The power of informal Jewish education
By: Paula Levin
However bleak SA’s future looks, especially in the dim glow of a dying LED in the thick of the latest round of load shedding, there is nothing in the world to rival our Jewish schools! The sheer amount and quality of opportunities for our children to embrace our Jewish values is truly unrivalled. I set out to explore how our schools and youth movements are tackling the challenge of inspiring a deep connection to Jewish values and a Torah lifestyle and I discovered a veritable army of dynamic educators thinking out of the box and beyond the classroom. More than ever before, I am convinced that, for the sake of our children’s chinuch alone, we have abundant reasons to stay, confident that we are giving them the ‘roots and wings’ for a wholesome and meaningful Jewish life.
The Torah puts enormous emphasis on transmitting our values to our children. Twice a day when we recite the Shema, we are reminded of the commandment to teach our children “veshinantam levanecha”. These words are written in the tefillin, bound to head and heart, and inscribed in the mezuzas of our doorposts. In fact, the very first generation after the Exodus had the challenge of describing to their children the supernatural events they had seen with their own eyes and inspiring them to uphold our eternal covenant with Hashem. The seder was our very first experiential learning experience, designed above all to stimulate our children to ask questions. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z”l explains, “Education means teaching a child to be curious, to wonder, to reflect, to enquire. The child who asks becomes a partner in the learning process, an active recipient. To ask is to grow.” Jewish education is how we ensure our People’s continuity, and the continuity of our G-d given mission – a quest now spanning 3300 years.
But our job doesn’t end with formal education – as essential as it is. In the classroom, children learn to read and write in Hebrew, to tackle our ancient texts, and to engage with the words of our sages and commentators. But apart from technical ability and knowledge of Jewish law and practice, we have to convey the why of Jewish life – why they should care – beyond a grade on their report card. And to help integrate their ‘book knowledge’ deeply into their being. Says Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein, “Torah is not just another subject children learn at school, it is our life! It is Hashem’s direction and wisdom for us. Therefore, our Jewish education system cannot satisfy itself with merely transmitting information and knowledge and skills, it needs to transmit passion, excitement, commitment, loyalty, and dedication to Torah.”
Enter informal education – and make no mistake, informal does not mean that it is casual or ad hoc. “It is informal in that it is not in the classroom, but not informal in that it is not structured and thought through and planned and strategic,” says the Chief. “I want to pay tribute to our schools, who have recognised and invested time, money, and human resources in creating these informal environments – as have youth organisations doing the same.” The Chief Rabbi has in fact also played a role in this space, with Sinai Indaba featuring a dedicated teen track, as well as the Shabbos Project and Generation Sinai, which tackle the challenge with creativity, from beautiful children’s books on tzedakah and Shabbos, as well as superb games and decks of cards. Generation Sinai in particular is an opportunity for parents to take an active role in chinuch. “Our initiatives are about presenting Judaism not just as a body of technical info, but as a way of life filled with inspiration and light and wisdom. It’s important that we all play that role – educators, shuls, schools, and parents. We need to inspire a new generation to love and to want to be a Jew.”
In 2022, the sky’s the limit! Think music videos, flash mobs, apps, prizes, gameshows, camps, and events designed to provide multi-sensory experiential and social learning opportunities. And, of course, some things never go out of style, from worthy role models, relationships, and positive peer pressure. Let’s dive in and explore just some of what’s on offer.
Over the last year, Chabad House has gifted three magnificent books to Jewish families across the country with children in primary school. After distributing ‘child-friendly’
Tehillim books, Chabad handed out Pirkei Avot (Ethics of our Fathers) which explores words of wisdom from Mishnaic Sages in a clear and attractive format, full of beautiful illustrations and stories. “My Parshah”, currently being distributed, features two double page spreads of uplifting and relevant life lessons from each parsha in the Chumash. “All we ask is that parents spend some time each week learning the parshah with their kids. This way, we are ensuring that amongst the Instagram reels, TikTok’s, and snapchats, our children are receiving the values, direction, and morals found in the Torah too. In a world where our children are being inundated with an overwhelming amount of information and misinformation, the importance of spending quality time with them cannot be over-emphasised,” says Rabbi David Masinter, director of Chabad House. “It’s imperative that amongst all the messages that they are receiving through each medium of social media, they are also receiving the messages that are important to us as parents – from us. Our children will still continue taking in the 1000s of 30 second messages that they are seeing each day on social media and this is why Chabad House is working on using these same mediums to share kindness, ethics, and inspirational messages too.”
