By Chaya R. Gorsetman and Amy T. Ament
Reprinted from the Summer 2011 Jofa Journal
“One of the long term goals of early education is to strengthen and support children’s inborn tendencies to be curious and deeply engaged in making the best sense they can of their experiences.”1
Life in our modern Orthodox communities is changing. What might have been true about the role of women only a generation ago can no longer be taken for granted. Women are learning, consulting on halakha, taking active leadership roles sitting on shul boards, and taking on more mitzvot, such as insisting on hearing the shofar and sitting in a sukkah.
However, the social reality is not necessarily in concert with the messages being transmitted in day schools. This problem should be of utmost concern to educators, particularly in light of the abundant research demonstrating the ways in which children acquire knowledge by making connections between what they are learning and what they have already experienced.2 The central question, therefore, is: What happens when a child experiences something in school that contradicts his or her social context or personal experience? The reality for most boys and girls attending modern Orthodox day schools includes men and women who are educated professionals—successful doctors, lawyers, scientists and professors who take an active role in public life. Often, however, the subtle messages they receive in school, specifically in the context of Jewish life, conflict with the social context with which they are familiar. Children
experience a disparity between the home and school, and schools have thus far been ill equipped to address the impact of this disparity on the development of young children.
The following stories from the field illustrate these ideas in very poignant ways. All interactions described occurred between teachers and students within modern Orthodox day school settings. each highlights important questions and challenges the reader to imagine how it might have gone differently.
1. Some boys in a kindergarten class were not consistently wearing tzitzit to school. The teacher invited the school rabbi to help the boys understand why they should wear tzitzit. The rabbi, speaking to the entire coed class, was so
effective in his speech that a young girl commented, “If this mitzvah comes from the Torah and it is so important, I want to wear tzitzit, too.” The Rabbi then gave the explanation of kevod bat melekh penimah—because girls
are innately more spiritual, they don’t need reminders such as kippah and tzitzit. As a result of this conversation, the director fielded several calls from parents the following day, reporting that their sons came home under the
impression that girls are more special than boys.