The start of school — and the Jewish New Year — offers parents a renewed opportunity to engage in a reflective goal-setting process around our children’s Jewish education. What skills do we want our children to have in order to be able to live Jewish lives and participate in Jewish rituals and communal activities? What stories, texts, characters, historical figures, events, prayers, laws and customs do we want our children to know about? What attitudes, values and feelings do we want them to have toward Judaism? What do we think it means to be Jewishly educated?
Certainly, different parents will arrive at different answers to these questions. However, I have spoken to many parents who feel they lack the tools to answer these questions. “Judaism is so vast and the Jewish community is so diverse, how do I know if I am setting the right goals for my child’s education,” they wonder. And perhaps even more baffling, “How do I know if my child is on pace to achieve these goals?”
In general education, many parents use their own experience to gauge how their child is doing. If a parent learned how to read in kindergarten, how to do long division in fourth grade and how to write a five-paragraph essay in seventh grade, she might expect more or less the same for her children. And parents who want more up-to-date or expertly developed metrics to make sure that their child’s skills and knowledge are developing appropriately, can consult any number of articulations of educational standards or curricula for grade-level benchmarks and goals.
When it comes to Jewish education, however, it’s a different story. Many parents are dissatisfied with their own Jewish education and would not use it as a model for their children’s education. Lacking a strong example, parents may seek educational standards or a core curriculum for Jewish studies, similar to what exists for general studies, to guide them both in setting goals for their children’s Jewish education and in monitoring their children’s progress towards achieving these goals.
This summer, Mechon Hadar, in partnership with Beit Rabban Day School, released the “Standards for Fluency in Jewish Text and Practice.” a tool that is meant to help both parents and educators articulate high goals for children’s Jewish education and design educational experiences that empower and support students to achieve these goals.
These standards delineate grade-level benchmarks in Tanach (Bible), Torah She-Be-Al Peh (Rabbinics), Tefillah (Prayer) and Jewish Practice for students in nursery through eighth grade. They paint a portrait of fluency, define a canon of texts to be mastered, and formulate dispositions that should be cultivated by the conclusion of eighth grade so that students can grow into the kind of empowered Jewish adults who can carry Judaism into the future. And because real-life application of standards is complicated, they also describe the investments needed to achieve them and offer sample curriculum maps that model how the standards could be implemented.
For example, the tefillah fluency standards include benchmarks for tefillah performance skills, content knowledge, and dispositions or attitudes that are cultivated through prayer. According to the standards, a student in fifth grade should be able to recite the core of weekday Shacharit and Hallel accurately and fluently (performance skills), identify structural components of Shacharit, Mincha, and Maariv services (content knowledge), and employ strategies for increasing kavannah in tefillah (dispositions/attitudes). The tefillah standards also offer a model tefillah curriculum map with suggestions of specific tefillot to teach in each grade as well as theological and spiritual questions to explore.
While Jewish holidays and other Jewish practices often comprise a huge part of children’s Jewish education, rarely do parents or educators take the time to systematically identify the full range of Jewish practices that children should be able to confidently perform and know something about. The Jewish Practice fluency standards aim to enumerate and catalog the basic elements of the life of a practicing Jew, as reflected in traditional rabbinic sources, while also acknowledging that setting standards for educating children in Jewish practice is a complicated and sensitive project given that the Jewish community as a whole does not have a uniform set of practices.
Nevertheless, the catalog of Jewish practices, which includes everything from Jewish holidays to kashrut to interpersonal interactions to life-cycle events, is a model of how to educate children towards full competence in Jewish practice, such that they would be fully comfortable inhabiting a world of Jewish practice, and equipped for wide-ranging interactions and journeys within the Jewish world.
The new standards are a powerful tool, offering parents a vision of Jewish education that can guide them in articulating their own goals and in evaluating the quality of the Jewish education their children are receiving. Parents can use these standards to track their children’s progress towards fluency in Jewish texts and practice much in the way they track their progress in general studies.
Children receive their Jewish education in so many contexts — day school, supplementary school, home, camp, synagogue, tutoring, travel to Israel and Jewish communities around the world, youth groups, etc. These standards can also help open conversations between parents and communal institutions about where and how children are Jewishly educated.
Certainly Jewish education is not one-size-fits-all, and these fluency standards will not align perfectly with many parents’ visions for their children’s education. Nevertheless, the standards can serve as a model that can help all parents clarify and articulate their goals and ensure that the institutions or individuals they choose to educate their children are aligned with their own vision and goals.
As parents, we invest a tremendous amount of time, money and emotional energy in our children’s Jewish education. The last thing we want is to wake up at graduation to discover that despite these great investments, our children have not developed the skills, knowledge and dispositions that are so important to us. Let this be the year that we take our children’s Jewish education seriously and ensure that they are prepared and empowered to be the bearers and transmitters of Judaism into the future.
Lisa Exler is director of the Curriculum Project at Mechon Hadar and director of Jewish Studies at Beit Rabban Day School.
Click here to download the standards.