Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Torah Education

A comprehensive examination of Jewish education is beyond the scope of my time right now. Even so, I have extensive contact with Jewish youth in my work as Youth Director at a Modern Orthodox Synagouge, and am less than impressed with the product of our schools. No one argues against sending children to Jewish schools. However, what do they produce? Do these schools succeed at their goals? What can parents do to enhance their children's Torah education?

In secular education, each subject has a syllabus, and has stated goals for each age level. Jewish education consists of subjects as well, and each one should have a syllabus and a lesson plan to guarantee mastery and breadth.

In first grade, students begin learning the book of Genesis. That sounds great, but in fourth grade, they have only made it to Parashat Vayishlach, only about two thirds of the way through! They begin learning mishna in this grade as well, also at a snail's pace. The children still cannot comfortably understand and translate Hebrew, and they struggle to read the words of the text.

In Israel, when immigrants need to learn Hebrew, they are taught in a lightning immersion system called 'ulpan'. They learn how to speak, read and write Hebrew within six months. From first grade and on, students should be presented with an ulpan style method to learning the Hebrew language. For the first half year of first grade, this is all they should learn in their Torah half of the day. After that, they will be comfortable and confident reading Chumash, Rashi and Mishna. From then on, they should continue their Torah studies only in Hebrew, and devote half an hour a day to continuing Hebrew grammar and language skills. The rest of their morning should be devoted to Chumash and Rashi on a quick pace. They will thus, by the middle of fourth grade, be able to complete the Torah with Rashi, an accomplishment that will further motivate them to desire success in Torah learning.

After this, students can learn Mishna. For the first year or two, the Rabbi can simply read and translate, moving quickly, while making sure everyone keeps up. Students like paced movement, and their short attention spans will be happy for the speed. For seventh and eighth grade, they can review the Mishna while spending the bulk of their time going through the Nevi'im and Ketuvim.

Tanach and Mishna are not closed books. They are readily understood and can be learned fairly quickly with a Rabbi who is fluent in them. Students who are at home in the Hebrew language will find much of these subjects interesting, and will come out of elementary school with a formidable knowledge base.

Students who enroll in the school late can go through a six month 'ulpan' time, and then be brought in to the mainstream of the classes.

Each year of elementary school will have a section of halacha that they focus on, so that students end eighth grade with a solid knowledge of Orach Chaim.

High school can then be devoted to Talmud and Halacha, also in a structured way, with cyclical reviews of Tanach and Mishna.

I know that this type of system will probably not be instituted in our schools soon. However, the concept is one that will help produce well-rounded, thinking students, and help us raise a generation knowledgeable in Torah and the world around them.

As it is, parents can supplement their children's current education with an hour of private learning with father, mother or tutor. The hour can consist of twenty minutes of Mishna, enough to cover about five mishnayot, and thus, in about two years, the entire Mishna. The next twenty minutes can focus on half a perek of Chumash a day, and the last twenty can teach half a perek of Nach a day. It is up to the student's ability and the teacher's descision to add Rashi to that or not.

I know these suggestions are dramatic, but I truly believe that they are attainable by the vast majority of children. Please, let me know through the comments what you think, and if you would change the system I propose, or any other system in place. I think we, as parents, need to rethink the way Jewish Education is run, and this is an excellent forum to do so.