Education Par Excellence: Jewish Day School Is the Answer By Greg Beiles #teachmetuesday
For some parents, enrolling their children in Jewish day school education is a clear choice. Family tradition, adherence to Judaism as a religion, and attachment to the land of Israel or the Hebrew language are all reasons that some families would only choose a Jewish day school education for their children. However, for an increasing number of families, these reasons are not compelling enough.
Some parents believe that their children can maintain a healthy Jewish connection through synagogue affiliation or summer camp alone. There are those who think Jewish education is only about religion. Some wonder whether a Jewish education provides students with a perspective broad enough to succeed in Canadian society or the “globalized” world. Others consider Jewish day school just a way to get the advantages of private school education at a fraction of the cost.
These attitudes overlook the best that the Jewish experience has to offer.
A well-executed Jewish day school education integrates rigorous intellectual development, strong social conscience, emotional development, and critical thinking. The composite result is accomplished through drawing on both an ethos and a method based on thousands of years of experience.
The ability to anticipate and re-encounter ideas with fresh and maturing eyes is central to the Jewish method of learning. Years of learning this way, where understanding continually deepens, instills a multi-dimensional perspective. Children learn to look again and then again, and they notice how they can see more each time. For five year-olds, the Passover narrative may be a story of bull rushes, a burning bush, and matzah; but, year by year, they discover more and come to understand the Passover themes of freedom of choice and conscience. They witness how the more profound themes of this eternal story emerge, and they remember how they first saw them.
The children become accustomed to analyzing and understanding situations, problems, and people at more than one level. This is a life skill, not just a Jewish skill. They learn to look beyond what is obvious, and know there is always more to discover.
Jewish education teaches how to bridge ethical ideals with practical life. Over the past 2,000 years, Judaism developed profound expertise in informing the needs of daily reality with the visionary ethics of biblical monotheism. According to the Talmud (Kiddushin 29a), a child must be taught both the moral teachings of Torah and a “craft” or a profession through which to earn an honest living. Even the practical teaching of a profession is understood by the Talmud to have an ethical component, as it prevents a child from growing up to be needy.
As this integration of ethics and practical life shows, Judaism and good Jewish education do not formulate utopian ethical ideals, but are oriented towards ethical deeds. Children, who are raised to view real-life situations through an ethical lens, learn to make their way in the world with a strongly ingrained moral compass.
Students immersed in Jewish teachings learn this approach from an early age, and get used to relating ethical teachings to their own lives. In Grade 1, students may read how Abraham gave his nephew Lot first choice of the best land, and they learn that sometimes, for the sake of peace, we let others choose first. By junior high school, students connect the Talmudic notion of safeguarding human dignity to the modern concept of human rights and to the current events they hear in the news.
Jewish education is an education in good citizenship. Judaism understands that the cherished Western values of human rights and individual freedom depend upon taking up communal and personal responsibilities. Learning civic responsibility within the context of Judaism prepares students to be active, responsible, and engaged citizens. The Ten Commandments is first and foremost a “Bill of Responsibilities.”
At one time, Jewish day schools were called “parochial,” which is an unfortunate misnomer. In fact, students attending progressive Jewish day schools reap the advantage of true biculturalism. They become Jewish Canadians whose depth of Jewish knowledge only broadens their perspectives and enhances their contribution to Canadian society and world culture.
Some of the advantages of Jewish education may be garnered through a potpourri of other sources: camp may encourage identity; good secular schools may teach critical thinking; families may instruct civic responsibility. But Jewish day school education integrates all of these elements, every day, all day long.
Torah means “teaching” and Judaism is “teaching” par excellence: shaped, tested, and refined over thousands of years of experience. Jewish education integrates intellectual, spiritual, emotional, and social learning to enhance our children’s growth and development in profound ways.
Greg Beiles is Head of The Toronto Heschel School and Director of Education
Section 3: Bringing It All Together
1. “The ability to anticipate and re-encounter ideas with fresh and maturing eyes is central to the Jewish method of learning.”
2. This article was originally published in Think, Issue 10, Fall 2011.
3. Greg Beiles is Head of The Toronto Heschel School and Director of The Lola Stein Institute.