Two fifth grade boys politely knocked on my door during lunch on Tuesday asking if they could ask me a question. I invited them in, and, after settling into seats, one of them said, ““We were wondering how what we learn in J.S. (Judaic Studies) is going to help us in life when we get older?” Great question – a question that I know many of our fifth through eighth graders entertain at various points during their journey at our school. It is the question that so many parents ask when considering a day school education for their children. It is the question I asked many years ago when my own children began their day school journey. Within the answer - and the answer is layered - lies the “value-added” of a Jewish Day School education.
There are several answers to this question, and I only had a half hour in which to frame it and explain it to two very precocious fifth graders. In the half hour that we had, we talked about specific skills and about the purpose of religion in general. We also discussed their experience of the school’s Judaic Studies curricula. What follows is a summary of that conversation.
Text study (Torah, Talmud, and Rabbinic writings) introduces profound literary analysis training that translates well into many familiar professions. Throughout the grades, standards of textual analysis introduce skills as close reading of a text, the ability to infer ideas or situations from a text and facility in locating supporting evidence for a textually derived assertion. This aspect of our curriculum lays a foundation for careful literary analysis, for sharp focus and protocols in developing arguments and assertions, and for the critical thinking skills of synthesis, analysis and evaluation. I pointed out to my two visitors that these are skills that lawyers use daily. Doctors and mathematicians must draw on these skills too in thinking logically and in looking for evidence to support their conclusions or decisions. Our students get training in this everyday in progressively more complex ways.
The second aspect of their question that I addressed was that of the purpose of religion. I discussed how an understanding of a religious system provides a window into all humanity. This appears paradoxical, but it isn’t. I asked them to step out of “living Judaism” and to think about all that they’ve learned about Judaism as a system. First we talked about the “why” questions that all people ask at one time or another. Why do we even exist? What is our purpose? All religions attempt to make meaning out of these questions. Judaism provides an array of answers, and so do other religions. Similarly all religions find ways to celebrate time and to create rituals. I pointed out that the Super Bowl which we all experienced last week belongs to American civil religion – it has a set time, it has connected and expected rituals, it is observed by most Americans in some way. We talked about the driver’s license as a rite of passage like a Bar Mitzvah. Whether or not they ultimately hope to celebrate or live any of the traditions that they have learned at school, these two boys will have keener insight into humanity because of their studies. They will understand their peers and adult colleagues who come from other traditions in a way that people who have never experienced a systematic way of thinking and practicing a religion may not understand as fully.
Finally, we had a conversation about what had worked for them in J.S. classes and what hadn’t. They discussed specific teachers who had a profound effect on their connection to J.S. and they discussed lessons that were more engaging than others. We agreed to continue our discussion at a later date and that I would come into their class to share these lessons with their peers and to continue the dialogue around this.
I look forward to more visits from my skeptics – this sort of engagement with individual students is always a highlight of my week.