Journey to the Promised Land
by Rabbi Stuart Seltzer, Chizuk Amuno, Baltimore, MD
In this piece, committee member Rabbi Stuart Seltzer of Congregation Chizuk Amuno in Baltimore, MD describes his congregation's efforts to strengthen Family Education.
Myths are the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. We create a powerful positive myth about who we are and where we are going. At Chizuk Amuno, the story we tell ourselves about ourselves is Family Education.
Where are we going? What is the Promised Land for Jewish education? For me, it is for my educational community to become a strong Jewish community based on the teachings and practices of Jewish tradition: Prayer, Holidays, Mitzvot, and Sacred texts. But to get to this promised land a kind of wilderness must be crossed and natural obstacles overcome, dangerous rivers. Continuing the metaphor of the journey, the principal, teachers and students come to their first such river. For many of the children, Religious School is the only Jewish thing in their lives. So we made Jewish practice an integral part of our curriculum, and day by day, in Religious School we gave our students a solid background in Prayer and Mitzvot. We forded that river, and got to the other side.
The teachers and I were ready to go forward again, but the children were looking back to the other shore where their parents were standing and we understood that we could not teach Prayer and Mitzvot without the parents. In order to validate and provide a meaningful context for what the children were learning in the classroom, we had to give the parents an opportunity to come inside the synagogue. We wanted to take them to common Jewish ground. So we built a big bridge. We created a number of large Jewish family programs for each grade which made the parents part of our curriculum.
At Rosenbloom Religious School, we have at least 17 such Curriculum connection Family Programs over the year. Some of them include: Synagogue Search, Moon Birthday, Havdalah Happening, and the Haftarah Connection. For example, at our Religious School we teach the Havdalah service to the Bet class for two months. We start this section by teaching the parents the concepts of the Havdalah service and end the two months with a class-wide family Havdalah service. To do the Havdalah service with their parents, even to show them how, was a moment of completion and validation. What they had learned in Religious School was suddenly connected to the other main part of their lives. Over 90 percent of our parents come and participate. They feel all sorts of stirrings, family stirrings, personal stirrings, pride in their children, maybe some Jewish stirrings. They may feel touched by a Jewish ritual for the first time in many years. The teacher who understands that it takes a community to educate a child, sees the community begin to form: Parents, teachers, and children studying and observing together in the synagogue. Perhaps everyone begins to see the synagogue in a different way. The way it would be in the Promised Land.
These first large family programs which grew out of our curriculum functioned as a rite of passage for our religious school community. They were a powerful large first crossing that would make other crossings possible. These programs made the school a new place. They changed the myth. They changed the story we tell ourselves about ourselves from one we told on our own, to one the community could begin to tell together. The family became the major character in the story.
So we forded the first river with the children and built a bridge for the parents. Another part of our curriculum, another basic way we were going to reach the Promised Land, was through study. The students needed a good solid background in sacred texts. We worked hard to cross that river too. Day by day, holding hands, linked together in Religious School, we taught and learned and crossed the water. The teachers felt good, but the kids were looking back again, but not only looking back, shouting back to their parents who were on the other side. They had things on their minds they wanted to talk to their parents about. The Biblical stories, as we hoped, affected them in a deep way, and brought into their mind ethical questions that they wanted to share with their parents. We couldn't go on. We had to build another bridge, a smaller one this time because we knew that fewer parents would want to cross. We created a program which would give parents the tools to become teachers of their own children. This program called "A Bridge to the Text," brought together interested parents to study the stories that their children would be reading in class. More than study, the program taught them how to discuss the issues these stories would surely raise. We wrote a study guide for each story to help them in this task. How often do parents and children get to discuss stories of such profound human meaning? This program provided parents the opportunity for these discussions. Now, many parents and children read and study together some of the deepest parts of the Jewish tradition. Teachers could not ask for much more. They had the best partners for their students' education: the parents.
We started on our way again, journeying across the wilderness. Guess what? Another obstacle. We came to another raging river. We found that many of the members of our community, which had been so strengthened by all of the family programs, wanted to take the next step. They wanted to bring more Jewish practice into their homes, but did not know how. This was a difficult problem for a Jewish educator, a hard educational obstacle, white water in the way of the Promised Land. Everybody was at a different level and wanted to learn his or her own things. So we created the Family Mentor Program which provides the means for families to grow Jewishly at their own pace, based on their individual interests and needs through one-on-one study with enthusiastic lay and professional mentors. The parents said to their children, "Climb up on my back and I will take you across this time." That is exactly what the Family Mentor Program tries to do. Teach the parents how to do, and by their doing, they will teach their children.
The parents, teachers and children at Chizuk Amuno can feel how strong our community has become. We know that there will be obstacles to cross requiring creativity and hard work. But guided by Torah and Family education, we feel confident that we are on our way to the Promised Land.