Each August, as a new school year approaches, the cycle of Torah study is in its “home stretch,” nearing the close of the fifth and final book of the Torah, Devarim. Devarim means “words.” It is a title drawn from the opening phrase of the book: “These are the words that Moses spoke….” The context is dramatic: Moses, liberator, lawgiver and leader of the Israelites for forty years, will soon die; the book is his farewell addresses, delivered over the last weeks of his life. Devarim offers much on which to reflect, as a new school year begins.
Shavuot, celebrated this year, June 9-10, is both an agricultural holiday and a festival associated in rabbinic tradition with the experience of Torah at Sinai. In describing the Israelites as they stood at Mt. Sinai, the Torah comments: va-yichan sham yisrael, Israel camped there. Noting the use of the singular in the verb form “camped,” Rashi famously observed that the Israelites (plural) were – at that moment – as one nation with one heart.
In 1942, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America published A Model Program for the Talmud Torah, a guide to building rich Jewish and Hebrew literacy through after school courses of study. Its editors were Joseph Kaminetsky, a leading Jewish educator of the era, and Leo Jung, a pre-eminent congregational rabbi who also served on the faculty of Yeshiva University. While Jewish day schools expanded in number and student enrollment in the decades post-World War II, many Orthodox congregations continued to sponsor after-school Talmud Torah programs, well into the 1980’s.
In recent months, a series of heartbreaking, disruptive events have rocked the greater Los Angeles area and its Jewish communities. The Woolsey Fire burned nearly 100,000 acres, caused the death of three people, destroyed many hundreds of structures – engulfing in flames three Jewish residential camps’ facilities and a school building at a Jewish day school – and caused the evacuation of thousands of families from their homes. At the same time, those of us in Southern California were mindful of and concerned about the devastating conflagration in Butte County, to the north.
by Dr. Gil Graff
Millennia ago, Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) opined that “there is nothing new under the sun.” Though, occasionally, it might seem as if something is new, Kohelet maintained that the matter was recognized in times past but simply forgotten. To be sure, humankind acquires new knowledge. For example, while we know more about child development today than in former times, Koheleth might suggest that seeking and applying such knowledge is a contemporary expression of the ancient wisdom of the Book of Proverbs, "educate each child in their way."
The 15th of the Hebrew calendar month of Shevat (Tu B’Shevat), this year, corresponding to January 30/31, marks the new year in the agricultural cycle, for purposes of various Jewish legal requirements relating to produce. The date has, in more recent times, been embraced as a Jewish Arbor Day. This year, Tu B’Shevat coincided with a striking, early morning eclipse of the moon.
The unlimited availability of information at the push of a button makes teaching and learning altogether different, today, than in the (ever more remote) 20th century. Education is not about mastery of a body of knowledge; it’s about processing, synthesizing and wisely applying abundantly available information. Project-based learning and collaborative problem solving are, appropriately, increasingly at the core of students’ educational experiences.