HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal


Feeding the Hungry: Nurturing Faith in Jewish Day Schools

by Howard Deitcher Issue: Nurturing Faith

In 1913 a young Jewish student sent a most disturbing letter to his parents about his intentions to convert to Christianity. In this letter, the student, Franz Rosenzweig, expressed his belief in G-d and at the same time related that he was desperately searching for ways to feed his spiritual soul. His parents lived a typical German Jewish lifestyle that included full membership in the local kehillah and temple attendance three times a year. However, the Jewish education that his parents provided left young Franz hungry and frustrated, and this painful letter describes his genuine search for spiritual sustenance.

Every healthy and curious child is engaged in a lifelong search for meaning, and questions of faith and religion play a central role in their ongoing development.

Because I am hungry must I—on principle—go on being hungry? On principle! Does principle satisfy hunger? Can being non-religious on principle satisfy a religious need? Or can the empty notation in the registrar’s office “Religion-Jewish” satisfy a religious need! If I am given the choice of an empty purse or a handful of money, must I choose the purse? Again, on principle!

Rosenzweig’s letter remains as relevant today as it was nearly a century ago. There are many Jewish students in day schools worldwide whose souls are parched for Jewish sustenance, and who identify with Rosenzweig’s ongoing search for meaningful Jewish spirituality. In the course of this paper we will argue that Jewish day schools should assume a major role in nurturing the religious development of their students, as this constitutes a critical component of the school’s mandate. In addition, we will describe a conceptual model that maps this educational process, and finally, we will present a theological conversation that took place with a group of 9-11 year old day school students and demonstrate how questions of faith development can be addressed in a respectful and meaningful way in a school setting.

The reasons for nurturing faith in Jewish schools are as compelling as they are varied. First and foremost, every healthy and curious child naturally asks theological questions about the world that surrounds them. These young people are engaged in a lifelong search for meaning, and questions of faith and religion play a central role in their ongoing development. They spend a significant portion of their time studying a rich variety of Jewish texts, rituals, beliefs, and ideas. A healthy and desired outcome of this investment of time is the triggering of a plethora of faith-related questions that challenge students’ beliefs, assumptions and understandings, and ultimately, impacts their spiritual development.

Children’s religious development cannot be seen in isolation from the teaching process. Rather, teaching plays a key role in the development of the individual and accelerates the learning process in significant ways that otherwise could not be achieved. In explaining the impact of teaching on human development, Lev Vygotsky considered two levels of mental concepts: spontaneous and scientific. Spontaneous concepts are unsystematic, contextual reflections on common experiences that occur on a regular basis. In contrast, scientific concepts are logical, systematic, and decontextualized, and are attained through interactions, clarification, and learning activities that trigger an exchange of ideas and insights. According to Vygotsky, schools provide the most natural and conducive environment for nurturing scientific concepts. He maintained that schools should serve as experiential centers for this critical form of human development.

In that sense, Jewish day schools serve as the ultimate venue for faith education, and Jewish studies teachers should be encouraged to engage their students in a spiritual journey that will set the tone for their ongoing religious development. Clearly, this educational responsibility demands a serious commitment to professional development, but in our work with schools worldwide, we have found teachers open and eager to exploring this possibility. They appreciate the formative impact of faith development and are prepared to invest the necessary time and energy that will enable their students to explore multiple paths of religious development.

Jewish schools serve as communities for their students and their families. They reflect and shape the values of those families and attempt to create a sense of mutual respect, appreciation and understanding. While faith is oftentimes perceived as an individual or personal quality, it also includes a social or communal dimension. In Jewish life, faith has always been regarded as a collective as well as an individual phenomenon. And as increasing numbers of Jewish children are educated in Jewish day schools, the social roles of these schools have expanded beyond the classroom to include family education, the celebration of religious and life cycle events, and the provision of a wide range of Jewish experiences. Jewish day schools that regard themselves as communal institutions with a responsibility to forging a sense of community must address the questions of faith that confront their students and their families.

This dialogue demonstrates children’s deep interest and acute ability to explore these faith questions within a school setting, and the need for a systematic and ongoing educational approach that will guide this process.

Finally, children’s engagement in faith questions allows us to reflect on the very nature of their abstract reasoning—the kind of cognitive moves they make and the ways in which their own worldly experience informs their reasoning about abstract issues. Here we are referring to the underlying concepts, analogies, and associations that children bring to their thinking as they address questions of faith and belief. In exploring these points, we want to challenge the commonly accepted position that belief in G-d is an invariant stage-like process that begins with irrational fantasy (allegedly the stuff children’s and only children’s thinking addresses) toward the telos and adult standard of rational logic (allegedly the stuff adults’ and only adults’ thinking addresses). A series of theological conversations with children by Robert Coles, Kieran Egan, Gareth Matthews and others provide us with a window into the epistemic, metaphysical and moral world of children. Their thoughts, ideas, and beliefs are steeped in extraordinary images and symbols that lay the foundations for their making sense of the larger world. We believe that issues of faith are critical building blocks in the Jewish child’s life, and it is incumbent on Jewish day schools to address these needs in rigorous and meaningful ways.

