This article was written on motzei Shabbat Parashat Vayera. Shabbat was different, we couldn’t go to shul, we couldn’t hear kriat haTorah. After davening I sat down with my 11 year old and we read the Parsha. It took a while, the long but familiar story. The final section dealing with the Akeidat Yitzchak teaches us so many fundamental ideas. However, one theme kept popping into my head that in our tradition we don’t sacrifice our children. We should not do things that make our children feel as if they come second to some other concern. Their lives must matter to us beyond all else. Our children must not be used to help propel parents in society or win approval from others. We don’t use a child to get closer to Hashem, or to appear frummer than others. In a society where child sacrifice was normal Avraham Avinu stood apart and taught the world this is not the way to behave.
This might seem obvious and not worthy of being written about. Alas it is not so obvious. Children are placed in schools that are good for their parent’s status but not always good for the child. Children with extra needs are placed in a cheider because it is what everyone else does. Children that need a different approach are placed in mainstream institutions, sacrificed and at times destroyed. In theory schools are meant to cater for all students to the best of their ability, but theory and reality are often quite different. Teachers can do so much damage when children are irresponsibly placed in the wrong school.
I remember my first day in high school. My good friend and I found ourselves in a class with boys we didn’t know, who had come from different primary schools. We sat one row from the back. This was a strategic choice, not too far back to show disdain but hopefully far enough to avoid being asked to read on the first lesson. To our utter horror the Rebbe asked us to read. We could both read fluently, we had been taught well, we were in the top set class. What we couldn’t do at the time was translate to English. We had been sent to a school that taught Ivrit b’Ivrit. We were made to feel foolish and this was our first lesson in our new school. Needless to say, I went home and learnt all the translation that night to sheini. I was so confident as I walked back into class the following day, until Rebbe said now Rashi! I thought I would explode, but I was far too well behaved for that. The early damage and trauma has stayed with me and most probably has influenced my own approach in the classroom. Teachers, whether they be professional educators or parents learning with their children, must look for opportunities to make their students feel good. As Professor Claxton said, “when students enjoy the process of learning they will become lifelong learners.”
Education is at the heart of our way of life; “teach your children” is repeated throughout the day. One of the jewels in our community’s crown is the Avot Ubanim learning sessions. Communities all over the world have begun the winter season of Avot Ubanim. What could be sweeter than a parent sitting and learning with their child? Life is never as simple as that. Teaching is complicated and requires more skill than simply sitting together. Many children will struggle with sitting for so long. Parents have expectations that might be unrealistic for their child or their child’s age group. I have watched as fathers become irritated or embarrassed when their child is not able to keep up. What could have been a bonding experience is ultimately ruined. The child returns home dejected knowing he has disappointed the one man he so desperately wants to please.
There are of course more fundamental issues in Jewish education. A fascinating approach that I recently discovered comes from Rabbi Aryeh Ben David who heads Ayeka. He speaks of creating a soulful education, one that recognises that there is more to Jewish wisdom than information. Our children’s hearts, souls and lives need to be attended to. He poses a question that we need to ask: “what is the purpose of education – to know more or to be more?” As Jewish educators (teachers and parents) should we be more interested in how much our students learn or how deeply they bring the learning into their lives?” For some parents and teachers, success is the ability to answer lots of questions quickly, to memorise all the Rashi’s in a Parasha. Others, see success in memorising Mishnayot by heart or the discussions in the Gemarah. Before you skip to the next article in protest, please don’t think that I am belittling this aspect of learning. This definition of success is only an aspect and always favours those with good memories. Students who struggle to recall vast amounts of textual information will always feel inadequate in this system. In soulful education, success means creating space for students to bring Torah knowledge from their minds, to their hearts souls and lives.
Success means enabling students to hear their own authentic inner voice and to feel nourished and clarified through the learning process.
Success means inviting and empowering students to apply Torah knowledge to their unique identities and paths in life.
I started applying these concepts with a year 8 Chumash class. We have two and a half hours a week. The lessons are split between imparting new knowledge and ideas, internalizing the lessons and an activity that engages them kinaesthetically. Our long lesson is blissfully timetabled for the final two periods on Friday afternoon. As I walked briskly across the school campus and reached their classroom I found a room full of students engaged in a Chumash activity before I arrived. We were applying the lessons to life which made sense to them. Their voice was being heard. They were not being quizzed on my ideas, they had space to create their own. They didn’t need to memorise explanations from Torah greats. They just needed to listen to their neshamot, connecting with the Torah which we know as “morasha kehillat Yaakov.” They have come to realise that lessons are not about the teachers showing off what they know, being overly controlling of content and pace but about how the information can affect them personally. We would do well to question whether our education is smothering or setting free the inner voice of our students, the assumption being that both parents and teachers care about the individual student. So many institutions are cookie cutter conveyor belts, producing the same external product albeit with different ingredients.
Torah wisdom ought to change us, helping us to move forward on our Jewish journey. Please be mindful of the point raised here. Avraham didn’t kill Yitzchok, but nebech in our communities many kids are being schechted/sacrificed, by teachers who are blind to their student’s inner lives, by parents who are harbouring disappointment in their own children’s successes. We need to daven that our teachers and parents have the siyata dishmaya to succeed in transmitting our sweet traditions and create generations of engaged youngsters who will grow and be a credit to all of us.