That question pops up in every Jewish day school. According to my Independent School colleagues, it also appears in other religious day schools – notably Episcopal and Catholic schools – framed as “too religious or not religious enough”. So, how do we address it? Is there another question assumed by this question, is there an underlying value statement embedded in that question, and what data do we need to answer it?
The underlying question for those who say it is “too Jewish” is often – are we losing valuable learning time of core academic areas while we focus on religion throughout the day? For some of those people, one of the value propositions that may be assumed in the question pertains to their discomfort with all things pertaining to religion. For those who fall at the other end of the continuum (not Jewish enough), there is the latent fear that what is being offered doesn’t look like a more familiar traditional Jewish education – hence it is being “watered down”.
In order to truly answer the question, everyone needs to know the school’s goals and what the school is actually doing in religious studies. I can’t speak for all schools, but I can shed light on what our intentions are at R.C. Wornick JDS. Let’s look at two areas that are overtly “religious” – morning prayers (tefilot) and Judaic Studies classes.
Morning tefilot at Wornick involves upbeat singing and movement to songs and melodies that tap into important school values. Some of those songs are traditional Jewish prayers and some of them are contemporary folksongs. It follows the typical progression of a Jewish service – with an acknowledgement of the power of the group (Ma Tovu) and with welcoming of a new day (Modeh Ani) and continues with setting our intentions for the day ahead of us (Sh’ma and Amidah). It follows the exact same format – greeting, sharing, group engagement - that is recommended as a “best practice” in all educational literature about social emotional learning and the beginning of a day. (L. Debbs “Power of Morning Meeting” in Edutopia 9/18/13; R. Kriete in The Morning Meeting Book). As the children move from the early elementary service to the upper elementary and ultimately to the Middle School one, the format remains the same as the content evolves to add more Hebrew and more traditional prayers. The outcome is the same – the morning begins with calmness and a sense of “I belong”.
Jewish Studies at Wornick includes Jewish Social Studies and Jewish text study. In each case, classes are framed around the same Common Core standards that connect the core academic subjects. Just as students in the usual language arts class must learn to find supporting evidence for claims in the narratives that they read so too they must do this when looking at a Judaic Studies text. In language arts classes, we ask children to locate information and cite the source of it – in Judaic Studies the quest is the same. In Social Studies and literature, students are taught to understand multiple perspectives and how to analyze and to evaluate those perspectives. The same holds true in Judaic Studies. In Jewish studies we teach Jewish culture – values and practices. We frame cultural understandings in a global context. Starting in kindergarten where Sukkot (the Jewish harvest festival is compared to a Korean, an African and an Indian harvest festival) we introduce this idea of global ways of celebrating.
In all cases, students are engaging in deep learning in these areas, and they are learning to understand Judaism and its various components. As they do this, they are encountering the same Common Core standards that they must work through in general studies. In fact, students are not losing time in religious studies, they are actually gaining time and emphasis in the same core competencies promoted in the core academic areas. The part of the day that is designated as prayer is tapping the socio-emotional check-ins that are promoted nationally as best practice for student well-being.
I urge parents who still may not be sure about this value-added to spend a morning with us. Our Tuesday and Wednesday lower elementary morning service at 8:30 a.m. is particularly upbeat and often filled with visiting parents. Come join us – it is certain to set your own morning on a pleasant path.