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Reflections on a Religious School year almost past

It seems hard to believe, but with the Pesach holiday having past, there are only 2 weeks of classes remaining in my Religious School calendar. This being my 6th year teaching a Jewish / Environmental education curriculum to 6th graders, I feel I have developed a pretty good set of teachings which I have presented & discussed with my class. However, I can’t avoid the feeling that there is still so much left to teach these students that we haven’t yet had time to cover. With only 2 classes left, I am faced with the decision of how best to spend the remaining time. I am considering whether to attempt to cram in some new themes, or whether it makes the most sense to review the lessons we have previously covered in order to reinforce the main ideas of the curriculum. In making this decision, I am considering what the true objectives of Religious education are, and how best to achieve these goals.

Already this year, my 6th grade Sunday school class has covered a range of topics. We have discussed the laws of pe’ah, shmittah, yovel, bikurim and orlah. We have studied Jewish text on care for the Earth, treating animals with compassion, Ba’al Tashchit, and focused heavily on the role Trees play in Jewish liturgy in preparation for the leading of the Tu B’Shvat seder. We have also covered several texts from Tanach with an eye for environmental themes, including the books of Jonah, Esther, Ruth & Kohelet as well as Psalms and Proverbs. For most of my students, this was their first time being exposed to these texts, and they enjoyed the opportunity. Besides these text studies and environmentally themed discussions, the students have also done a fair amount of work in the garden, which functions as an outdoor experiential-learning classroom. The week before Pesach, the students dug up several large horseradish roots from the garden and brought these home to their families for use on the seder plate. The students were thrilled to get their hands dirty digging in the soil and to be able to bring home food that they grew themselves. I feel all these experiences have contributed to the student’s understanding of Judaism as a religion that requires us to care for the Earth and its inhabitants. Yet I wonder what kind of a lasting impact this will have on their lives as they grow up and how these experiences will shape their choices in the future.

As the temperature warms up here in Chicago, it is tempting to allocate more class time to gardening activities. The garden is currently blossoming with all types of colorful and fragrant bulbs, and the radish seeds we planted in April have sprouted, hopefully growing fast enough to be ready for harvest by the last week of school. Weeding, watering & planting needs notwithstanding, I am feeling conflicted that time spent in the garden not take away from the Jewish educational needs of the students. Ideally, I would like the students to leave my class not just with a stronger commitment to caring for the earth, but also with a deeper appreciation for and understanding of what it means to be a Jew. I would like them to make the connections that being a Jew means being a light unto the nations and that one way we can demonstrate this commitment is through proper stewardship of the Earth.

Perhaps due to the vastness of the Jewish liturgy, I am feeling that much remains for my students to have learned this year. I would have liked to cover the Shir Ha Shirim, Lamentations, and more of the prophets such as Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Job. I would have liked to do a unit on Zionism and Israel, in order to help make the connections in the student’s minds that Eretz Yisrael is the Jewish people’s eternal homeland, and that our care for that particular land is particularly important to the future of humanity. I would have liked to have exposed the students to more of the siddur, so that they could have come to realize the emphasis given to moral conduct and its rewards of environmental prosperity. In short, there is much left for them to learn.

In fact, there is much left for all of us to learn, myself included. In this complicated age of technological advancement and impending environmental destruction, all of humanity is rapidly approaching a tipping point in which we will suffer dire consequences if we fail to learn the lessons of personal and collective responsibility. We are all in need of Tikkun, and this is reflected in the state of our society as a whole. The road ahead for all of us is uncertain and likely to be rough and filled with great challenges. In looking back on this year of teaching religious school, I can only hope that my student’s have learned to be proud of their Jewish ancestry, and to embrace Judaism as a sacred and unique way of life. My hope is that they now have a basic understanding of Judaism as a religion that enjoins us to pursue Truth, Justice and Loving Kindness and to be good stewards of the Earth. Once this basis is established, they will then have their consciousness sparked in order to continue down a path of lifelong Torah learning. With the confidence that comes from self-awareness and the Torah as a guide, we cannot fail to in our mission of repairing the world.

To quote Psalm 1:1-3

“Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers. 2 But his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night. 3 He is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither. Whatever he does prospers.”

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