T he North American Jewish Day School Convention begins Sunday in Los Angeles (Feb. 6-8) to explore the future of education. Left off the schedule is a session on how to apply the “No Child Left Behind” concept to create a standard of knowledge proficiency for every Jewish child. How might this work in our day school environment? We asked the Orthodox Union’s Rabbi Steven Burg to outline an approach to experiential education that extends into the home. According to Rabbi Burg, every Jewish child should have a well-rounded curriculum that includes the following:
How can we be “the people of the Book” without “the Book?” Any attempt at fostering a Jewish identity will be sorely deficient if it is based strictly on culture without acknowledging that God giving us the Torah is what made us Jews. What that textual engagement is, however, can vary greatly from family to family. Reading Bible stories may work for one child, while the moral lessons of Pirkei Avot (“Ethics of the Fathers”) may better suit another. Of course, it’s great for families to review the weekly Torah portion using an accessible translation. (I recommend Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s magnum opus, “The Living Torah.”)
Helping others is an inherent part of the Jewish experience. Look at our patriarchs and matriarchs. Abraham ran to greet his guests. Rebecca ran to water Eliezer’s camels. These people didn’t perform acts of kindness grudgingly, out of a sense of obligation or because of pangs of conscience. They ran, with enthusiasm, to help their fellow man. (Abraham even asked God Himself to wait for him until after he tended to his guests — that’s how important helping others is!) A passion for kindness is part of what makes us Jews and that trait must be nurtured in the next generation. There are so many worthy causes that are desperate for our help, so let’s get involved!
A Connection to the Land of Israel
All Jews are a single family and Israel is our home. It’s an indispensable component of Jewish ethos. We see this throughout the Torah and the other books of Tanach (the Jewish Bible), from Abraham purchasing the cave of the Machpela in Hebron to David purchasing the threshing floor of Aruna, where the Temple would be built. Rashi, the preeminent Bible commentator, is already talking about Israel in his very first comment on “In the beginning!” But it’s not enough to talk about Israel — it must be experienced firsthand to truly appreciate it. A trip as a family is optimal, but there are numerous camps and tours for teens that also provide a thorough Israel experience.
Shabbat and Holiday Experiences
It’s sad to say, but the machines have taken over. Technology rules our lives. BlackBerries, iPads, cell phones, Facebook — we are inundated by an endless stream of virtual information. But while such things connect us with others around the world, they insulate us from others in the same room. Shabbat and holidays, on which all devices are shut off and put away for 25 hours or more, provide us with a rare opportunity to connect with God, our families, and ourselves. With Shabbat, we can refocus ourselves and remember what’s truly important in life. They say that “more than the Jew has kept the Sabbath, Sabbath has kept the Jew.” That is more true in this generation than ever before.
The Dialogue of Prayer
What would we do if we had daily meetings scheduled with the mayor? The governor? The president? For sure, we wouldn’t squander those opportunities! But we have regular opportunities to speak with the Almighty and we don’t know what to do with them! Maybe we don’t need anything right now. That’s OK. Through prayer, we foster our relationship with God. Then, when we hit the bumps in the road of life, it’s easy to turn to Him because we already have a rapport with Him. We must be sure to introduce our children to God and encourage them to forge their own relationships with Him.
There is so much more that can go into a well-rounded Jewish child’s upbringing, but these are the basics. With a firm grounding in Torah, chesed, Israel, Shabbat and prayer, any Jew can weave for his or her self a rich tapestry of personalized experiences in the context of the greater Jewish community.
Rabbi Burg’s Bio
Rabbi Steven Burg is the international director of NCSY, the mission of which is to connect, inspire and empower Jewish teens through innovative outreach and inspirational experiences.