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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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20 Comments »

  • Chanie says:

    After reading your very interesting points on what three categories of education is required for “Jewish Education and Identity”, I was thrilled to read you send your children to Lamdeni Hebrew School. Rabbi Motty and Dini’s love and enthusiasm for Judaism, and their superb hebrew school will certainly imbue your children with all of your objectives. May you have much nachas from your children.
    – A former teacher at Lamdeni

  • Gedalia says:

    Its wonderful that you have a focus and plan to take your kids to a level that you feel confident with, and your children are lucky that they have a home that prioritises Jewish education.

    I do think that your first area of core knowledge needs more than just Hebrew Reading and basic understanding. What all parents should strive for here is Jewish literacy – developing the skills for kids to read and interpret source texts. They need to be able to read Chumush, Rashi in Rashi script, Meforshim, and Gemara in its non translated format. These skills take years to develop and many hours application each week. However for kids to be truely educated in Jewish interpretive methodologies and to make informed decisions about their own Jewish futures, we should aim for nothing less.

    Most of “us” – parents of school children, don’t have those skills ourselves and never had the chance to learn. However the resources and capabilities now exist for this level of education to be accessible, and we should not deny the opportunity to the next generation.

  • Jonny says:

    Thanks for publishing this for me Galus.

    I appreciate the opportunity for our theory to be shared and tested.

    Chanie, you are spot on that the Liberows are just so important to the Melbourne Jewish Community. Whilst you can achieve category A in many ways, we love the fun, exciting, special and “wild” experience Lamdeni gives our kids. Thanks Dina and Motti. Their service, apart from being affordable is extraordinarily committed and authentic. There is no-one teaching there that doesn’t get it or believe. They are not just teaching theory!

    I put the Wolf’s at Spiritgrow in the same category. I am chair of Spiritskool so I admit my conflict of interest, but the Spiritskool sessions are all about connection and meaning, category B. And their means of teaching is extraordinary too. Calm, reflective, creative.

    Gedalia, Chumash, interpretations and other source texts definitely fit in category A. I guess I call that whole area of learning “Torah”. But I grapple with it. And parents have to decide how deep and wide their children’s leanring before 16 in this space must be. One concern I have is that we confuse parents that their kids need to know as much as a pre-smicha Rabbi. Whilst that’s admirable it tends to lead them to not respect the learning of those who really have committed their lives to this. How far would you recommend for an U16 in the Chumush, Rashi in Rashi script, Meforshim, and Gemara in its non translated format? For my family, knowing about Rashi and his critical role… yes. Beyond that… I don’t know?

    Thanks guys

  • Gedalia says:

    I also grapple with this, and do not advocate pushing kids too far, especially when it is not for them.

    For the most part, I think we should strive to lift the standard as much as possible. The objective is to put kids in an informed position so that they can determine their Jewish future. The literacy skills in source texts are important. First, there is an element of accomplishment on the part of those who can open Hebrew and Aramaic texts and learn from source. Secondly, there is a level of insight and interpretive skill that provides intellectual challenge and inquiry. This all leads to a love of Judaism and learning, a depth of knowledge, and a full appreciation of Jewish heritage.

    Not all kids will master this, or even embrace it. However unfortunately there are far too many of our children who are never exposed to this and never get to understand or experience what Jewish learning can do to develop their critical thinking skills, middot, and knowledge. It is this that has sustained Jewish continuity. They deserve the opportunity to be exposed to a unique and critical Jewish learning experience by being immersed in a yeshivah style environment.

  • Jonny says:

    Thanks Gedalia

    I see what you’re saying… ie. don’t exclude the possibility or experience. How far someone will depend on a whole range of individual, accessibility and family factors but that element has a beauty to be explored.

    Let’s add that to the framework…

  • letters in the age says:

    Wonderful and inspiring work!!

    Thanks for sharing and best of luck with it!!

    Have fun along the way

    ;)

  • Shira Wenig says:

    Jonny, thank you for sharing this framework on Galus. It’s really admirable that you and your wife have put so much thought and effort into designing your childrens’ education and putting together this framework.

    I suspect that many parents who send their kids to Jewish dayschools delegate the whole educational endeavour to the school, and have something to learn from the proactive and thoughtful approach you’ve outlined here.

    One question: How do you plan to continue the non-Hebrew language part of category 1 at high school level? (I may be mistaken but I think Lamdeni goes up to bar/bat mitzvah?)

  • Jonny says:

    Shira, thank you! That is exactly the kind of question the framework invokes as we try to create pathways in the community!

    Word on the street is that Lamdeni are likely to launch “Lamdeni High” as of 2013… once in their new building is complete.

