So there we were, sitting around the dinner table, talking about our day.
Our daughter was telling us about making an ark at school, a Noah’s Ark, and about all the animals she had put in hers.
The subject turned to whales, I don’t really remember why, and our girl started referring to Noah as Jonah.
No, we corrected her – it’s Noah’s Ark. Jonah and the whale is a different story.
My husband went to Jewish day school until he graduated from high school, I went until Grade 8.
But neither of us could actually remember how it was that Jonah ended up in the belly of the whale.
Turns out she’d learned it at some point already and gave us the basics: he needed to tell the bad people to stop being bad. He got thrown in the sea to stop a storm. And then he ended up in a fish.
Ottawa Jewish Community School 1, parents 0.
The incident highlighted an issue I’ve been thinking about since my daughter started school this year.
We sign her up for swim lessons or skating lessons because we aren’t necessarily capable or able to teach her those things. But we want her to know those skills, and think she’ll enjoy the experience as well.
A similar thing can be said about enrolling her in Jewish education. We never doubted we’d sign her up for either full-time or supplementary. When we asked ourselves why, it was something we believed was important, that she needed to know and would enjoy. And what we were capable of teaching her ourselves was limited.
But when we enrol our kids in skating or swimming lessons, it’s also because we hope we’ll one day go skating with them, or take them to a cottage during the summer and they’ll be able to jump in the lake.
So what is our goal for our child’s Jewish education?
In his “A View from the Bleachers” column in the October 29 edition of the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin, Rabbi Steven Garten raised an interesting issue that I think can be reframed and applied to this question.
He reflected on his experience in the Jewish ghetto of Venice, where Jewish tourists were eager to tour the historical aspects of the site, yet eschewed the opportunity to visit a sukkah set up nearby by the local Chabad.
He took the example further, writing: “I’m struck by how many of us travel to the concentration camps, the cities devoid of Jews, the sites of our persecution and destruction, but often avoid the vibrant realities of our existence.”
Now, in Jewish school, one hopes that the kids are getting both those things – a sense of both the history and present of the Jewish people – and that’s our goal in sending them there.
But where does that leave us, as parents?
I find myself asking two questions that are difficult to answer.
First: When we enrol our kids in Jewish education, to what extent are we ourselves seeking to “avoid the vibrant realities of our existence,” in effect delegating to the school system that which we do not wish to do at home or in the community?
Second, and perhaps more crucial: My formal Jewish education stopped when I finished high school. I took a few Jewish cultural classes in university – film and fiction – but since then, nothing official, save for the odd lecture or community event. In a similar vein then to the point Rabbi Garten raises about many Jews respecting history but avoiding living Judaism: Why, as a parent, have I’ve decided my daughter needs a formal Jewish education but it’s OK that mine is a thing in the past?
This isn’t about being able to answer her questions about Jonah and the whale. I know I could look that up without signing myself up for the seminary.
But in time, I’ll have to negotiate far more difficult terrain. She’ll come home asking why we do or don’t do the things in our house that she learned about at school.
Some will say, just tell her that every family does things differently. And perhaps that will be enough for her. But will it be enough for me?