Teaching opportunities are all around us. Seize the moment and take that minute or two for instruction or review. There are many ways to stimulate a child’s thinking, have them question things, or to enhance their learning.
Like many families, taking their youngsters to religious services can often become a daunting and uninspiring experience. By interacting with my child during services, it helped to keep her engaged and even taught her a few things.
It’s okay to bring a book for him/her to read. A book about an upcoming holiday is great, but if one is not available, then the Chumash (5 Books of Moses) is your best resource. I started with Bereisheet (Genesis) and my daughter loved to read about Adam & Eve. She anticipated a particular part of the story and would read it every time we went- over and over. A little older, I showed her how to find the sections and chapters using the Roman numerals.
Pointing out letters in the prayer book was another thing I did. “Loooong lamed” I would say and point to a few of them on the page. I would then have her show me all the lameds she could find on the page.
The stained glass windows were also a great teaching tool. At our old synagogue, the windows represented different parashiyot (Torah portions). Noah’s Ark, Bereisheet, etc. We would quietly talk about them. Not heavy discussions because you don’t want to disturb anyone!
Talking about the Ner Tamid (eternal light), the ark, the Rimonim (Torah crowns) all take but a moment. Many synagogues have a Hebrew quote on the wall above the Bima (pulpit) that you can translate.
Face it, services are long. When my daughter was young, I would allow her to leave the sanctuary for the Torah service after she kissed the Torah, but she had to come back after the sermon. This led to wonderful memories of going into the kitchen to “help” the caterers. Sorting silverware, having pastry and tea, bringing the challah out to the table.
Fostering an early love for Jewish ritual, culture and history sets children up for a positive experience in religious school. When I started teaching religious school, I vowed to not make it like my experience as a youth. Large classes invited more disruptions and it was quite boring. As an Education Director, I found different ways to make religious school interesting- visitors, creative seders, field trips, and Israeli pen pals were some things we did. My daughter renamed Sunday School “Funday School” and it made me feel good.
Religious schools find ways to engage children. The school I teach at now communicates with schools in Israel and serves special needs students in an inclusive environment. Supplementary schools are important for both day school and public school students. The children get to work together with clergy and other kids in their kehillah (community) that have different Jewish backgrounds. The youth group program also allows Jewish children to interact with each other in a noncompetitive way. The Milwaukee Jewish Federation supports the development of Jewish educators in all Jewish educational settings.
Last year, I started a small religious school in Sheboygan, where I live. Some may wonder if I just woke up one day and said, “I think I’ll start a Religious School today”. Yep, that’s pretty much how it happened! Excited to see Jewish kids in Sheboygan County, I immediately wondered how these children were going to learn Hebrew and about Judaism. The students love learning Hebrew, working on projects, studying parshiyot. Like parents in the Milwaukee area, the parents did their job by exposing their children to Jewish experiences and are grateful that an opportunity to expand their learning has been given to them.
Continue teaching your children. When they come home from school- any school, ask them what they learned that day and ask them questions about the lesson. Ask about the kids they interacted with- at lunch, at recess, classroom project groups. And then pat yourself on the back for showing interest and caring about their education.
Debbie Intravaia is the Youth Group Director at Congregation Beth Israel Ner Tamid. She is a religious school teacher at CBINT, Education Director of Congregation Beth El in Sheboygan, a former Education Director of Beth El Ner Tamid, office personnel at Congregation Beth El, Secretary of the Sheboygan Hebrew Cemetery, and a small business owner. She is also in her 15 year as a Girl Scout leader and is the Co-President of the CBINT Sisterhood.