I was part of a fascinating exchange with some parents and one of our teachers, Dr. Matt Reingold, a few weeks ago that impressed upon me an important insight about Jewish education.
It was the fourth week of Scholars Circle, and Dr. Reingold, a TCW Jewish history teacher, was teaching about two morally problematic events in the State of Israel’s formative history: Tochnit Dalet and Deir Yassin. The parents debated whether or not the less flattering side of Israel’s history should be taught to our high school students. The majority agreed with Dr. Reingold that they should; if we do not teach a fulsome history of the State of Israel, someone, far less sympathetic, will do so. It’s preferable that our students learn about the nuances and foibles of Israel’s history in the walls of TanenbaumCHAT where the point of doing so is to better Israel and not batter Israel, than in a hostile university environment where facts may be distorted and de-contextualized.
One of the parents then asked: “Why wasn’t my child taught this earlier in day school? If it’s so important that students embrace a realistic Israel, and not a mythic or just a heroic Israel, why are they not taught these subjects in middle school?” Dr. Reingold appropriately responded that these complex topics require a degree of sophistication that elementary school students simply don’t possess.
Then, it occurred to me that Dr. Reingold’s response is true about most real issues in Judaism and life. An elementary Jewish day school education provides a solid foundation, but, frankly, much of Judaism is “R” rated, that is, it takes a certain maturity to understand. Students who end their Jewish education after bar or bat mitzvah or when they graduate an elementary Jewish day school are left with quite a simplistic, appropriately G-rated or PG-13, understanding of Judaism. Their knowledge of western culture continues to develop in the high school years, but their knowledge of Jewish civilization remains arrested at a pre-adolescent level.
Joel Grishaver, a liberal Jewish educator in California, put it this way in an article he wrote about Jewish day high school education:
The Judaism I am interested in teaching is a lot more like rocket science than it is like being a Cubs fan (read: Blue Jays!). For me, Judaism is a lifelong study, the careful mastery of the paradigms that help you become a better, and then an even better, person. It is the endless climb to get closer and closer to God. It is the constant reconsideration of a lot of books and knowledge and ideas. Cubs fans can learn statistics, can amass a wealth of information and insight, but essentially all you need to know is how to be loyal and, in fact, enthusiastic.
The renowned developmental psychologist Jean Piaget taught that it is not until adolescence that children gain the ability to think about abstract concepts and logically test hypotheses. This is precisely the stage when they can comprehend the patterns and flow of Jewish history and the deeper ideas of the Torah, the spiritual symbolism of the lifecycle and holiday rituals and the Jewish ethical principles that compete within one another in real life situations.
Children who continue their education at TanenbaumCHAT are constructing their Jewish identity in a context where they will encounter the real questions of life and begin to discover real answers. To use Joel Grishaver’s metaphor, TanenbaumCHAT is a place where they will learn “rocket science” and not simply be enthusiasts of Judaism, important as that certainly is. It is a place where we ensure students’ knowledge of their Jewish roots develops on an adult level because most of the important issues that they will face are likely “R-rated.”