Religious studies: Judaica
Jewish day schools, like other religious-affiliated schools, have a dual-track curriculum. They focus on both secular academics and religious studies.
In Canada, Jewish day schools have a reputation for very strong secular academics. Dedicated instructors have a rigorous approach to teaching math, science, English, French, and other subjects. In some schools, these subjects are mostly taught on their own, separately from the religious curriculum. In other schools, they’re taught in combination with religious subjects, as part of an integrated curriculum. In yet other schools, the secular and religious curriculum are taught separately, but secular subjects are often put in a religious context (and vice versa).
Paul Penna Downtown Jewish Day School, in Toronto, Ontario, falls in the second of these categories. They have a unique approach to integrating their secular and religious curricula. The basics of this approach, and some of its benefits, are described on their website:
“General Studies are designed to examine large concepts through the development of skills and knowledge associated with specific disciplines and through the application of critical thinking skills. English, history, science, the arts and Judaism, in its broadest sense, are integrated to help the students gain complex knowledge and insights. This multidisciplinary approach encourages students to make connections between themselves and the world around them, in its past, present, and future forms.”
The religious studies curriculum in Jewish day schools is broad and challenging. The focus is on Jewish studies or “Judaica.” Students learn about the Jewish faith and the history of the Jewish people. They also closely study the torah—the ancient and holy Jewish text. Its passages are examined, interpreted, discussed, and applied to real life. Students thereby learn about Jewish law, derive lessons from it, and learn about traditional Jewish beliefs.
Kids learn about and participate in Jewish holidays as well. They learn prayers, customs, stories, and songs surrounding Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashana (the Jewish new year), Passover, Sukkot, and other holidays. This can reinforce both their understanding of and their engagement with Jewish traditions and law.
In Jewish day schools, students are taught to read, speak, and understand the language of Hebrew—the ancient language of the Jews. Starting in grade school, they’ll usually have Hebrew class every day. This can be very challenging for some students, especially since Hebrew uses different letters and a different script than English, French, and other Romance languages.
That said, many students find Hebrew studies both stimulating and rewarding. Moreover, research has shown that learning a second language at a young age can be highly beneficial. It can lead to improved overall literacy skills and a deeper understanding of grammar. Keep in mind, though, that most students don’t become fluent in Hebrew.
Some schools also teach Jewish culture. Students learn about history, customs, festivals, food, and literature associated with Judaism.