Together with her husband Rabbi Zevi Wineberg, Devora Leah Wineberg is director of Tzivos Hashem Johannesburg. Tzivos Hashem, an informal education programme launched by the Lubavitcher Rebbe ztz”l in 1980, literally means the army of Hashem. “Children begin as privates and are able to graduate to higher ranks through completion of weekly missions. Their weapons are Torah and mitzvot; their enemy is the yetzer hara (inclination to do negative things) and negativity in general,” says Devora Leah. A dedicated app allows children to log points earned and buy prizes. The year is punctuated by fun, incentivised, and interactive activities which includes a boys choir and a girls dance club. “Our goal is to enable the children to spend time in a fun, happy environment, to help each child become a better, more proud, more invested Jew,” says Devora Leah. “We know the power of instant gratification, so all our programmes are short term and deadline driven,” she adds. Rabbi and Devora Leah Wineberg also pioneered last year’s Pirkei Avot competition to give greater impetus to the book launched by Chabad House. It saw 1 500 Jewish children participate in an exciting learning programme that culminated in an expo held at Huddle Park. The competition was designed to turn book-learning into a creative, interactive experience that excited the imagination. Some schools used class time to engage with the material, while children from Redhill, Bellavista, and Crossroads joined a weekly Zoom session with Devora Leah. The programme saw the children first learning the Mishnayos and the competition allowed them to choose any Mishnah and use the school holidays to create a project about it. The expo displayed 280 of these projects. “We had ones made from papier mache, some made through woodwork. One child created a game, another wrote a book, and one girl wrote and performed a song. The creativity was incredible and it allowed the children to express their unique talents,” she says. “Parents were blown away by the fact that their children were motivated to use their free time to create these projects, and those with children at non-Jewish schools call me regularly to ask for more programmes. A new initiative was recently launched at Yeshiva College and Torah Academy to introduce parents and children to the My Parshah book. Before Pesach this year, Tzivos Hashem invited the entire community to an event designed to take the children through the Exodus. “They started off in a ‘slavery tunnel’, packed 650 boxes of shmura matza to be included in the Chev’s Yom Tov food parcel, and ended off celebrating Jewish pride with a concert by international performer Yossi Rodal. Next up, Tzivos Hashem is planning on bringing an exciting new programme called JewQ to the community. “This is a new, exciting Torah championship which covers Jewish history, heroes, and law, and is accessible to Jewish children of all backgrounds,” says Devora Leah. “With so many distractions competing for their attention, it’s so important that we continue to bring children innovative experiences of the same calibre and production level.”
Speaking to Hirsch Lyons Girls High School, principal Dina Goldfein, I was intrigued to learn that all Jewish education at the schools are informal! Meaning that Torah subjects are not examined and Torah reports are not reduced to a symbol reflecting a mark obtained on an exam. Assessments are only intended to encourage children to commit content to memory and monitor their absorption of the knowledge. “Everything we do is education,” says Dina. “From a casual chat in the kitchen, to our melave malkas, Shabbatonim, and chesed projects. We are working constantly to instil emunah and rearrange patterns of thinking. Students are spending 5 or 6 hours a day on their cellphones, exposed to an alien way of thought and life they think is the truth. We have to counteract this ‘Hollywood’ narrative with at least as much time spent on Jewish education. We work constantly on building relationships and a deep connection to our students. Our girls are the future mothers of Am Yisroel and we are building their resilience. When students write exams, we start with davening and a Torah class. This is to convey that no matter what’s going on in life – and there will always be something going on – our relationship with Hashem takes priority. Students must complete an hour of chesed a week (even if that means helping at home), this teaches them that life is about giving to and doing for others. Everything we do must achieve the goal of Jewish education.”
