As parents make choices about their children’s education, I’m often asked what is the most powerful setting of Jewish learning. Weighing day schools and daycares, supplementary schools and Israel experiences, youth movements, camps, the March of the Living, Birthright Israel, Diller, synagogue programs, JCCs and the dozens of other options, parents want to know what experiences will guide their children toward lives imbued with Jewish meaning.
The question is reasonable and rooted in concern for our children’s Jewish future, but it’s also rooted in the belief that Jewish education and identity development lies in the hands of others and not our own. That’s not the case.
My response to these parents is that the most powerful setting of Jewish learning is the home. The character of a family’s Jewish life is the most important predictor of a child’s future Jewish life. Parents’ modelling of Jewish living – in their own actions and in their decisions for their children – is a key ingredient in forming strong Jewish identities. The decisions to go together to synagogue, celebrate Shabbat, give tzedakah, and generally make Jewish decisions have a profound impact on the ways that children think about Judaism.
What’s more, Jewish education – even in its most robust forms in Jewish day schools and other immersive environments – cannot stand alone. While a child may be able to master math or science, reading or geography in school without outside support, the same is not true for Jewish education. If learning is not reinforced at home, it loses its relevance to, and resilience in, a child’s life.
There is no one-stop shop for Jewish learning. No one setting of education – not matter how strong – can be expected to stand on its own. Rather, the most powerful form of Jewish education is a cocktail of educative experiences.
Some time ago, I visited a synagogue which had an open playroom, but no educational children’s program on Shabbat morning. When I asked why, I was told that the vast majority of children in the shul are day school students, so they don’t need Jewish education on Shabbat. I’ve heard similar stories of families who say that their child “gets Jewish” throughout the year, so they take the summer off to go to a non-Jewish camp. This thinking places an unfair burden on the school. No one setting of Jewish education is the panacea. When a child has multiple touch points, with different curricula, different modalities of teaching, and, most importantly, different teachers and role models, the impact on his Jewish identity is multiplied.
Finally, in making decisions about our children’s Jewish education, we must realize that it’s not about one time in their lives. I’ve been asked when is the time to send a child to Jewish educational programs. Some would like to say that preschool gives the necessary grounding. Others argue that Jewish education up to bar mitzvah provides the basic literacy a child needs to participate in Jewish life, while still others argue that high school is the crucial period of identity formation.
These views are shortsighted. Jewish learning, to have a true impact on one’s life, has to be lifelong. It begins at birth, when we read stories about Shabbat, the holidays and tzedakah and continues throughout life into adulthood.
The question of what is the most powerful form of Jewish education comes from a place of love and commitment to our children. The answer, however, is not as simple as selecting from a list of A, B or C, rather, it’s D, all of the above. One researcher coined the phrase “the more the more” – the more time, the more touch points, the more role models a child is exposed to, the more her Jewish identity and commitment will grow.
Daniel Held is executive director of the Julia and Henry Koschitzky Centre for Jewish Education at UJA Federation of Greater Toronto.