Bringing God into Complementary School Classrooms

Sara Stave Beckerman

Dialogue on Jewish Education from The Davidson School 

Sara Stave Beckerman holds an MA (’04) in Jewish Education from The Davidson School.

Guiding questions:What texts and sources can we use? Are students willing and able to engage in discussion? How can we connect theological questions and answers to deep ideas of Jewish identity and peoplehood that will stick with our students for the long term?

I have taught at a Solomon Schechter Day School, Camp Ramah, and complementary schools in both Conservative and Reform synagogues. Although the learners in each of these settings may have different backgrounds and may learn in settings with varying degrees of formality, they all have something in common: as they develop and grow in their secular studies and social lives, they also develop theological and spiritual selves. Jewish children love to talk about God with their classmates. When asked to choose Jewish learning electives at Camp Ramah, campers in grades 7 to 11 chose theology electives just as often as classes on Jews and Tattoos, Tikkun Olam, or Parashah Art. Our students want to go beyond the basics of Jewish holidays, Torah stories, and history; they want to question, argue with God, and talk about God.

Standard 6 of the eight standards developed for use by the Jewish Day School Standards and Benchmarks Project reads:

Students will develop an appreciation for the sacredness of Tanakh as the primary record of the meeting between God and the people of Israel and as an essential text through which Jews continue to grapple with theological, spiritual, and existential questions.

As a Humash teacher at a Schechter school, I wrote many units that met this standard. Currently I am adapting, adjusting, and testing a Sefer-Shemot–based curriculum for fifth-grade complementary school students that meet this standard. It has been my experience that the use of Torah texts raises questions and facilitates discussions to help students grapple with their own relationship with God and their understanding of God’s relationship with the Jewish people. The students are eager to participate and listen to their classmates’ comments, which increases their comfort level with routine GodTalk.

In this particular unit, fifth-grade students are initially told that the class will spend the year exploring how the Jewish people became a nation in relationship with God and in relationship with Torah. By the end of the year, around Pesach, they take home a personalized Haggadah that reflects a year’s worth of activities and explorations.

This is a lofty goal, with an explicit plan of action. The first step is to review the family tree of our ancestors as described in Bereishit. The students are provided with the following text:

Bereishit Chapter 15:12–16

NARRATOR: And when the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram; and, lo, a fear of great darkness fell upon him. And God said to Abram:

GOD: Know for certain that your seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall enslave them four hundred years; And also that nation, whom they shall serve, will I judge; and afterward shall they come out with great wealth. And you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. But in the fourth generation they shall come here again.

ABRAM: ???

This text leads to five questions posed by the teacher. Interestingly, each time I teach this lesson, I only need to ask the first question and start to outline students’ responses. Without fail, a student will initiate the second and third questions before I get a chance to ask them. It may be late afternoon or early evening, but for engaged synagogue school students, the gears are still moving and generating great questions! The discussion organically continues, following the lead of the students. This text is clearly a great springboard for bringing basic GodTalk questions and answers to light in the classroom.

  1. What is God planning for Abram’s future? (a basic check of comprehension of God’s plan)
  2. Why would God plan for our nation to have pain and suffering for 400 years before making us a nation?
  3. Why would God plan to judge and punish the other nation, also God’s creation?
  4. Imagine you are Abram. What do you say to God when you realize God is planning both suffering and successes for your future?
  5. How would things be different for us if we were never enslaved in Egypt? Explain.

The students, naturally inquisitive and observant, will soon wonder about how God works in history. Does God truly plan everything that happens to us? If the evil of slavery were to happen on its own, does God have the power to allow it to continue or to stop it? If so, God could potentially be both evil and distant. How could God allow 400 years of suffering and slavery to be imposed upon a nation which God has engaged in a covenantal relationship? The students always reject the idea that God could be an evil figure. Instead, they deduce that God allowed this painful plan to occur so that a greater good would evolve. Perhaps it was a test or a necessary evil meant to bring us together as a nation. That nation would be sensitive to the evils in the world and ready to heed the call to partner with God to repair injustices for all time.

As a teacher, I applaud this idea, drawing support from the teachings in Torah: mitzvot sensitizing us to the plight of the poor stranger, and then strategically reminding us of our time in Egypt. (“You shall not oppress a stranger, for you yourselves were strangers in Egypt.” [Exod. 23:9]). Could we have brought this ethical Torah to the world without having endured the pain of those 400 years? By the time we are at the end of the fifth question and an engaging conversation, we are ready to address the big idea that Jewish peoplehood is based on the fact that all Jews share a historical memory of slavery and that all of our most meaningful festivals are tied to the Exodus from Egypt. Could this be proof of their initial hypothesis?!

The students are ultimately empowered by the realization that these were their own discoveries. A text that could potentially paint God as an evil figure with a twisted plan for history has instead been interpreted as a prophecy and reminder that we did not become a nation by chance, but with calculated planning by an all-knowing God of History. That is, as Standard 6 suggests, Torah continues to be a meeting place of Jews and God. We did not take on the weighty obligations of ritual and ethical mitzvot only because we were chosen for this task, but because we endured a challenge that prepared us to bring Torah to the world as a united nation.

As one can see, all the pieces of our historical puzzle fit together when we bring God into the classroom. As teachers and guides for our students, we should not hesitate to do so. In fact, as teachers we may be inspired by the enthusiasm with which our students approach GodTalk.

Sara Stave Beckerman holds an MA (’04) in Jewish Education from The Davidson School. Ms. Beckerman got her start in informal Jewish education at Camp Ramah in the Berkshires as a rosh edah, rosh tefillah, and most recently, rosh hinukh. She teaches Hebrew, Rabbinics and Tefillah in the middle school at the Schechter Day School of Long Island and fifth-grade Judaics at the Merrick Jewish Center Hebrew School. Ms. Beckerman has also been in the business of educational consulting since 2008, writing and distributing original materials for teaching tefillah called Siddur Sababa (