By Rabbi Mark Wildes
There has been a lot of talk about the unfortunate “learning loss” students have sustained during the pandemic due to the closure of schools. Bridget Terry Long, dean of Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, argues that it isn’t only academics that students have lost but also mental health and trauma support. Dean Long therefore suggests that America needs to think broadly about using additional support systems, such as tutors, nurses and counselors, to help kids regain what they have missed during the pandemic.
I am by no means an expert in children’s education, but I can confidently share that Judaism’s educational approach goes way beyond the classroom. The upcoming holiday of Passover is a great example. The Seder—with our children and entire family seated around a dinner table and not desks in a classroom—is an incredibly powerful educational experience.
The Seder is also educationally tailored for children and adults of all backgrounds and knowledge levels; something very challenging to pull off in the classroom. The discussion at the Seder table is meant to be customized to all assembled—an idea most dramatically demonstrated by the famous Four Sons. The Haggadah (text for the Seder) speaks about four types of children who each ask their own question at the Seder table—the wise son, the rebellious son, the simple son and the child who cannot even ask. These very different children all ask different questions and each receives a different answer. In doing so, our Sages teach us a fundamental principle in education: “Teach your son according to his way” (Proverbs 22:6). Children of different dispositions and abilities need to receive different answers and approaches, even to the same question or event. This can—and often does—happen in the classroom, but the Seder can do so in a way that is more participatory and powerful.
My own personal experience bears this out. Although I attended Jewish day school from grades one through 12, my most memorable childhood Jewish educational experiences were not in school but rather in camp. Much of what I remember from those years is generally not what I learned in the classroom, but the Torah I studied during those late-night discussions around the campfire, or the informal learning sessions with some amazing rabbis and teachers. Some of those rabbis were also my teachers during the school year, but in camp—when they weren’t seated behind a desk or wearing a suit and tie—I was more open to hearing what they had to say.
Please do not misunderstand me. There is no substitute for school or Jewish schools. They are imperative in developing the basic skills that we will probably never learn in camp or in other informal learning settings including the Seder. But Jewish tradition never believed in putting all of its educational eggs in the classroom basket. Parsha discussions around the Shabbat table and impromptu conversations of the Torah’s perspective on the latest trending issues are all important educational experiences. We must look at every situation in which we find ourselves—be it on a date, a zoom conference call, or a random Sunday outing with the family—as an opportunity to learn something new about our Jewish heritage.
The classroom is certainly one place to find that wisdom, but the Passover Seder reminds us that life offers so many other environments in which we can learn and grow. Our mission is to turn every situation into a learning opportunity and transform every setting into a classroom.
*You can also read Rabbi Wildes blogs on The Times of Israel*