By Rabbi Sharon Litwin
This past Sunday afternoon, over 200 Hebrew school teachers gathered at the Greater MetroWest Federation building in Whippany for a three hour teacher in-service training. There was an open brainstorming session on creating positive parent-teacher communication and another on creating enthusiasm and interest for tired students on a weekday afternoon. We also had workshops on addressing social and emotional needs of students, technology as a way to meet the needs of our schools, using media and arts in Jewish education, fun Hebrew games and Tefillah transformation.
I taught a workshop called “Nesheema Amooka — Take a Deep Breath: Student Movement and Why it Matters to Jews to Move.” My workshop met in the yoga studio at the gym in the Federation building. The students (teachers!) sat on yoga mats. Lights were dim, meditative music played lightly in the background and no one was wearing shoes!
Before we began the class, I suggested that people find their most comfortable sitting position, just as one would find in a yoga class…but rarely in a Hebrew school classroom setting! We talked about how sometimes better learning can take place when we are comfortable. And that this is even more important for children! We took a few deep breaths, noticed our bodies, our breathing and our brains…and began with a text study.
I brought several ancient texts (in English!) to the class. I thought I would share two of them here:
Philo of Alexandria (25 BCE – c. 50 CE), also called Philo Judaeus, was a Hellenistic Jewish philosopher who lived in Alexandria, in the Roman province of Egypt taught: “The body is the soul’s house. Shouldn’t we therefore take care of our house so that it doesn’t fall into ruin?”
Maimonides (Rambam), the great Torah scholar and physician of the 12th century, wrote: “Maintaining a healthy body is among the ways of serving G-d, since it is impossible for one who is not healthy to understand or know anything of the Creator. Therefore one must distance oneself from things which harm the body, and accustom oneself to the things which strengthen and make one healthy.”
After we read each text, we took some time time to discuss and understand them. Our religious school students are connected to their bodies and not just talking heads. The students who have trouble sitting in class, who need a drink, a bathroom break, a snack, may need these things because their bodies are not able to allow their minds to learn without them.
We talked about how important it is for us to model treating our bodies kindly, and I shared with the teachers the changes in snack policies at BBRS that we made this year. As the students at CBI know, we no longer give out candy, cookies, crackers or other junk food at BBRS. Instead, if students are hungry, they can come to the office and ask for an apple or a cheese stick. And it is amazing to me how fast we go through apples and cheese sticks at religious school!
But, I am also thrilled! I know that hungry children need nourishment for their bodies in order to learn and that every child will eat junk if it is presented to them. I feel we are responsible at school not just for the souls of our students, but also to teach them the values of caring for their bodies. I hope in this small way, we are teaching them to serve God.