â€œWhy do we need to learn these?â€ my co-teacher, Robin, asked, the five fifth grade students present in class that day, pointing to the stack of Hebrew letters and vowels which we had just reviewed for the last thirty minutes.
â€œSo we can be ready for our Bat-Mitzvah,â€ Alison immediately replied. â€œAnd then after that, for our high-Mitzvah.â€
â€œWhatâ€™s a high-Mitzvah?â€ inquired Sara from the seat beside Alison.
â€œIâ€™ll tell you later,â€ Alison whispered to her friend with a smile.
Trying to hearken back to my thought process when I was ten years-old, I assumed that Alison was thinking of Confirmation, a religious milestone in many communities that signifies â€˜higherâ€™ levels of study and community involvement. Yet I marveled at the singular goal to which the meaning of each biweekly Religious School lessens had been reduced. Amid the differing views of what specific lessons and educational approaches a Religious School should provide, one message has trickled down to the kids as to what this is all about: Preparation for the Bar/Bat Mitzvah.
It is true that Bnei Mitzvot mark a religious and educational milestone for these â€˜young adultsâ€™, especially now that there is a growing religious consensus among the American denominations that both boys and girls should be offered an equal opportunity. I remember how proud I felt after reading Shirat HaYam (Song of the Sea) at my serviceâ€¦ and perhaps more so how excited I was to wear a fancy, â€˜mature lookingâ€™ dress at the party. Yet why is it that Alison sees this service, and now in America the customary party, as the final goal of her religious school education?
This past weekend as part of my work I attended a conference on Jewish Education in West Hartford. After a typical breakfast spread of bagel and cream cheese, I was placed in two sessions; the first, a tutorial on methods for decoding Hebrew (decoding, it seems, is another word for reading), and the second, a lesson on differential instruction (an increasingly respected theory that advocates tailoring lessons to students by working with their specific learning strengths).
However, the speaker who was supposed to lead the second session abruptly canceled, and so a makeshift seminar was held in its place. Various questions and issues were raised among the teachers in the room, such as how to best manage students of varying Hebrew levels and commitments in such a constrained time period, and at one point the moderator of the session attempted to redirect the debate.
â€œYou know, I think we have to acknowledge that we are working within a Bar and Bat Mitzvah model â€“ thatâ€™s what this education is for. Whether or not this is the best approach, well thatâ€™s a whole other discussion outside of differential learning.â€
Yet Iâ€™m not sure that it is. Differential instructions, so the moderator told us reading from a wikipedia definition, â€œinvolves providing students with different avenues to acquiring content; to processing, constructing, or making sense of ideas.â€ It occurred to me that Judaism itself is a tradition of differential instruction; each holiday has multiple entry points, such as the auditory songs, the motion of lighting candles, or the logical interest in interpreting stories.
The student suffers if we attempt to communicate this knowledge through only one medium â€“ such as the Yeshiva style scenario of young boys mumbling memorized passages of obscure Talmud texts. However, the less traditional classroom approaches must too be careful lest they oversimplify a concept â€“ such as the misconception among my kids that a Mitzvah means good deeds, rather than its true translation as commandment, of which some mandate â€˜goodâ€™ acts.
There can be no one model through which to effectively transmit centuries of religious and cultural thought, and therefore I object to this idea that a Bar or Bat Mitzvah should be the prism through which Religious Education is tailored. Yes, this is an important moment for Jewish children to look forward to, and one that can serve as a conduit for further community connection in the future. But by projecting upon our kids the importance of this event as the culmination of their learning, have we not disregarded other forms of valuable instruction, and therefore lost parts of each generation along the way? If we continue to only consider this model, the days of a â€˜high-Mitzvahâ€™ donâ€™t seem anymore so far away.