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“What Did You Learn in School Today?: One Half of the Whole Question”

11/10/2023 11:45:43 AM

Nov10

Peter H. Grumbacher, Interim Rabbi

   Last Sunday I asked the kids in our religious school, “What did you learn in school last week?” I started with the subject we discussed in our fifteen minute session with parents. I was surprised…and very happy…that some of them were pretty specific with their answers. Let’s experiment.

   (To the students present in the congregation: “Do you remember what it was? We spoke about tzedakah. What does it mean?”)

   In my day, and in your parents’ day, and even in your grandparents' day, when a student was asked that question, the standard answer was “Nuthin’!” It didn’t matter if it was in religious school, regular school, or reform school, there was that reply.

   It doesn’t mean they truly learned nothing – excuse me, “Nuthin’!” – but it’s often hard to pick something concrete. Put all the lessons over a week, a month, a year together and chances are, everyone you ask will be able to give you some one thing learned in school. That day? Probably not. In general, absolutely.

   So what should we learn?

   I remember sitting in my Sunday school class year after year reading all the books in the series “When the Jewish People Was Young.” I’m not sure if that was the name of the series, but it was the name of the first book in the series. And I think there were three of them, one book for my aleph class, one for my bet class, one for my gimmel class. The  problem was – and actually it was a blessing, not a problem – is that we Jews have been around so long (thank God, and let’s keep it that way!) that who can remember all the things we experienced as a People? There was an overabundance of material in each volume. Who can remember any of our high-profile figures in history when there were so many? Who can remember this or that? And who cares about facts anyway? Well, as someone said recently, “Nobody cares about your grades through undergraduate school. It’s grad school that will make a difference in your life.”  

   That might or might not be true when it comes to doctors and lawyers and engineers and rocket scientists; the jury is still out on that as far as I’m concerned. But if a Jewish kid doesn’t get the basics early on…well, let’s put it this way, everything in our tradition is built on the shoulders of that which came before. While the Torah stories might not be history, might not be factual, they remain OUR story. Kids should know about the patriarchs and matriarchs; they are their ancestors; they should know what happened when we were slaves in Egypt, because we learn to treat others with dignity “because you were slaves in Egypt, a refrain stated thirty-six times in the Book of Exodus; they should learn how we manifest our freedom, and on and on and on. Because all those things we should learn in school give each of us a sense of identity as a Jew.

   However, What did you learn in school today?” is merely one-half of the total question that should be asked, and perhaps, just perhaps, that second half is more important.

   What is the other half? Simple… “What did you teach at home today?” There’s a PTA – or whatever it’s called in this day and age – that stands for Parent-Teacher Association. There should be, there must be, a partnership between Temple and home. You want your child to be Jewish? You want your child to have a meaningful Bat or Bar Mitzvah? You want your child to be proud of his or her people? You want your child to be able to answer questions about Judaism that will surely be asked? Then don’t leave it to the religious school of Temple Beth El alone.

   It cannot be done in the vacuum of classrooms and sanctuaries. What that does is tell a child “It’s there you learn about being Jewish, not here.” And ultimately in the eyes of the child, what has more influence, the home or the synagogue? I hope you didn’t say we have more influence, even on a religious level. We take the life-cycle events and make them meaningful in the synagogue. But it all begins at home. If there’s no hint of Jewish identity at home, well, that will send a message that it’s not important to mom and dad, so why should it be important to me.

   In a half-century in the rabbinate I’ve had more than a handful of kids who were inexorably tied to the Temple. A few became rabbis and cantors; a lot became good congregants in whatever synagogue they joined. But the vast majority of those kids knew they were Jewish before they stepped across the threshold of the Temple for the first time. There was a climate of Jewish living in their homes because of holidays celebrated; values taught by word and deed; Jewish books and ritual items prominent in the household; discussions on Jewish topics; and knowledge of what their child is learning in religious school so when they ask the first half of the question, they themselves could answer, “I know what you learned. Let’s talk about it.” It’s a partnership, a solid relationship between school and home that sends the message “This is important to us, your parents, and we’ll try to make it important to you, our child, not by dropping you off and picking you up on Sundays and Tuesdays, but by our involvement in our congregation and its religious school.”

   Let me conclude with a story that is both factual and true.

   For two years I served as interim in a small congregation whose history goes back to before the Civil War. Fifty years earlier, exactly fifty years earlier by chance, I served as that congregation’s student rabbi. It has always had an amazing religious school, and it’s only gotten better. Early on I asked the three boys whose Bar Mitzvah was to be celebrated that year what they looked forward to about this special event. I was expecting to hear about the presents, the party, all that kind of stuff. As I stand here, this is what each said, “I’m looking forward to teaching in our Sunday school.” Knock me over with a feather! I was shocked beyond words. They meant it. Once a child becomes Bat or Bar Mitzvah they are partnered with a regular teacher and work in a class. And in many cases, when they’re old enough they become the teachers with an assigned child who just celebrated. And these families – kids and parents alike – have a close and meaningful relationship with the congregation and its rabbi.

   That’s what I’m talking about. It’s an attitude that goes beyond what the lesson of the day is. The child learns. The parents teach. It’s an attitude that proclaims loud and clear, “We’re here for each other. We’re here to make sure this partnership results in our children having strong and meaningful identities as Jews.” May that always be said about Temple Beth El as well.

Fri, February 23 2024 14 Adar I 5784