Principal of the Boys High School, Rabbi Eli Goldfein, says it is essential that students don’t think of Torah learning as limited to the class and school as theoretical study. “We need to give them positive experiences and events that are beyond the classical school structure, to bring Torah to life and encourage the talmidim to make a lifelong investment in their religious experience. We’re constantly trying to come up with new ways to do that. From a young age we put a lot of emphasis on the value of Torah and the Torah values that make a good person, such as character development and working on personality traits, to name a few, so that it is clear and apparent that to be a good Jew it is not just about knowing a lot of information and practising a few rites.”
King David Schools
King David Schools have an entire team dedicated to informal education. The DIJE (Department of Informal Jewish Education) is directed by Aharon Chemel, who is passionate about conveying the soul of Judaism to students. “Our goal is to revolutionise, innovate, and modernise Jewish education to sustain Jewish life beyond the school years. To convey the soul of Judaism. We create informal spaces where students can connect to G-d, Torah, and Israel,” says Aharon. Perhaps the most well-known of these is Encounter, a weeklong programme where grade 11s confront life’s most important issues. “We tackle belief in G-d, Jewish identity, sexuality, intermarriage, and many other subjects.” These can be tricky conversations to have as sometimes one parent is not Jewish, or the family is completely secular and actually opposed to their children adopting Jewish practices like Kashrut. “We recently created an Encounter programme for parents to address these issues and educate parents who may not have had a Jewish upbringing. We also have an informal education division for adults called Soul. It’s a way we can all be on the same page,” says Aharon. Encounter is a deeply impactful and emotional experience and the highlight of the year. Aharon says that a King David alumnus recently shared that it was Rabbi Ash’s presentation on intermarriage on Encounter that led him to break up with his non-Jewish girlfriend and choose to marry Jewish. Other DIJE initiatives include davening groups, a matric Shabbaton called What’s Next – where gap year programs are showcased, Elevate – a programme highlighting the power of Jewish women, and Morasha – an exploration of Jewish heroes and Torah characters.
Torah Academy Boys High School takes informal education to the next level by bringing out two ‘Shluchim’ each year to drive growth, fun, and learning beyond the classroom. The Shluchim are American Chabad Yeshiva students who join the school to create an atmosphere of motivation, excitement, and personal development. “They hit the ground running with clear objectives,” explains Principal Motti Hadar. “To build relationships and create social cohesion, to learn in chavrusa with each boy over the course of the year, and to create programming that helps integrate Torah learning so that it results in good conduct and ahavas Yisroel.” This year, Yaakov Zarchi and Sholom Bluming have pulled out all the stops, acting in and producing hilarious videos that go viral round the school to launch each of their “Mivtza” challenges. Mivtza Farfetched paired up older boys with younger ones in chavrusa learning to foster inclusion and build confidence, while Mivtza Mymonides was centred around 4 weeks of Rambam study. “We work hard on creating cool branding and incentives for our programmes so that everyone wants to be involved. This creates a healthy peer pressure and boys don’t want to miss out,” says Yaakov. Rewards include trips to Gold Reef City, Bowling, and Escape Room. They even produce ‘Shluchim Merch’, branded merchandise related to each campaign that adds that cool factor. Every Thursday night boys come back to school for Mishmar – which includes maariv, learning two insights on the parshah, and doing a Kahoot quiz on the content for prizes. Then it’s action soccer and snacks for everyone. Fathers are also occasionally included in Mishmar where they have played volleyball, Minute to Win It, and had a dance off. “Sometimes in a formal setting, kids label and limit themselves and mentally check out. With our informal track, we can reignite their spark and encourage learning without pressure,” says Rabbi Hadar. “The Shluchim learn in chavrusa with each child, providing companionship to some, individualised learning to support those who need encouragement and extension to boost those with the potential to excel.” Over the holidays, the boys are given a new Mivtza that rewards getting up early, davening, and daily learning, among other things, so Torah living doesn’t take a break just because school’s out.
