According to a 2013 study by Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life, 67% of surveyed Jews attended a Jewish day school or participated in some other kind of formal Jewish education. The same report added children who have this exposure to Jewish education early on show a higher proficiency in religious studies and the Hebrew language.
Kim Farkas, Judaics teacher at The Joseph and Florence Mandel Jewish Day School in Beachwood; Kim Garra, director of the Mandel Early Childhood Education Center & School Age Childcare at the Shaw Jewish Community Center of Akron in Akron; and Rivky Wolf, early childhood administrator at Hebrew Academy of Cleveland in Cleveland Heights, said early exposure can help cultivate a sense of continuity in their studies.
“Jewish heritage and continuity should be a priority to parents,” Wolf said. “There, children benefit from reinforcement at school for what they experience at home and reinforcement at home for what they learn in school. We believe that when it comes to proper Jewish education, there can never be a situation where too much information is given.”
Teaching children about religion from a young age has its benefits, Wolf said.
“The preschool years are the foundation of a child’s lifelong learning,” she explained. “This is the time when children are learning the basics and are starting to form their self-image of how they identify themselves as students, as people and as Jews. It is therefore vital that at this time in their life, they learn as much as possible about their roots and develop a love and a positive attitude for their education and religion.”
Garra said early introduction lends to opportunities for reinforcement.
“I see that religious education gives a unique influence to our curriculum and allows children to develop familiarity and understanding of Jewish beliefs, practices, traditions and holidays,” she stated. “This influence
jump-starts a young child’s connection with Judaism and allows them to feel they are part of a community.”
Farkas said, “Understanding the beauty and value in Judaism and teaching it in an interactive, meaningful way increases the richness and pride as they develop and grow as members in our schools and Jewish communities.”
Teachers have an important role in inspiring children and connecting them with their Judaic roots.
“Teachers engage children in a fun and creative way through songs, books, activities and games that are geared towards their age and understanding as they reinforce the values of Judaism,” Garra explained. “Children are gaining the knowledge of Jewish values and concepts together with their peers and this exposure to Judaism in the classroom and at home can help children to grow up with a solid Jewish identity.”
At Mandel JDS, Farkas said children are actively engaged in their religious learning. This allows them to make connections and get involved.
“(Students) act out the weekly Torah portion, play interactive games that reinforce Jewish values, read books and participate in experiential learning around the Jewish holidays,” she said. “The children then squeal in excitement when they have Judaics (lessons).”
Though early exposure to Jewish learning experiences is key, lessons should continue as they grow.
“As children grow, they continue to learn and to develop their beliefs and opinions,” Wolf noted. “Children who have a strong foundation about who they are due to continued and solid education will have less of a need to search for spirituality or religious belonging and affiliation. They will be content and will continue to thrive and grow into proud and confident Jews.”
But choosing a religious school can be a complex decision. In these decisions, it’s time for the parents to do the homework.
“It’s important for parents to observe how Judaics is being taught in different day schools,” Farkas said. “Spending time in the classrooms and observing students and school atmosphere firsthand, even multiple times, can be very helpful in that choice.”
Garra said, “The search for the ‘perfect’ school for your child is a personal and often tough decision to make as you are looking out for the well-being of your child, as well as a good fit for your family. Children are away from home and in the care of others for a good part of the day. So, ensure that the morals and ethics that are taught in school mirror those in your home. This avoids possible confusion.”