At our Shavuot study this year, a group of AARC members discussed several Jewish texts and traditions surrounding the word “torah.” Sometimes Torah is used to name the five books in the scroll read weekly on Shabbat; sometimes “Torah” includes Talmud and other writings as well. At times Torah is understood as “law,” while, as Rabbi Michal pointed out, “torah” can also mean “aim,” as in a guide for our actions.
One of the Reconstructionist movement’s goals for religious education is to convey Torah as “the ongoing, creative, and sacred search for meaning in life, a record of human encounters with the Divine.” As the new director of our Beit Sefer, I embrace this creative and ongoing Torah as our model. Our goal is to instill in the students the sense that, with the tools of Jewish tradition, their lives are creating the Torah of the future. Just as the Jewish people’s experience of God, Torah, and peoplehood has changed and grown throughout history, the students’ own experiences will change Judaism.
Each aspect of Reconstructionist education is infused with creative, participatory purpose. For instance, the point of Hebrew language study isn’t only recitation of a Torah portion. We study Hebrew in order to participate in community and express ourselves: in ritual, prayer, and text study, fostering connections with Jewish civilization of the past, the present, and the future. These goals may be lofty for a supplementary elementary school, but we can achieve sparking the desire to reach for them, and the basis of the tools to get there.
Another hallmark of Reconstructionism is incorporating contemporary ideas and discoveries in science and psychology into Jewish practice. Starting Fall 2015, the AARC Beit Sefer will begin to use Project-Based Learning (PBL) as a teaching approach in our K-6 religious school curriculum. An inquiry- and innovation-based teaching method, PBL is a perfect fit for a Reconstructionist religious school. PBL lessons open with a driving question – something the students feel they need to know. The teacher then guides the students through a journey of discovery, using a variety of resources, such as storybooks, excerpts from texts, experimentation, parents, teachers and other students. Students choose how they will present the information they have discovered; the culmination of each project is sharing it with a larger audience. Questioning has always been the basis of Jewish learning, so combining these contemporary teaching methods in the Jewish classroom is a natural.
In the AARC Beit Sefer classrooms, the students will work in pairs or small groups, using our community’s deep human resources of artists, techies, musicians, teachers, etc. to investigate the yearly cycle of Jewish holidays, life cycle rituals, the practice of mitzvot, Jewish history, liturgy, and literature.
An example of a PBL lesson for the Kitanim, our youngest class whose curriculum includes Torah stories, might be helpful here. A PBL approach to learning about Abraham and Sarah will begin with the students being asked to come up with questions about the characters in the story. “Who are Arbraham and Sarah? Where do they come from? What do they look like? What do they wear? Do they have brothers, sisters, kids? What does their house look like? The classroom teacher will facilitate the students learning to ask questions of the text. Once the students have a “need to know” they are encouraged to think about how they can find out the answers to their questions. Teachers make sure there are resources such as storybooks, videos, websites, storytellers, photos, etc. available for the students to gather information. The students will need to find out the answers to their questions because at the end they are going to present something–a picture, a story, an object–to their class, the whole school or at a congregational service or event. Each PBL lesson lasts two-four weeks; along the way, integrated, interdisciplinary learning takes place including Hebrew vocabulary, text, history, ethics, as well as expressive arts. For the older students, the questions, resources, and projects become more complex.
For Judaism to flourish, Reconstructionism’s founder Mordechai Kaplan wrote, “it must resume its original function as a culture, as the expression of the Jewish spirit and the whole life of the Jews.” AARC seeks to inspire its students to be knowledgeable and comfortable enough with Jewish tradition to feel free to innovate, adding their own links to di goldene kayt (the golden chain) of Jewish civilization.
If you have questions about Beit Sefer, please contact Clare Kinberg. Enrolling your children now will help us know how many students will join us next year. The online enrollment form is here. (You can enroll now and not pay tuition until August/September).
Beit Sefer meets weekly on Sundays, from 9:30 to 11:30 am, from September to mid-May.