Occasionally the parents of new students tell me, “We’re not religious, but we want our children to learn about their heritage.” This requires a careful reply: I explain that the religious school is not an academic course in Judaic studies, and that our chief goal is to develop each student’s capacity to participate in religious and community life.
It can result in a mismatch of expectations, but adults who describe themselves as “not religious” often mean that they are “differently religious.” For example, they may identify strongly with Jewish values but rarely attend worship services. It would only be a concern for us if they wanted their children to acquire academic knowledge without learning about religious living.
This is not to say that we have no goals for academic learning. We are, after all, “the people of the Book,” and the field of Jewish learning is vast. Many aspects of Jewish life require specific knowledge, and teaching that knowledge is an essential function of a Jewish religious school.
Nevertheless, the style and goals of religious school have changed since I was a student. The Reform religious school that I attended operated very much like public schools of the time. If you behaved too badly, you could even get detention! Textbooks were longer and more detailed than those we use today; now we would consider them boring and perhaps irrelevant. They also looked old-fashioned even then, suggesting that Jewish learning was something of the past rather than of the present.
Today we expect our textbooks to look contemporary and fresh, and we want a different style for our religious school. In addition to the necessary academic knowledge, we want our students to discover the pleasures and rewards of Jewish life and to learn how to be part of a Jewish community.
The difference between religious and secular school is especially marked in the classes for our youngest students. Secular schools, driven by state standards, now emphasize discrete academic skills even in pre-kindergarten and kindergarten. Religious school has not moved as much in the same direction: in the Gan Yeladim, we emphasize the formation of Jewish identity through activities that allow children to experience the pleasures of Jewish life.
We don’t stress specific knowledge or skills at that age as much as public schools have come to do, for two important reasons. One is, as child psychiatrist James Comer wrote, that “Emotion precedes attention which precedes learning. Information-learning needs relationship; the quality and culture of environment matters.” A child’s mastery of Jewish content is enhanced through acculturation to, and identification with, Jewish culture and life.
The second is that much of our pedagogical strategy builds on the students’ learning in secular (“regular”) school. This is especially apparent in Hebrew. For generations, Hebrew instruction in schools like ours did not begin until the third grade or later, because students develop reading proficiency most readily when they have already developed skills in phonetic reading in English.
Accordingly, our Hebrew program in the early grades is mostly oral, focusing on practical Hebrew vocabulary (the names of ritual objects, items in the classroom, etc.) and Hebrew songs, to create a cultural background for learning to read Hebrew. Because more children now leave the first grade with reading skills in English, our Hebrew curriculum for the second grade provides opportunities to transfer those skills to Hebrew.
It seems noteworthy that, although state academic standards for public schools have existed for many years and are frequently revised, New York released standards for social and emotional development and learning—in draft form—only in 2010. One of the draft standards’ illustrations of social and emotional learning reads, “In an effective play-based kindergarten the teacher is attuned to the children’s play themes and builds on them.” I’m surprised that they don’t mention the Gan Yeladim.