    Spiritgrow has a Spirit Teens program that will also likely grow into this gap. My eldest daughter, having done her Batmitzvah course at Spiritgrow, now has a coach.

    And of course once past 12/13 my kids will partipcate in the wide world of shuirim availabe that I and my wife go to with Spiritgrow and elsewhere…

    but the gap definitely exists and the education experts and the rest of us should be exploring possibilities!

  • Jonny says:

    Thanks Letters…

  • Ari says:

    Since am lucky to live in Israel most of these discussions are relevant only for those in the deserts of Australia. It would be interesting to do a survery of parents in the Jewish community of Australia to see how what percetage of a child’s Jewish education they receive at school.
    An anecdote from my teaching rounds in an Israeli public religious primary school: As part of a discussion amongst all of us students our supervisor asked what percentage we thought our students got, Jewishly, from the school environment in its totality – I was going to suggest something like 60 % – almost everyone in the room agreed that it was maybe 15% at the very maximum 20 %. This is from schools that have about 4-5 hours (or more) a day of gemarra, chumash, navi and mishna from the very beginning. I am glad to see that others in Australia also think more like this.

  • letters in the age says:

    No thank you !!!

    Hugs

  • Jonny says:

    Ari one interesting conversation I have quite frequently is where private school parents ask me what we do on the JE front. I expldin that our kids do 1.5 hours at lamdeni on Wednesday night and 1.5 hours at Spiritgrow on Tuesdays. I add in their 2 hours of youth group on Sunday and their Maccabi soccer. In response the almost automatically say… Isn’t that too much? I then point out of course that in the Jewish day school environment they would have the equivilent of that every School day. The other parent then says something like, yes I don’t really think of it that way. It is an interesting contrast. My kids actually enjoy what they do on the Jewish front and partly I believe that’s because they are not immersed in it 5 hours a day. It is their special and unique activity set.

    So yes the questions persist in terms of kids really gaining… 5 really enjoyed hours per week versus 5 forced hours per day? You can’t argue the benefits of volume. But also can’t argue the value of the activity feeling really special and fun….

    This parenting thing is complicated!!

  • QualityVsQuantity says:

    Dear Jonny

    A quick note on your last point, one which I have heard suggested before.

    If you have found 5 enjoyable and engaging hours of activities which will strengthen your children’s connection to Judaism that is wonderful. BUT – that doesn’t mean that if one has 5 hours per day it can’t be engaging, enjoyable and an all round positive experience – it just takes a lot of work.

    As to how much everyone chooses to provide their children is their individual choice – but there should never be a suggestion to reduce the quantity in order to increase the quality – let’s just make sure to raise bar in terms of the quality of the high quantity offering.

    Shabbat Shalom

  • Jonny says:

    Hi Quality

    Spot on.

    Please don’t hear me saying that the 5 hours per day cannot be engaging. I very much accept that. Perhaps I even assume it. If the opposite were true, I think a parent would have to step in ASAP.

    Rather I was adding to Ari’s comments about where real learning occurs, the dangers of immersion without management; and the choices we make. I think we all accept that homelife dictates the “love” of Judaism on the whole. It is a rare case where education processes can create passion where home life destorys it.

    At the same time, 4-5 hours per day is a huge investment of a child’s life and a parent would want to be convinced of the “impact”, goals or “enjoyment” of that time spent.

    Is that what you mean by hard work? Checking in with the child?
    Checking that the child is actually inspired by the experience?

    My negative assumptions is that I think many parents persist with uninspiring inputs without reflection; and that is where quantity for quantity’s sake can be a very bad thing. I believe it will have the opposite impact on a child.

    It is also what I was alluding to in regard to control. In a Jewish Day school a parent hands over control of the choice of teachers, syllabus, philosophies etc to the school. Great if your kids loves it. Tough if you of your child finds it too much, too little or too meaningless.

    Choices, choices, choices eh?

  • letters in the age says:

    Last point #ducks for cover

    Looking at the American diaspora and how they have bastardized their identity im very grateful of the lovely and polite jewish community in Melbourne

    You guys have a nice balance

    well done gorgeous people!!