Principal of Maharsha Boys High School, Rabbi Micha Kaplan, points out that the classroom has limitations in what can be taught, and “outside” provides many more situations and scenarios that provide an equally important arena of education, particularly when it comes to ‘casual’ interactions with the Rebbeim. “Apart from afternoon learning and a weekly night seder, we also take classes away for Shabbatons with their Rebbeim and go on regular outings. The boys realise the responsibility to always to be a kiddush Hashem when appearing in public, but also to realise that our Torah learning and values accompany us everywhere we go,” he says. “It has been said by leading Jewish educators that the information learned in school is not always remembered, but the relationships students have with their Rebbeim are. We are aware of how critical it is for boys (and adults) to have healthy and on-going relationships with their rabbis and, knowing that most of our students will return to South Africa at some point, it is crucial that they have someone back home that they can connect with and who can guide them in how to continue learning, how to approach shidduchim, and, ultimately, how to build a home and raise a family. The relationships with our Rebbeim can be forged within the classroom setting, but those who connect to their Rebbeim in an informal setting are much more likely to continue to maintain the connection and seek their guidance later on,” he adds.
Maharsha Girls High School Principal, Simone Kaplan, says that a cornerstone of the chinuch mission at Maharsha Beis Ya’akov is to educate our teenage girls with love, relevance, and creativity. “Our Torah is referred to as Toras Chaim, and through our integrated educational experience we try to help our girls feel that their Torah is alive and vibrant. The informal realm drives home the message that Torah gives meaning to every aspect of our lives and we hope to imbue our girls with an excitement for their role as Jewish women and the builders of the Klal Yisroel of tomorrow,” she says. “Our informal offerings including song, dance, and creativity, are well thought-out and goal-orientated to provide the ‘oxygen’ of fun, dynamic social interactions that are so vital to healthy development. Self-growth must be facilitated by inspiring and caring role models and the informal realm of chinuch at MBY provides unparalleled opportunities to truly connect with our girls and educate in an organic and lasting way.”
Gabi Bender is director of YID (the Yeshiva College Informal Department), which offers a number of exciting programmes across the primary and high schools, like Hitkashrut (their flagship Grade 11 Leadership Seminar), tours, Avot Ubanim, Weekly Classes, Yammei Iyun (Additional Learning Days and Programming), break time activities, Grade 6 Tour, chesed initiatives, and Jewish life on campus. “The YID team members form an integral part of our learners lives as they grow in their own Judaism and further develop their Jewish Identity, says Gabi. “The poet William Butler Yeats said education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire, and we set out to instil a passion for Jewish life and the Jewish way of life, to provoke thought, inspire growth, and produce menschen. We engage with learners on an individual level and inspire development, not for grades or for recognition, but because, as Am Yisrael, we have the responsibility to be the best version of ourselves.”
Kollel Yad Shaul
Rabbi Menachem Kaplan, an avreich in Kollel Yad Shaul and youth director of the shul, was trying to find a way to impact the wider community in a positive way when Rabbi Shlomo Kolko of Shaarei Torah asked him to take on a programme called Hadron Aloch – a learning programme open to all schoolboys aged seven to seventeen. Started by Rabbi Yisroel Kaye and Yehuda Goldberg for Avos Ubanim, and now part of Kollel Yad Shaul, Hadron Aloch incentivises fathers and sons to learn Mishnayos together, revise the learning, and take tests. Boys earn R100 for learning a masechta, get another R100 if they get over 80% on the test, and an additional R50 if they revise three times. In the last year, Hadron Aloch administered 500 tests and saw over 1000 masechtas completed. A team of 27 boys recently completed an entire seder of the Mishnah and a catered siyum for 150 people was held to celebrate this achievement, where framed certificates were handed out as well as a grand prize of a return ticket to Israel. Rabbi Kaplan explains the thinking behind the programme saying, “Boys who make the most of younger and teenage years to gain the skills needed for learning are set up for life. Young minds are more receptive, they more easily grasp the structure of Talmudic learning, and quickly grow their reading and translating skills. This strong grounding helps ensure they reach greater levels of learning when they’re older. The Kollel also features a twice-weekly Gemora shiur at night by Rabbi Dovid Samuels open to boys from all schools, also offering cash incentives. Over 30 boys consistently participate. This all goes towards encouraging boys to take Torah with them out of the classroom and make it a part of their life. “We want to fuel learning on the next level and give boys a feeling of achievement and confidence,” says Rabbi Kaplan.
