Shifting focus of Jewish education from minds to hearts

School children in a classroom. (Photo credit: Danny Lawson/PA Wire via Jewish News)
School children in a classroom. (Photo credit: Danny Lawson/PA Wire via Jewish News)

Education has always been a quest to win the hearts and minds of students. However, until now, Jewish Studies in our community’s schools has arguably concentrated a little too exclusively on the ‘minds’ side of this equation, and not enough on the ‘hearts’.

There is no doubt that it is crucial for Jewish youngsters at our schools to know about our faith’s traditions and laws, about Kashrut, Shabbat and the festivals. However, no less important is to imbue an emotional connection to their Jewish learning, so that students recognise its personal relevance.

If students cannot connect Judaism to their own lives, then everything they learn will be with a sense of detachment.

Pikuach, a crucial part of the Board of Deputies, carries out inspections on Jewish Studies teaching in Jewish schools.

It has been called the ‘Jewish Ofsted’ in the sense that this a statutory service, officially sanctioned by the Department for Education.

In the four years since our previous inspection handbook was published in 2016, the education team at the Board of Deputies and Pikuach has done a lot of soul searching about what our young people really need from their religious education.

Previously, Jewish educators and Pikuach inspectors have had few tools with which to evaluate how schools achieve these ambitious aims. It is far from clear how a headteacher, a head of Jewish Studies or a Pikuach inspector would go about the task of ascertaining whether a school has been successful in helping children to experience, for example, ‘the joy and wonder of Jewish life’ or whether, as one school maintains, ‘our Jewish ethos is at the core of everything we do’.

This is where the new handbook will be crucial in providing detailed guidance as to how a school can set about making this a reality for children.

For example, teachers will have to satisfy inspectors that this is  a school where leaders have created a Jewish climate of journey and discovery where it is ok for pupils, students and adults alike to question, wonder, enquire, make mistakes and to talk about the spiritual. They will have to demonstrate that learners are being encouraged to develop a sense of self and identity.

Ultimately, it is at least as important for a child to leave school with an understanding of what it means to be Jewish and a desire to stay involved in Jewish life, as it is for them to leave with a list of facts and figures at their fingertips.

The spiritual development of children is a statutory requirement in all maintained schools, but it gives us, as a community, the opportunity to provide a more meaningful Jewish education enabling children to see the beauty of Judaism.

The new handbook provides many examples of how schools can develop their children spiritually, in terms of the questions it asks: Is this a school where leaders have created a Jewish climate of journey and discovery where it is ok for pupils, students and adults alike to question, wonder, enquire, make mistakes and to talk about the spiritual?

How are learners are being encouraged to develop a sense of self and identity

? In what ways are learners able to relate well to others both within and without the community?

How are learners encouraged to develop a sense of awe and wonder about the natural world which extends to action to protect and nurture that world and how do all of these things this relate to their Jewish learning?

What impact has Jewish teaching and learning made to these children’s lives?

In a world with many attractions and distractions for young people, we have one opportunity to ensure that, when students  leave school, they do so with a connection with their faith and culture, which they will take into adult life and a set of values which will enable them to contribute to the Jewish community and wider society. This handbook is designed to enable them to just that.

About the Author
Edwin Shuker is the vice chair of the International division of the Board of deputies and the European Jewish Congress special envoy for refugees.
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