It is May; Our brief Southern spring turns to summer temperatures. Graduation announcements are landing in the mailbox, and photos of graduates fill Facebook and newspaper pages.
School’s out for summer!
This is a good time to talk about religious education and teaching the pathways of faith to our children. Just as there is Sunday school for Christian kids, there is religious school for Jewish kids. It takes a brave individual to take on the challenges of any religious school, the assortment of wiggly 4- to 12-year-old kids – and their parents.
The parents and teachers who take up this duty are honoring their faith. They are passing on learning and traditions to the next generation. Among other emotional benefits, doing this gives those individuals endless opportunities to practice patience.
Jewish religious school has goals: to begin laying a foundation of Jewish knowledge and Jewish identity, in addition to preparing the child for their bar or bat mitzvah, which is the rite of passage between a child’s 12th or 13th year. At that time, the child becomes an adult in terms of Jewish responsibility, after which they return to seventh grade.
So let’s contemplate the joys and challenges of creating this deliberate foundation. A core building block is the language, which requires the children learn the Hebrew Aleph Bet, the Hebrew alphabet. It’s a collection of squiggly lines and dots which look nothing like the English alphabet and represent a variety of sounds. A number of those sounds are roughly approximate to the noise made when gargling. Our students will generally practice these quite enthusiastically, until the level of semi-accidental spitting escalates to a level requiring adult intervention.
Language is taught early, with the children learning to count in Hebrew and learn the words for various body parts which are much more exciting in Hebrew and will guarantee endless repetition. Singing is fundamental, as ancient melodies and prayers are taught. In learning this entirely new language, the children are set upon the path of carrying forward an ancient language, even as they adapt it to include new words, like “pickup truck.”
Another consistent topic in religious school is reading the Hebrew Bible which consists of the Five Books, a number of prophets and the writings. The writings can be a source of great learning for adults. But for the younger generation, the Book of Job and the story of Esther are more giggle worthy. It’s a rare Jewish school teacher who takes on teaching the Song of Songs to the pre-pubescent set. Reading thru Leviticus, however, is unavoidable. Imagine the experience of reading Leviticus with 10-year-old boys, unless you like discussions of plagues and boils, of course. Offsetting Leviticus are the stories of Exodus, retold every year in the spring, with Passover; including more plagues, dramatically crossing the sea, and escaping enemies.
As the children learn their Hebrew history, some modern religious schools have a “Mensch Madness” competition. A mensch is an individual of great integrity and honesty, a “Good Person.” This is a non-basketball variation on March Madness, with biblical characters as competitors. The students work thru the brackets, comparing and re-telling stories until a winner is declared on some specific trait.
Rumor has it that once the whale from the Jonah story won.
Religious schools also pass on traditions with roots tracing back centuries. Every year at Hanukkah, in addition to the discussion over present-giving, an even more lively exchange is held over in which direction to start lighting the candles on the menorah. Later in the year, the kids learn the story of Esther and make “groggers,” or sound makers, to drown out the name of evil Hamen when that story is told. They also make Tzedakah or “charity boxes,” which are to be filled with coins, and given to charities. This is intended to pass on one of the fundamental mitzvah, or commandments.
As the language, prayers and traditions are passed on; there is the accompanying growth of identity and joy in understanding one’s roots. Knowing the meaning, and history of traditions allows for the rising generation to stand tall in their knowledge. May these students become individuals who teach in their time.
Edie Yakutis works with Ritual Life at Temple Solel in Fort Mill. Contact her firstname.lastname@example.org.