Teaching Mitzvot: Challenges, Opportunities, and Questions
How can what we teach make an impact on those young lives today and in the future? How to bring the wisdom of our Torah and Sages into the 21st century?
How does your school teach about mitzvot to a student body with a high diversity of practices and perspectives on Judaism?
Generally we teach early sources first, particularly from Tanakh, making a distinction between law and custom. For the most part, our curriculum follows the calendar regarding the festivals, fasts and minor holidays. In the middle school we delve into later sources, from the Talmud to modern rabbis; we also teach Jewish perspectives on contemporary topics such as medical or business issues. At all times, whenever the text differs from modern practices (for Conservative, Reform, or Sephardic application of a particular law), we tell students to ask their rabbi how a mitzvah should be performed.
Does denominational pluralism factor into the way that mitzvot are discussed?
We do not make an attempt to cover all denominations when teaching. Importance is given for skill in decoding a text (Hebrew), understanding other possible readings, and staying close to the peshat (literal level). Elementary education gives too little room for critical or abstract thinking due to age, maturity, and brain development. At the middle school level, children understand more critically the nuances of Halakhah and mitzvot, and discussions occur more freely at that level.
To what degree does your school emphasize the performance of mitzvot as essential to Judaism?
Any learning to have relevance and meaning needs to be action oriented. The performance of mitzvot are taught as essential to the development of character (middot), development of Jewish identity (hashkafah) and Jewish living (Halakhah).
Certainly a person’s character needs constant reminders and daily application in order for traits such as sharing, respectful language, being thankful to Hashem and others, being aware of a classmate’s or other students’ needs (among many) to be absorbed and ingrained.
Tell us about some of the main challenges you’ve experienced in educating about mitzvot.
The challenges are those of meaning and relevance. How can what we teach make an impact on those young lives today and in the future? How to bring the wisdom of our Torah and Sages into the 21st century? These are constant questions we address, given the nature of our multifaceted families, the various affiliations, etc. What is the base level of mitzvot that, no matter the level of observance, we can teach to support the practice of Judaism among our families? That, I believe, is the biggest challenge we have.
What kinds of reactions have you received from parents regarding their children learning mitzvot?
There is somewhat of a dichotomy between what is taught at school and home life. This is true even for secular subjects such as physics and geometry. Parents may not have recall of those subjects, or they may have learned in a different way than we do today. The same applies for the learning of mitzvot.
The difference is that Judaics classes have the capacity to have a much greater impact on the lives of the students and their families. I think parents send their child to a Jewish day school precisely because we offer a unique approach to learning. This approach includes Jewish practices and norms of proper behavior. Research shows clearly that parents want their children learning ethical and moral behaviors. Parents who send their children to our schools believe that the Torah has an important message to us all. We see that while our generation is more affluent, with access to more possessions and more knowledge, human nature has not changed much, and that existential questions about the meaning of life are still very important. So while we may at times debate about the importance of learning certain mitzvot over others, one thing remains: Will my child have a sense of belonging, will he or she behave in an honorable manner and follow in the paths of Jewish wisdom?
What kind of role(s) has your board played in setting policy or responding to issues on this topic?
Our board does not set policy regarding curricular issues.
Discussions and guidelines may come at times to address issues of Jewish diversity at school, allowing many voices to be heard and practices to be observed. The main emphasis is to consider the need of the whole school versus individual needs: for example, how to make sure Orthodox children feel the same sense of belonging as children of different affiliations or with no affiliation. One example concerns school prayer: how can we have various forms of prayer and still respect divergences of practice? We opted for a boys-only and girls-only morning prayers. Each can then lead their own group without making either boys or girls uncomfortable.
How does your school build mitzvot into your curriculum?
We have adopted some existing curricula to make sure that as they get older, students study mitzvot at an increasing level of depth and complexity.
In what ways do activities outside of the classroom include the performance of mitzvot?
Our students visit the Home for the Aged next door to us, giving us ample opportunities for face-to-face encounter in acts of chesed. Our Student Council selects various Jewish and non-Jewish organizations for tzedakah and involves our students in fundraising for them. Children do have to demonstrate they practice certain mitzvot at home, and parents are involved as well.
From your observation of various community day schools, what changes would you like to see in this regard?
In discussion with some of my colleagues, we see how imperative it is to stay centered on what is common to us all as a learning community. We all face the same eternal questions in running Jewish schools:
Is it what students know that matters or how they know and live?
How can we teach mitzvot in such a way that brings to mind, heart, and soul the sanctity of life?
What sets of behavior will make our next generation more compassionate and equipped with good basic skills for conflict resolution? What role does the Torah, the study of mitzvot play in this regard?
What advice do you have specifically for school heads?
In good Jewish fashion, I would challenge them with a question:
In making a decision, ask yourselves if this is the right thing to do, or the wise thing to do?
You may make a decision that you believe is right, but may not be wise, creating dissension in your school.
On crucial policies regarding mitzvot in your school, whether concerning wearing kippot, conducting tefillot, erecting a mechitzah, or preparing a Judaics curriculum, you may need to consult with people in your school and community in order to find consensus and achieve maximal buy-in. It is essential for you to show strong leadership and to consult with others wisely and strategically for the community to support the values and direction of the school.
Chazak ve-ematz—Be strong and of good courage! ♦