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Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Among the many aspects of the modern Orthodox community of which we should be proud, the Modern Orthodox school system is perhaps the finest.  Modern Orthodox schools produce highly educated and refined youngsters who have excellent backgrounds in both limudei kodesh and chol.  Modern orthodox schools integrate the lessons of modern psychology, educational theory and Chazal, all with the need to constantly fundraise and navigate the complex landscape of students, parents, communities, and the broader educational world.  At the school I educate my children, I am frequently awed by the marvelous dedication of the administration and staff. Thus, to be absolutely clear, by my making a small suggestion, I do not wish to imply even a smidgen of disparagement or disapproval.  Quite the contrary.  

With that caveat, I would like to broach the potential for our community, and our schools, to consider the potential for educational activity on Sunday morning.  This is one aspect of more yeshivish schools that I desire.  As a baal teshuva without fundamental cultural ties to the modern Orthodox community, I considered educating my children in the yeshivish system.  I decided against it for numerous reasons and I do not regret the decision.  However, in our religion, two fundamental mitzvot are chinuch banim and talmud torah, and these mitzvot are overlaid with a mantra of vhigisa bo yomam vlayla calling for a personal ethic and communal culture of continual immersion.  I cannot shake the one disappointment that my children, in particular my sons, will lose the one fulfillment of that mantra that yeshivish schools provide through Torah education on Sundays.  I am aware that some schools have Sunday education for older grades, but it is limited and does not extend to younger, highly impressionable students.  

While in America Sunday school is implemented only by yeshivish-affiliated schools, this is no less a modern orthodox idea than a yeshivish one. No less a modern orthodox figure than Rav Aharon Lichtenstein zatzal noted that Talmud Torah limited to the strictures of an academic year is not sufficient.  Of course dati leumi schools in Israel do not take off on Sunday.

As many readers are no doubt thinking right now, there are many questions this idea brings up.  What would this program provide? To be clear, my vision for such education would not be a simple extension of the academic experience of the rest of the week.  It would be a more informal, optional program for students interested in additional learning, coupled with some group physical activity/play time.  While modern Orthodox schools focus – largely correctly – during the week on building basic academic skills in Jewish studies, this program would engage kids with the many fascinating intellectual areas of our Torah tradition, such as dinim, Nach, agada, midot and mitzvot ben adam lchavero.  The demands of a dual curriculum do not always permit a broad exploration of these topics, especially with younger students.  As Orthodox Jews who give so much of our lives and our financial resources to keep our children within our tradition, we should look to also inculcate our children with these areas of our Torah tradition which are truly engaging and form a large part of the sweetness of Talmud Torah.  There is the well-known occurrence in the late 1940s and 1950s of formerly observant Jews, who had given up their observance after enduring the horrors of the Holocaust, who still labored over Talmud with excitement, even when literally smoking cigarettes on the Sabbath.  This behavior was not irrational. Our Torah tradition is brimming with excitement, and this program may help lessen the dryness that a purely academic experience can create.  While our younger children may lack the skills necessary to independently study the areas I mention above, that does not mean we should deny them the introduction.

Would there be interest? I believe so.  I hear from parents of modern backgrounds that send their children to more yeshivish schools that their children are particularly excited to go to school on Sunday, more than the rest of the week.  My son attended a program, similar to what I have outlined, organized by a special individual in the community and he highly enjoyed it.  The wholesome socialization that the play time would allow would be welcome by many, whether or not drawn to the learning.

Who would staff this?  Many teachers are likely fuming at the potential implication of this suggestion that I am asking more of their already extremely overtaxed lives.  Chas vshalom. I would see this program staffed either by volunteer educators or teachers interested in an additional honorarium.  The program would be independently funded by the families who choose to participate.  However, I’m not even sure that significant expense is necessarily entailed.  There are so many educators in our community including many that are not formally employed by the Jewish community.   This program would perhaps provide an opportunity not only for the students but also to the parents or other community members as well to engage in the mitzvah of teaching Torah.  I believe many would jump at such a volunteer opportunity, which I believe in general are too few and far between in our community. Another legitimate concern is safety which is paramount and should be worked out carefully.  Perhaps parents, or at least designees, would need to remain on site.  

Another potential implication I would like to dismiss is that I am ignoring the legitimate benefit of physical exercise and family time provided by Sundays.  Children benefit immensely from activities such as team sports, engaging in other interests, and family trips and other time spent together on Sundays.  This program would only be for a couple of hours at the beginning of a Sunday and would largely not impact on such beneficial activities.  Indeed, I believe many families may jump at wholesome opportunities to distract their children from spending more time on electronic devices.

I fully understand that this idea will not gain universal acceptance.  But I urge every school to consider it.  Indeed, already I see that Yeshivat He’Atid has organized an activity once a month with learning on Sunday morning.  Perhaps parents would similarly also be interested in themselves participating in a similar or slightly different program. The lack of centralization within our school system provides our community the opportunity for our schools to, similar to the 50 states in the US as noted by the Supreme Court, serve as “laboratories” of experimentation.  I respectfully submit that Sunday school should be the subject of such experimentation.  

By Sarah Felsenthal

Sarah Felsenthal is a government relations and project management specialist.