Getting Real With the Torah

Idie Benjamin and Dale Cooperman

  • Dale Sides Cooperman and Idie BenjaminA child plays meaningfully with toy dishes because he knows what real dishes are.
  • A child plays meaningfully with a toy car because she knows what a real car is.
  • A child plays meaningfully with a doll because he knows what a real baby is.
  • A child plays meaningfully with a toy doctor’s kit because she knows what a doctor does.
  • A child can play meaningfully with a soft, stuffed Torah because….

Once upon a time, there were no soft, stuffed Torahs. None.

But there was a class of three-year-olds, many of whom regularly attended Saturday morning Shabbat services with their families. In the book nook, there were large, long bolster pillows. One day, a child picked up a bolster pillow and starting marching around the classroom. “I have a Torah,” he exclaimed. “I’m walking around with a Torah.” Other children picked up the remaining pillows and joined the parade. The teachers began to sing. Soon the entire class was marching and laughing and singing. Talk about emergent curriculum! Here was a wonderful moment that emerged from what these children knew and felt about the Torah. As Jewish educators, we know that this is exactly the kind of moment we hope for. It should encourage us to step back and consider how this kind of moment could emerge from the children in our programs.

If a child does not know what a Torah is, then what is a soft, stuffed Torah? A pillow? A soft, pretty thing? A strange stuffed animal? What is a child to make of this object if it found as it often is in a doll bed or on a shelf somewhere? Every other component of the classroom is arranged, explained and taught with great intention. What about this soft Torah? Why is it there? What is its purpose?

This is the Sefer Torah, our Torah. For Jews, the Torah is our most treasured possession. It is the Jewish roadmap. It is the story of the Jewish people. It contains history, law and values, and it details our relationship with God. Throughout history, the Torah has linked Jews to one another.

A Sefer Torah (Torah scroll) is a sacred object; it is treated like royalty. It is kept in the Ark or Aron Kodesh in the most prominent location in the sanctuary. The Torah scrolls are dressed in beautifully decorated covers and adorned with silver crowns and breast plates. They are treated with great care and love, as befitting a sacred object. A specific portion of the Torah is read in synagogues all over the world on Shabbat, Holidays, the New Moon, and Fast Days and Mondays and Thursdays during morning prayers. We have a special holiday, Shavuot, that celebrates the biblical story of the Jewish people receiving the Torah. On Simhat Torah, Jews celebrate finishing the year-long reading of the Torah and immediately begin again. Like young children who want their favorite books read again and again, we read the Torah again and again finding new insights, meaning, and questions.

To “know” a Torah, a child must have direct experience with a Torah. We have to acknowledge that not all of the children in our schools are synagogue goers. As experiential learners, how can a child understand what a Torah is without direct experience, without having the opportunity of “knowing?”

It is possible that some teachers think that young Jewish children do not need to know about the Torah. They don’t go to synagogue. Their families aren’t “religious.” It is possible that some teachers think that the Torah is too abstract a concept for young children to understand on a meaningful level.

While true that young children are concrete learners and do not understand abstractions well, we do create appropriate learning opportunities for some abstractions as a foundation for future understanding. Love is an abstraction, but one that we know is important for children to feel and understand. A Jewish identity is an abstraction, but there is so much value in starting its development when children are very young.

Is it enough for a Jewish early childhood program to be only about Shabbat, holidays, holidays, and holidays? The Torah gives us an approach to life and looking at the world. The values we teach come from laws and stories that ground us all and create menschen (decent people).

Children may not go to synagogue now but someday they might and will have an understanding of what happens in the sanctuary. We give children words for so many pieces of the world. They need a Jewish vocabulary and a meaningful understanding of Jewish objects as well.

Being connected to the Torah is not about how “religious” your program is. The Torah is where Judaism begins, continues and endures. Adult have many views about the Torah’s origin, its meaning, and how its laws and values should guide our lives. That is a discussion that children will grow into as their Jewish identity evolves. That discussion, however, begins with a simple love for the Torah and knowing how special it is.

Step One

Let’s think about our young learners. What do they know about the synagogue where their school is located? Do they know that there is a treasure chest somewhere in the building? It is the guide to who we are as Jews. It is a gift from God, the most important gift, we believe, ever given. The rabbi or the cantor knows the way to the treasure chest. Plan a “field trip” for each age group. Ask the rabbi or cantor to show you the treasure and lead you to the sanctuary. On your way there, the excitement will build. When the children come up to the bimah and help to open the Ark, they will know something extraordinary is about to happen.

The simple awe of opening the Ark and seeing the Torah in regal dress is a spiritual experience. Take time for children to notice the colors, fabrics (gentle touching allowed), and the decorations You could have a small, paper Torah to demonstrate how a scroll works from beginning to end. Compare it to a regular book, one that we want to hear again and again.

Children enountering the TorahThen take a Torah out of the Ark. Take off the crowns and breastplate and have the children touch them and ring the bells. Allow the children to get “up close and personal” with the scroll. Unroll as much of it as possible. What do they see inside? What kind of observations can they make? Have these children help dress the Torah and return it to the Ark.

Do they know that one portion (or story) from the Torah is read each week, and that this is a story that adults and children want to hear again and again? Do they know that many of the stories they hear at school come from the Torah? Have the rabbi or cantor gathers the children and tell a story from the Torah (the parashah of that week or another Torah story). Don’t forget to take photographs to help them remember this event – perhaps their first meaningful encounter with the Torah.

Many programs do have a yearly visit to the sanctuary to see the Torahs. Is that enough? The sanctuary feels different from other spaces. Think about what children could experience here enveloped in the aura of that holy space. Is it the place for a Friday Kabbalat Shabbat (welcoming Shabbat) program? What is the effect of hearing a favorite Jewish story when read on the bima next to the Torahs in their Ark? Is this not the place to introduce the story of a holiday or a values lesson? When children want to talk about God and other big Jewish questions is there any more appropriate place? Consider the possibilities. The sanctuary is invaluable in helping to grow a blossoming Jewish identity.

Step Two

Think about the way we treat the toy Torahs in our classrooms. Are they found piled up with the dolls in a crib or on a shelf? Do they have a special place in the classroom, or do they seem to drift from one learning center to another? If that is the case, what message are we giving the children? How many is enough?

Now that we have taken the time for the children to experience the awe, the beauty and the sacredness of a Torah, the children know that their classroom Torah needs to be cherished. It needs its own Aron/Ark, a place of honor where it can be respected and used appropriately. Even two-year-olds can help in the creation of something beautiful by decorating a small cabinet with paint, tiles, and other craft supplies. Older children can decide how best to create their classroom ark and its curtain/parochet.

This ark needs to be substantive, not a decorated shoe box that is kept on a high shelf. As we arrange our classrooms, remember that where we place the Torah and its ark can be as important as where other centers are placed. It needs to be incorporated into the daily and weekly rhythms, the rituals and the play experiences of the classroom. A place of honor is not enough; now it needs to be used honorably. Only by constructively determining what to do with a Torah will they children take ownership of the Torah.

We are blessed to be able to provide this all important, first experience with a Torah. We are obligated to teach the children how to play – and interact – meaningfully with the Torah, as much or more than we provide opportunities for them to play meaningfully with toy dishes, toy cars and toy dolls. An enduring understanding will emerge from these meaningful and authentic interactions. The children will then “know,” see, and feel the importance of that soft, stuffed Torah. They will “know” the love that Jews hold for the Torah.

Then what could happen in our classrooms? What would the children do with those soft, colorful Torahs? Will they parade with them? Will they hold one when in need of comfort? How will they choose to show what they know and how they feel? We can only imagine.