Jewish Learning Never Ends!
This week is Teacher Appreciation Week, and my synagogue got a jump on it by celebrating a little early. On May 3rd, we honored our congregation’s nursery school and religious school teachers, whose hard work and dedication were acknowledged on the bimah. Our teen and youth choirs sang “To Be a Torah,” ”Miriam's Song,” and “Yism'chu,” and the cantor worked with the kindergarten through 2nd grade students to sing special songs in honor of the teachers.
We are fortunate to have a thriving school of more than 200 students in grades pre-K through 12. I believe it is a four-part success: We have great teachers, a hard-working nursery school director and director of religious education, parents who understand the importance of a Jewish education, and students who bring their youthful enthusiasm for learning into the classroom.
In religious school, students in the youngest grades concentrate on learning the prayers used for Shabbat as well as for b’nai mitzvah. They learn about the Jewish holidays, as well as the difference between rituals versus tradition. They learn the routines of lighting the Shabbat candles, the prayer said before the wine, and why the challah is covered. Students also learn by doing. The 6th grade, for example, hosts a mock wedding: Students take on the role of bride and groom, clergy, etc., to learn the ins and outs of this important and ritual-laden lifecycle event. Learning is not confined to the four walls of our school, either: Students take trips to the Jewish Museum, Holocaust Museum, and the Eldridge Street Synagogue to learn about the Jewish community beyond their congregation.
Our religious school does more than educate and prepare the children for bar and bat mitzvah – it also offers them a chance to give back to their temple. Through our Madrichim (leader) program, students in grades seven through 12 have the opportunity to volunteer on Sunday mornings, helping the teachers and clergy in the classroom, as well as with art, music, and dance. Serving as madrichim allows these older students to act, as our director of religious education in fond of reminding them, as role models for the younger children.
This year, six of our religious school teens will be confirmed and six will be graduating; in addition to the requirements of secular school, including SATs, ACTs, driver’s ed, regents, and other academic requirements, these students also made time to come to Hebrew High on Monday nights. Commendable! In class, teens discuss topics from current events to sex to bullying to ethics to their future plans, all with a Jewish twist. They use everything from the Torah to the Bible, television shows to movies to social media, to prove their points of view. There are no grades, no homework, no judging. For those who may not be interested in midrash (stories to explain the Torah), educational options also include cooking, conversational Hebrew, and other learning experiences. Many of the 12th grade students have come full circle since their b’nai mitzvah lessons and no longer need their moms to schlep them; now, they schlep themselves, as well as a younger sibling or a classmate!
The signs of a successful religious school are often not realized until years after students have left class. A number of the teachers in our religious school, for example, started as students there themselves; a number of students have gone on to become rabbis, cantors, and Jewish professionals.
Inspired by – and admittedly a little jealous of – the experiences of my children and their classmates, I constantly check our synagogue’s programming calendar for upcoming adult learning programs. I look forward for my chance at midrash and to try to figure out, for once and for all, the differences between rituals versus tradition. You can never stop learning!