Not Learning to Ignore

December 14, 2018

Shabbat Shalom from Beit Rabban. Read our weekly message and watch our weekly slideshow here.

Dear Beit Rabban Community,

We get a lot of visitors. Educators and lay leaders have always come to see and learn from our lab school for Jewish education. I usually have the privilege of welcoming these visitors into our community and processing their experiences with them. Inevitably, I feel that I have learned more from them than they have from us.  I love this part of my job.

A couple of weeks ago we had a really special visitor, Dr. Ilana Blumberg. Ilana was one of the first Kindergarten teachers at Beit Rabban, working under the supervision and mentorship of our founder, Dr. Devora Steinmetz. Ilana, who lives in Jerusalem these days, was in town promoting her new book Open Your Hand: Teaching as a Jew, Teaching as an American , which draws heavily on her experience teaching at Beit Rabban. In talking with her and subsequently reading her fantastic book, I was reminded of one of Devora's non-negotiables: walls of a classroom should not be covered in teacher-made or pre-printed signs, especially not before the children in the classroom are able to read the signs. Signage and decorations should be made by and for the children, with teacher additions only when educationally relevant. Why was Dr. Steinmetz so strict about this rule? Because she believed that we should never be teaching children, whether consciously or subconsciously, to ignore the written word or to ignore their surroundings. Ignoring signs on the wall is exactly what we train children to do when we hang things up that they cannot read or that are wholly out of context to them. Quite the opposite, we should be teaching children to look at everything with attention, curiosity, and wonder.

Beit Rabban continues to adhere to this rule put into place over 25 years ago by our founder. Our walls are completely bare on day one of school and grow with our children over the course of the year. We take a lot of pride in this fact, and we also keep the purpose of this rule at the forefront of our thinking in all areas of education. We teach our children to notice, to wonder, to investigate, to master. 

This is one of our most magical weeks in the Beit Rabban calendar. Shtillim students (2nd Grade) had their Torah Reading Ceremony, a critical rite of passage in the lifetime of a Beit Rabban education. Like most Jewish day schools, we begin studying Chumash in second grade. Unlike nearly all other schools, we do not induct our children into this practice with a performance ceremony culminating in the giving of a Chumash to each student. Rather, our children spend months preparing to earn their Chumashim. 

On the first day of second grade, children begin at the beginning, Bereishit. As they study the story of Creation--reading, questioning, thinking--students learn biblical Hebrew, the layout and division of the Torah into chapters and versus, and the system of "taamei hamikra," the ancient notes that guide us in chanting the Torah in community. Why do we emphasize the chanting of Torah as an integral component to it's study when this skill is generally not taught until bar/bat mitzvah? Because we are teaching our children to notice every thing on the page of our holiest of texts, to understand its purpose and to master its use. If we approach literacy with this level of intentionality, as many progressive schools do, how could we approach the study of Torah with any less intentionality and rigor. 

Shtillim students prepare for their Torah Reading Ceremony for three and half months, all this time focusing exclusively on the story of Creation- just 34 short verses. During this process, they become one with the text: reading, translating, chanting and analyzing each day, each word. In addition to the text, they also explore the themes of Creation in their interdisciplinary period, looking at the science of light and dark, studying the various ecosystems created on each day. They work with our art specialist, to create watercolor portfolios of Creation, each student selecting a quote from each day of Creation to interpret  with their paintbrushes. Finally after all this, each student walks up to the Bima and proudly chants their portion of Parshat Bereishit, surrounded by their Beit Rabban community of teachers, students, parents, grandparents, alumni and friends.
After all the students read from the Torah, each students receives their first Chumash, wrapped in special paper prepared for the occasion by our preschool students, each is inscribed with a personal blessing written by the their parents. We tell them at that point that this Chumash is not a gift, it is entitlement and a birthright. But birthrights also get earned through rites of passage. They are ready to receive their Chumashim because they have worked long and hard to develop an appreciation for the Torah's multifaceted beauty, wisdom and holiness. When a Beit Rabban student opens their Chumash, they understand the that there is a purpose to every mark on the page, that nothing should be ignored. For the rest of their years of study, they will notice, wonder about, question, investigate and work to master our holiest of texts, the foundation of our people.

Wishing all a restful and rejuvenating Shabbat,