Of course, no article on informal Jewish education would be complete without mentioning some of our youth movements. New kid on the block, Achim, run by Rabbi Dovi Blumenau, is aimed at all Jewish high school boys aged 12 to 18 and has attracted 180 boys thus far. “Achim offers healthy growth experiences and worthy role models as we provide direction in life and empower boys to achieve their potential,” says Dovi. Activities allow boys to develop their leadership abilities and express their talents. For example, recently some boys auditioned for the chance to perform in Achim’s music video. “Every two weeks we create a space for boys to have fun in a healthy, ‘kosher’ way, from ice skating, paintball, get-togethers, Shabbos meals, Gold Reef City, and 20km bike rides,” he adds. Achim also runs an international learning programme, V’haarev Na, which recently saw 400 community members come together to celebrate 40 boys who completed a masechta of Gemora.
National Director of Bnei Akiva, David Kahn, believes it is essential to find new and creative ways to educate young Jewish students on the power of our religion. “Every week at our Johannesburg bayit we have a learning session titled EQT (Extreme Quality Torah). This brings channichim and madrichim together to learn Torah concepts that are relatable to everyday life. However, it isn’t just about the sit-down learning for us. We have really seen that the best way to show the power of our religion is in the practical experiential sense. This is done in the form of chesed projects, connections between madrichim and channichim, and our tochniot (activities). These sessions allow us to creatively show our channichim what it means to be a proud Jew. Our madrichim are able to show the channichim and the community real-life examples of people who love being Jewish and the responsibility that comes with it. Connection is key. Once the relationships are established, that is when inspiration can really begin to grow and develop.”
Let’s hear from our youth:
Organising break time fun activities, tournaments, food, music, speakers, YID brings the vibe and “gees” to school. Every day is a jol. The Jewish calendar is played out month by month by our YID team, with relevant activities for each Yom Tov; there’s always something to look forward to and fun to be had. The YID room/office is a place of refuge and safety. We go there to chill, unwind, and relax.
YID does the impossible by making school fun. YID makes every single boy in the BHS feel connected like one big family, no matter the grade or status, and this is what I love about YID the most. It brings the BHS together.
The DIJE have without doubt helped in helping me discover and explore my Jewish identity better through informal activities like brocha parties, powerful tefillah in the mornings, and informal peulot in Jewish studies lessons. DIJE have also strengthened my Zionism through Yom Yerushalayim braais and their constant promotion of Israel and education. The friendly banter exchanged in a post Shacharit chat is a highlight of the day. DIJE keeps the campus Yiddishkeit and “gees” alive.
Greg Landau – Grade 11 KDVP
The Matric DIJE Shabbaton was one of the most memorable experiences and the perfect way to end our high school careers. We were able to engage in activities that guided us to discover a clearer direction of what our next chapters of our lives will entail.
Leigh Appleton – Grade 12 KDL
FOR TORAH ACADEMY:
My favourite part of the week is Mishmor, which blends Torah learning and fun together.
Dov Ber Ress – Grade 7
The Shluchim turn our free time into a time of meaning and growth.
Aharon Zwick – Grade 9
FOR MAHARSHA BEIS YAAKOV
Some students shine in the classroom but others shine in more informal and creative setting. I’m blessed to be part of a school that has an amazing informal programme, from Rosh Chodesh treats to guest speakers and melava malkas. My favourite by far though has to be camp and Shabbaton. It allows us to get to know our fellow students on a personal level. It’s time for making new friends and strengthening bonds with old friends. It’s just the best.
We always have something to look forward to and learning is fun. These programmes and camps are the highlight of my year.
Chana Rivka Taback
- Jonathan Sacks Haggadah, HarperCollins Publishers ↑