Balancing Education with Inspiration: Cultivating Long-Term Observance in Religious Schools

I am reading over a series of lectures my mother created on the Book of Samuel, most specifically centering on Chana’s prayer (Chana was Samuel’s mother).

I realized while reviewing these lectures, that they were presented in a much more interesting and insightful way than how I originally learned this book in middle school (I attended a Jewish Day School from kindergarten through high school).

But then I realized that my mother’s lessons were only interesting to me because I had the solid background of the Book of Samuel from what my teachers taught me in middle school.

And I recognized the Catch-22 of it all.

As I discussed previously with Jewish educators a little over 10 years ago—when my passions centered around rejuvenating the ritual of Jewish prayer—the challenge of Modern Orthodox Jewish day schools is that they are expected to cover so much material (the Bible, the books of the Prophets, let alone the Oral Torah), that it often may leave little time for more thought-provoking, philosophical, meaningful discussion between students and their teachers. And, yes, there is the concern that teachers will not have all the answers to students’ questions (as I saw firsthand when I volunteer taught 8th graders), but nevertheless the lack of these more meaningful, heart-filled conversations, is, I believe, somewhat responsible for the loss of religious observance that occurs when Orthodox young men and women go off to college and beyond.

So the conundrum is this: A thorough education of Jewish texts is a necessary background for Jewish education and fluency in the Jewish religion. But that alone is not going to keep most students in the fold.

We need to find ways to touch their hearts, to expand their minds. More than that, we need to allow them to offer their own thoughts and emotions on Jewish topics discussed, so they can expand our (i.e. the teachers) hearts and minds.

Meaning and inspiration is inherent in the teachings of the Torah, but we need to create space for it to happen.

The alternative is simply too dire…

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