    ;)

  • Ilana Leeds says:

    B’H

    Jonny I thank you for the positive take on Jewish schooling. My journey as I seek to bring my son up as an Orthodox Kosher Jew has not been so positive and I have met an almost (I say almost, as Hashem does not give anyone a task that they cannot cope with) insurmountable amount of negativity and even malicous prejudice and lies by those who have surrounded us and even ostracised us. My son has even told me it is because you are a convert that they have even bashed him and assaulted him.
    While I feel extremely hurt and shocked by the experiences of my son, I feel even more upset by the damage that these people who have hurt my son in an effort to get at me, have done to themselves.
    To deliberately hurt or damage another person emotionally or physically ultimately does more damage to the person who goes to hurt another by coarsening them and bringing them down to a really brutal level of interation with others.
    True education is about refinement of the person and the soul and its interaction with others on both the physical and spiritual levels. Jewish education does that on a very high level. Learning Hebrew is part of it, but it also needs to embody Jewish values and principles of life.
    Sometimes people who are supposed to espouse certain values are unable to live up to them despite education to the contrary and are filled with prejudices which run contrary to the principles and values that their family and community have tried to instill in them. For those people, we do need to try other avenues and methods of instruction and to keep an open mind and one that is filled with peace for and actual love of our fellow human being then we allow them the freedom to find their Jewish path to G-D.
    It is good to respect other paths that are not Jewish but equip our children to deal with differences sensitively and humanely, recognising it is not theirs.
    For my son, he has had very positive experiences with Lamdeni,Benai Akiva, Mizrachi (and even at Yeshiva where he asks me to take him on shabbat despite some less than positive experiences there) but sadly not so in the public school he was at for three and a half years where he was bashed and assaulted and not one teacher saw or said what happened despite him stating categorically he told several people and named them. I was told that he is intellectually disabled (I totally disagree with this assessment of my son’s intellectual ability) therefore ‘you cannot trust his testimony’. He was intellectually battered by kids who told him he ‘is not Jewish because your mother is not really Jewish.’ I converted al pi halacha and despite the aspiring secular ‘rabbis’ who have obviously taken on the prejudices of some of their parents, I am Jewish and proudly so. I would be indeed embarrased and mortified if my son did to their child what was done to my son and for the reasons it was done. I thank G-D every day that I am an Orthodox Jewess and a practising one. I may not be perfect and have many faults and keep on trying to perfect my life and actions. I do not regret my conversion even for one moment. That is what we want in our children. That we are proud to be Jews and to enjoy practising our faith at whatever level. Judaism requires that sometimes we do have to face things that are beyond our comfort level. No pain = no gain. Kashrut requires us to place restrictions on ourselves for our ultimate refinement. Prayer is also a discipline, especially Jewish prayer. There is a wholesale immersion in a way of thinking and that requires focus and ultimately a trust in G-D that goes beyond the petty and the trival.
    Judaism is the ultimate journey of a lifetime. Torah properly followed is a one way ticket to emotional, intellectual and spiritual freedom. You can either deny yourself that freedom or embrace it in an ultimate leap of faith, trusting that Hashem does not give you experiences that are not important for your spiritual growth and refinement. As Jews we have important obligations and responsibilities which if we deny this lifetime we are born again to face them again.

  • Jonny says:

    Thanks Ilana

    The parenting thing is just so complex. And the education thing a mine field.

    Without sharing any specific overlaps… I think your experiences match mine in that we should all keep trying and changing until we find or create environments that work for our family goals, identity and aspirations.

    Like you, I am enjoying the journey even though, as you say sometimes it is accomanied with pain and genuine grief.

    Keep the faith.

  • Ari says:

    Johnny

    The main point of my post was that despite the in depth formal Jewish studies most people here feel that 80% of a cchilds Jewish knowledge values etc comes from the home. My sense is that many in Australia feel it’s the opposite and don’t put much thought into it. Probably because they don’t put much thought into their own Judaism.
    On another front while a force vs choice argument is important to have there is notmuch that can replace years of study at a young age. From my limited experience even most Australians who attended frummer schools lag farbehind American and israeli (and perhaps evenbritish) peers in Jewish knowledge

  • Wondering says:

    Thanks Ari

    I guess that’s the point of the framework is to enable parents to decide just how far they need to “push/invite” their children in each category.

    We are all different but we all face the same decisions:
    How much should be school? How much at home? How much other sources?
    What is the right mix?

    An ultra orthodox family may care deeply for category one; somewhat for category two; and very little in category 3. The frum family you’re giving in your example would be hungry for more and more knowledge – this would require a Yeshiva environment…

    In a secular family category 3 will be critical. And they will put almost all their Jewish energies and example into issues and community groups like fundraising, sports, politics, Gay rights, refugees, or Zionism.

    In my family, a traditional middle of the road orthodox, category 2 is probably the most important.

    The aim is to find the right mix against your goals – that’s the challenge.

  • Jonny says:

    Cheers guys (and gals?)

    I’m trying avoid the idea that one balance is better than another. The goal is to help parents work through the choices.

    I appreciate your comments. If we can develop the categories further at least parents can have a frameowrk to work with.

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