A Theological Conversation

We now turn briefly to a conversation that took place with a group of 9-11 year old children from Orthodox Jewish American families. Within this conversation we see children puzzling over issues concerning the possibility of knowledge of G-d, and the proper object of prayer and its limits. This piece exposes the structural basis of the children’s thinking and their deep interest in exploring theological issues that are meaningful in their lives. Our experience teaches us that this topic would receive similar responses from other non-Orthodox children in day schools across North America. (This conversation was analyzed together with Dr. Jen Glaser.)

Ilana (teacher): When we say a prayer, when we ask something from G-d, should we expect an answer from G-d?

Talya: I don’t think we expect it. I think we hope for it, but I don’t think that all the times we pray for something we think we are going to get it, we expect to get it. For example, to pray for something concrete, like I want a new bike or something, because I don’t think it is fair to ask G-d for those kinds of things.

Fran: Well, I don’t expect. Say I say, I would like the messiah to come, and I’d also like my grandmother not to die, and I’d also like my family to buy me a new bike for Chanukah, and I’d also like to die at the age of 104, I don’t think that G-d is going to do one of those things. If! But I can hope for it. I can say please let, I don’t know, say, please let my grandmother not die because she is sick, maybe He won’t do that, but maybe He might not do anything, but He might do everything. He might only do one thing or He might do two things or three things or four things or five things or just one. [giggles]

What might this passage tell us about the children’s theological reasoning? Firstly, the children are clearly wrestling with the limits of prayer and its relevance for their lives. Second, they insist on distinguishing between expecting and hoping. Here we note that it is Talya who introduces the distinction, not the teacher, and she does so by modifying the verb that Ilana has used in her question to the students. In distinguishing between these concepts (expecting, hoping) we can see that Talya is engaged in clarifying the different features of each term. Expecting depends on a kind of reliance. What matters for reliance is that we take what it is we rely on into our plans. To rely on someone picking us up from school is to plan our own activities as if that person will be there. If I am expecting them at the gate and they do not show up, I may feel disappointed or frustrated precisely because I took their being at the gate as an expected and assured outcome, and this reliance (acting as if the person would be there) was shown to be mistaken.

Hoping, however, isn’t dependent on this kind of reliance. In hoping, we do not plan our activities as if what we are hoping for will actually happen. Hoping is a stance we take to the world that is internal to us. Finally, Talya understands the categories of tangible and intangible, and considers it unfair to ask G-d for the tangible—a position that Fran may not accept. This dialogue demonstrates children’s deep interest and acute ability to explore these faith questions within a school setting, and the need for a systematic and ongoing educational approach that will guide this process.

Conclusions

What does the area of nurturing faith offer Jewish day school education? First, it offers the children a set of ideas, concepts, and a language that allows them to ponder theological questions in a more nuanced and sophisticated way. Second, the cited dialogue demonstrates how the children’s exploration of the meaning and limits of prayer brings their own developing understanding of the world into dialogue with the religious concepts and traditions of which they are part. Their discussion concerning objects of appropriate prayer illumines the ways in which they see moral, theological, and epistemological explanations as fundamentally related to one another. Through a close reading of the dialogue we come to appreciate how statements which at first glance may appear associative and rambling, may, on closer examination, be seen to be cases of complex reasoning—reasoning which explores multiple interpretations of a given situation in light of differing logical variations regarding the subject at hand. Finally, attending to faith development in day school education responds to Franz Rozensweig’s plea for spiritual sustenance. In that sense, it addresses a fundamental and critical need that cannot be overlooked in our attempt to produce knowledgeable, curious and committed Jews. ♦

Dr. Howard Deitcher is a senior lecturer at the Melton Centre for Jewish Education at the Hebrew University and a faculty member at the Mandel Leadership Institute in Jerusalem. He can be reached at mshoward@mscc.huji.ac.il.

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Nurturing Faith

Faith is the most elusive quality to inculcate, the hardest to measure. Yet at some level, everything Jewish day schools seek to achieve depends upon it. The sense of belonging and connection that is fundamental to Jewish identity resides, at heart, in a sense of emunah, of trust and belief in something larger than ourselves. This issue considers factors that nourish Jewish faith of different kinds.

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