Some parents want their children to learn Jewish values and to live Jewishly, including attending services as a family. Childhood participation can also be a tradition. So, when should children begin their Jewish journey?
According to Tracey Bortz, director of early childhood education at Gross Schechter Day School in Pepper Pike, and Rabbi Simcha Dessler, educational director of Hebrew Academy of Cleveland in Cleveland Heights, early childhood is a great time to introduce religious education.
“The inclusion of religious education at the young of ages gifts a child with a sense of Jewish identity, an appreciation of heritage and the benefit of a sense of belonging in the community,” Dessler said. “It helps shape the child ethically and morally which, needless to say, is a lifelong investment.”
Thousands of years ago, rabbis said that when young children learn, the “effect is like writing with fresh ink on a clean paper, and when older adults learn, the results are like writing with fresh ink on a paper that has been used and erased,” Bortz explained.
“This contrast vividly expresses the freshness and enduring impact of early childhood education,” she said. “The two most important goals of a Jewish early childhood center are to teach values like kindness, sharing and responsibility, and to inspire a love of Shabbat and the Jewish holidays. With these solid foundations, they are primed to grow into thoughtful, knowledgeable, committed members of the Jewish community.”
Both educators detailed how their early childhood classes engage Jewish education in meaningful ways. At Gross Schechter, Bortz said religious education is part of the daily curriculum, inspiring students to love learning and to become their best selves while learning Jewish practices and values.
“When children experience the joy of Jewish life in our early childhood center, they develop a strong Jewish identity and a loving connection to Shabbat, mitzvot and the Jewish people,” she explained. “They have the best possible foundation for future learning and growth.”
For Hebrew Academy students, Jewish concepts are “involved in so many ways and on so many levels,” Dessler said.
“These traditions inspire the lives of the children and provide them with a connection to something much greater than themselves,” he said. “It makes their heritage part of the cornerstone of their lives which empowers them with a Jewish identity and allows them to make knowledgeable, confident decisions long after their early childhood experience.”
By exposing young students to these ideas in ways they understand, it sends “a strong message” that Judaism is an integral component in their life, not just something to refer to later, Dessler said.
“It means that to this child, and his or her family, Judaism is the gateway to Jewish life with an opportunity to lead a relevant Jewish life well into adulthood,” he said.
But students can’t immediately jump into complex and intensive religious learning. It’s important for schools to introduce concepts in a way children can understand, Bortz said.
“To a 4-year-old, the act of giving tzedakah (charity) might be as simple as bringing in a penny on Shabbat,” she noted. “Over time, their understanding of tzedakah grows more sophisticated; in middle school, students regularly volunteer at various community organizations through our TOPS program (tikkun olam program). It’s beautiful to see how natural it seems to our middle school students to volunteer, but it only feels that way to them because they have been giving tzedakah in various forms since they were young.”
At-home learning should also be approached the same way, the educators said.
“Values and traditions that are taught in school can easily be reinforced at home. Jewish holidays and celebrations are so easy to extend from school to the home and visa versa,” Bortz said. “We encourage our parents to ask about what (students) have brought home and why. Children love sharing their knowledge and creative work.”
Dessler added, “The religious learning component is no less important because ideally there should be a healthy consistency between the overt and covert messages imbibed at home and in school. Additionally, the knowledge which a child acquires in school infiltrates into family life, and vice versa. Judaism elevates the entire family and enhances relationships between parents, grandparents, siblings and extended families.”