as well as understandings and insights, they gain from parenthood.

Bring these two issues together and many of us will feel very lost and confused. In fact, we find the wonderful burden of Jewish Education for our children perhaps amongst the most difficult thing we will have to grapple with in our lives.

After having our first of five children, my wife and I realised we needed to be on the same page about educating our kids and getting the most from our resources. This article intends to share the framework that we developed and use to help ourselves with this quandary.

I share it in the hope that through dialogue we can develop it further; and also that it might help other young parents out there to be more confident about their decision making and planning.

The Framework

We determined that there are three categories of education required for “Jewish Education and Identity”:

1.    Core Knowledge
2.    Jewish values, awareness and spirituality
3.    Belonging, connection and ideals

I’ll try to illustrate each category below.

Each one of these categories of course has potentially infinite depth and width. So we continue to refine what we believe we need to provide to our children before they turn sixteen. The rest they will explore as adults by their own efforts and choice.
Our intent is to simply provide a solid base on which our kids can determine their own journey and make informed decisions.

The model helps by giving our parenting choices a language, basis, and guide.

Illustrating the Categories without being Exhaustive

1.    Core Knowledge

This category covers all the substantive Jewish basics like:

–    Hebrew reading and basic understanding.
–    The Jewish calendar, Shabbat and Festivals: understanding and participating.
–    Key prayers like the Shema, Mode Ani and Adon Olam.
–    The fundamental propositions of Kashrut.
–    The Torah: Ten Commandments and the weekly Torah reading.
–    Understanding the concept if not the detail of 613 Mitzvot.
–    The core timeline of Jewish history; our family’s journey.
–    The creation and existence of Israel in modern history.
–    Jewish life cycle events like Bris, Weddings and Bar and Bat mitzvahs and Funerals.

2.    Jewish values, awareness and spirituality

This category covers what a person thinks and believes about themselves, their faith, and how they contribute to the community and the world.  As such it includes:

–    Personal origins and role; and the notions of the Jewish Soul.
–    Existentialist meaning and purpose.
–    Jewish ethics and decision making and learning about relationships between people.
–    Exploring the person’s relationship with faith, looking beyond the material world, dealing with the unknown, and Gd.
–    Leadership, and concepts like bittel (humility), tzadaka (charity) and other-centredness.
–    Mindfulness and wellbeing: mind, body and soul – and the connection between the three.
–    Understanding the range of world views and philosophies around issues like Moshiach, Mitzvot and Reward and Punishment, Birth and Death.
–    Differentiating history and mythology, allegory and tale.
–    Jewish story telling and music, aspirations and Jewish Heroes.
–    The role of prayer and meditation.
–    Tradition, reformation, modernity and continuity.

3.    Belonging, connection and ideals

This category relates to kids being able to become part of and participate in specifically Jewish groups, activities, initiatives or causes.

The aim of this category is for children to understand the social dimension and diversity in the Jewish community: including making Jewish friends and connections.

This category also supports the idea of feeling connected to activism or ideology and making a difference on issues touched by Jewish values:

–    Community learning, lectures and shiur groups
–    Zionist Youth Movements and Skiff
–    Jewish Scouts and Brownies
–    And any specialist interest Jewish group: from cuisine and public speaking to fundraising, marches, protests, memberships and volunteerism, discussions and debates.
–    Sports and teams like Ajax or Maccabi, and participation in camps and carnivals.

Jewish Education Approaches

There are two approaches beyond family experience that can be utilised to deliver in these three areas:

1.    You either immerse your child in the Jewish context for almost all of their childhood time (at its heart this is the Jewish Private School model);

2.    Or you use diverse sources of education in or outside school time, enabling your kids to mix with diverse cultures, religions, backgrounds and ideologies (this is notionally the Cheder, Public, or non-Jewish school model).

The advantages of the immersion method is that identity and knowledge is built by knowing and linking to people who are similar to yourself, not being conflicted or challenged by outside provocations, and therefore receiving quite in-depth exposure to all three categories.  The potential is that children will emerge fluent in a huge amount of depth, connection, and detail if the model has worked for the student.

The downside is that by not having exposure to the contrast with other cultures, a child may feel forced or isolated to accepted the identity rather than be inspired by it. So the potential is also that children will emerge disengaged, demoralised, and disconnected.

And of course, whether it is an up or down side, private schooling comes with pre-packaged curriculums and cultures that cover all three education categories in accordance with the school’s views. This will appeal to some for whom it creates comfort and belonging; and irritate others who crave independence.

In the public or non-Jewish School model, parents have to make decisions very specifically about what they expose their kids to or not. For some, this is very empowering and liberating. And it gives them great control of their child’s exposure. For others it is just plain frightening.  The outcomes can be similarly engaging or disengaging depending on how this control is exercised. Either way, there is far more possibility of creating a “unique” package that works for a family and child who want a range of inputs.

There are certainly benefits and of course risks to be argued from exposure to a range of non-Jewish cultures so that a child can determine what they like and connect to in other faiths or approaches, as well as securing the value they place on their Jewish identity.

This notion is based on a old philosophy of discovering truth: that you cannot know light without experiencing dark, you cannot judge good without identifying bad, right without wrong, who or what you are without deciding who or what you are not.

All identity and belonging comes with decisions about contrast: who I am not, what I do not value or want to be, and where I feel I do not belong.

As a simple example, my second son Daniel, who is eight, recently returned home from an orthodox-Hindu-friend’s birthday party making the observation that the house was filled with statues of the Elephant-headed god… (Ganesh, I think). He said he had asked his friend’s family about the statues and pictures on the walls.

He reported that in that discussion and learning conversation, he was really happy to be Jewish rather than Hindu. Now I do not think one need over analyse or emphasise this type of moment, but it is indicative of the value a child might experience via direct exposure to a range of views.

Conclusion

So I hope this model contributes to parents “unpacking” the concept of Jewish Education, and therefore making choices that work for them: Three categories to be considered, using one of two delivery models.

For a range of personal reasons we use the public school model with the following inputs:
–    Category 1: We use Lamdeni Hebrew School and other Chabad resources (and of course, our kids are likely to continue to learn Hebrew when they move to Secondary School at Glen Eira College).
–    Category 2: We use Spiritskool and Spiritgrow.
–    Category 3: Our kids attend the Zionist Youth Movements and Maccabi, as well as one off events that they or we consider interesting or valuable.

So far we have found this model very fulfilling and well balanced for our goals. And we find that our children’s knowledge and coverage gives them confidence and continuing excitement in being Jewish. But everyone has to make their own choices!

Best of luck with yours!

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