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10 Things I Learned As Education Director at Reconstructionist Congregation Mishkan Shalom

I served for five years as the education director of Mishkan Shalom, a Reconstructionist synagogue in Philadelphia. As education director I had the opportunity to lead assemblies, organize events, supervise teachers, teach classes, and more. I was able to get to know the children in the community and their parents in wonderful ways. The experience was precious for me because Mishkan Shalom is the congregation to which I belong; it is my community, sharing my values and concerns. Mostly, during these five years I learned from everyone: about myself, about the community, about the needs of the children in our community, and about what it means to be a Reconstructionist educator. These are just a few of the things that I learned:
 

1. Accept each child. Respect each child. Celebrate each child... exactly as s/he is.

The diversity of views and experiences, the diversity of families and backgrounds, the diversity of ways each person connects to Judaism, are all vital. There is no one person who adequately represents Jewish life - even Reconstructionist Jewish life. It takes many different approaches to Judaism, to God, to learning, to create a vital, interesting community. Each child has a part in that community that is uniquely his or her own and that is uniquely valuable. When the children of Mishkan Shalom drew pictures of God and described their drawings, each one was entirely different. There were clouds, sunlight, pastoral scenes, and old men with beards. There were airplanes, animals, and blank pages. No one was told that s/he was wrong. Each child taught every one of us something enriching in our own spiritual understanding. Our job as Reconstructionist educators is to foster the growth of each individual as fully as possible.


2. Acknowledge children with non-Jewish parents as fully respected and accepted members of the community.

A large percentage of our congregations are comprised of interfaith families. It is not enough to consider the best ways to welcome the adults in the families; the children must be considered as well. One day, while substitute teaching for a class of eight year olds at Mishkan Shalom, I asked the children to each tell me one thing about themselves that they would like me to know so we could get to know each other better. Almost half the class told me that they were half-Christian, that one of their parents was not Jewish, or that they celebrated Christmas as well as Chanukah at their house. Then the children looked at me, clearly waiting for my reaction. When I responded positively, they visibly relaxed. By the age of eight, these children already knew that they could not be certain of the response of the Jewish community to their family.

A judgmental response on our part to the families of our students can be truly destructive. Our positive response as teachers to the children of interfaith families in our congregations is crucial if we want those children to grow up with a sense of belonging to a warm, welcoming Jewish community and to have a positive sense of their own Jewish identity.


3. Encourage intellectual honesty.

I became a part of the Reconstructionist Movement because it was one place in the Jewish community where people did not lie. As a camp counselor in a Conservative Movement camp, I watched while people disagreed with the words in prayer but refused to even consider changing them. When I first read the Reconstructionist version of the Aleynu, I was thrilled; someone was willing to accept nothing less than intellectual honesty within our liturgy.

We need to give this gift of honesty to the children we teach. We should not lie and we need not be afraid of revealing the truth. Magic will still happen when we tell the stories of our tradition, but it should not happen at the expense of honesty. When children ask us, ''Did it really happen that way? Did the Red Sea really split? Did Adam and Eve really exist?" we can honestly say we don't know. We may not be sure that the events really happened, but we may be very sure that the stories are powerful myths that speak to our hearts and to the hearts of the children we teach. Our answer does not need to be their answer. lf we respond that we are not sure, but would love to know their views, a profound dialogue can take place. Our willingness to be honest with our students can foster the deepest learning.


4. Tell LOTS of stories.

Torah stories, Midrashim, stories from the Prophets and Writings; real stories and fictitious tales; old stories and contemporary stories: all stories are important. Take the stories seriously and tell them well. Stories need to be thought through, to be prepared; storytelling is an art to respect. It is not only the stories that have already been written that are important. As Reconstructionists we see ourselves as part of an ongoing history; our stories are a precious part of Jewish tradition. We need to write our own stories and tell them to the children we teach, and we need to encourage the children to write their own as well. It is in this way that Jewish tradition remains vibrant and it is in this way that our students learn that their voices matter.


5. Bring Jewish tradition into the children's lives.

One day during Religious School there was a rainstorm. After the rain ended, a glorious rainbow appeared in the sky. The entire school left their classes and went outside to look at the rainbow and to recite together the traditional blessing said upon seeing a rainbow. Everyone was moved, and I believe the children learned an important way that Jewish tradition is a real part of their lives.

Mishkan Shalom (along with most Reconstructionist congregations) is not a halakhically observant community, yet as educators we can find ways that Jewish tradition can have a place in the lives of our students. We can teach Jewish ethical texts that deal with the actual problems our students have. We can tell stories that mirror their concerns. We can find ritual observance that adds a depth of spirituality to their lives.


6. Balance content and the sharing of thoughts and feelings.

Our students need to know that they're learning. They need their minds to be stimulated by the knowledge they gain, and they need the opportunity to process the new material so that it becomes a part of them. Our curriculums must reflect a balance between acquisition of content and discussion, between ''right brain and left brain'' activities. Working on gaining Hebrew skills must be balanced with discussions about God; reading the words of the Torah text must be balanced with discussions of the Torah stories; learning the words and tunes of prayers must be balanced with conversations that delve into the meaning of the prayers. One without the other leaves everyone unsatisfied.


7. Keep the study alive.

Deal with real events. lf there is a crisis in Israel, don’t ignore it. The children need to understand their place in the Jewish world and to know that the synagogue is a place where they can safely share their concerns and questions. lf there is a presidential election in the United States, Religious School should be a place to explore the Jewish values that underlie the election.

Our students need to explore Judaism with their whole selves. Class can reach them on every level through art, drama, music, dance, FUN. Children need to be challenged intellectually, but spiritually as well. One teacher at Mishkan Shalom assigned his students the blessing giving thanks for the working of the body. They were to say it every morning upon awakening. For some students, it became an integral part of their morning: taking a moment to express wonder at the working of their body. It was a small assignment with big implications. It enabled the children to bring Judaism into their lives as they yawned and stretched each morning.


8. Build a community.

Reconstructionist synagogues work very hard at creating a real sense of community among our members. Our Religious Schools should reflect that sense of community, as should every class within the school. Students need to be presented with real ways to care for each other and to give help to each other when needed. Students need to know that mutual respect is the base on which the school is built. At Mishkan Shalom, monthly community meetings of the whole school were held in order to give students a place in the community decision-making process. The meetings were a time for congregational issues to be brought to the students and for students to bring their concerns to the community. At times, the Religious School can lead the rest of the congregation in forming a strong community model.


9. Include families in learning. Give realistic help and teaching.

Family education has become the centerpiece of much of Jewish education, yet much family education never seems to reach families in a significant way. In order for family education to be effective, it needs to start early and continue throughout the children's education. In planning family education, we also need to be realistic about who the families in our congregations are. We cannot expect them to have greater knowledge than they have or greater commitment than they have. We cannot demand so much time that the already over-committed members of our communities simply stop attending.

Our relationships with the families in our communities are like any relationships. They cannot be contingent upon the other partner in the relationship changing to meet our desires. Change may happen, but only if we first show the families we reach that we accept them as they are. Then, we can begin to teach.


10. Take the time to get to know and love each child.

Jewish tradition is based upon the belief that each person is created in the image of God. If we believe this, then it is our job as Jewish educators to find that image within each child we teach. This can only happen if we have small enough classes to enable us to get to know each child. Then, it's simple. Once we take the time we need to really get to know each child, how can we not love him/her? How can the godliness within them not be apparent to us? And once it is apparent, the rest is simple.

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