Girsa de-Yankuta: The Building Block of Meaningful Learning
It is well known that the young mind is especially attuned to absorbing copious amounts of knowledge and learning skills that will last a lifetime. Skills like riding a bicycle or swimming are not readily forgotten. Furthermore, if a child is receptive, they will learn skills like playing the piano much more readily than an adult and will be likely to retain those skills well into adulthood. Rashi, in a comment on Talmud Bavli Shabbat 21b, identifies this as girsa de-yankuta.
The value of girsa de-yankuta adds a new twist to the search for meaning. What does meaning-making look like for younger students? At what age should the search for personal meaning be encouraged more seriously, and what should be done in the younger years to prepare students to be able to explore meaning-making as they grow?
There is also a practical question. Students, after all, need to be motivated in order to learn. Many educators thus put the emphasis on having fun, feeling involved, and experiencing joy in Jewish life. While that emphasis has immediate benefits, we also want students to graduate with a commitment to Jewish life that includes specific skills. Students ages five through thirteen going through Erik Erikson’s “age of industry” stage will especially relish learning and showing mastery of skills. A strong foundation in skills keeps students grounded later in life, when they experience a time of rebellion, and prepares them for adulthood when they will have a real-life need for those skills in making meaning. Having skills intensifies their Jewish identity, encourages them to participate more fully and confidently in Jewish communal life and may bring deeper meaning to their adult lives. Their participation in Jewish life is not simply as an audience member in a performance, but as a skillful participant and future leader. As such, educators must be ever attentive and responsive to the balance of knowledge and skill-building (keva) in relation to meaning-making (kavanna) in their programs for the younger grades.
At Pressman Academy, an early childhood through 8th grade Solomon Schechter day school in Los Angeles, we believe that a rigorous commitment to skill-building and a carefully crafted scope and sequence together with benchmarks and assessments are essential to achieving these goals in the younger grades. Our focus on developing Hebrew language, Judaic studies, and tefillah provides students with the essential skills of solid girsa de-yankuta. These should then be reinforced with celebration, articulation, and opportunities to process the value of these skills in the transitional years between elementary and secondary education.
Proficiency with Hebrew is an essential element of Jewish identity. Hebrew is critical in opening doors to participation in daily Jewish life and allows students to access our texts, our ancient culture, and our modern sovereign Jewish State of Israel in all its complexity. Moreover, as the language of the Jewish people, Hebrew allows students to connect, communicate, and function with Jews from diverse places and times.
An immersive approach to Hebrew language learning can begin at the youngest ages. The research on language immersion has consistently shown that young learners, ages three to five, who are exposed to a second language demonstrate enhanced intellectual prowess and general academic growth. From this foundation, students will be positioned to gain a more meaningful and powerful Jewish and general education.
As students continue their Hebrew education in the elementary school years, they should study in Hebrew with consistency. Students can acquire new vocabulary about the immediate environment, including everyday words related to themselves, the classroom, their families, and their homes, extending to the rest of the world around them as they mature. Lessons can utilize multiple intelligences such as art, movement, cooking, baking, and music. In fourth and fifth grades, instruction can continue to deepen with authentic materials.
With these skills in hand in the older grades, students will realize that their Hebrew skills are not elements of an isolated discipline but are essential to living an informed and integrated Jewish life. They allow students to explore the world authentically, through primary sources and personal connections with Jews around the world, and to engage with issues in Jewish life with genuine depth and complexity.
Skill-building in Judaic studies, as in other areas, means careful attention to scope and sequence in the various subjects. We can begin building Jewish life skills in the youngest ages with the celebration of the rituals of daily Jewish life, Shabbat, and Holidays. These skills can then be developed with further attention to the details of halakha, Jewish law, as students revisit their learning year after year in an organic and systematic way. As with other skills, repetition and practice are of vital importance to the goals of retention and independent performance. The school should also provide opportunities for the entire family to join with the community in developing skills and performing rituals.
Students should begin the study of Tanakh by developing familiarity and understanding of basic Biblical stories and personalities, alongside a regular practice of engagement with parashat hashavua, the weekly Torah portion. The youngest grades can begin learning about creation, and older students can move on to an appreciation of the stories of the avot (patriarchs) and imahot (matriarchs), and finally gain a deeper familiarity with the story of slavery and the Exodus, the giving of the law at Sinai, and the construction of the Mishkan (Tabernacle).
Recognition of these major Torah narratives and the skills of Hebrew deciphering and reading comprehension that correspond to such study are central to becoming an observant and inquisitive reader of the entire corpus of Jewish texts at any age. As students mature, they are able to understand the nuances of parshanut, classical commentary, and develop their own opinions and approaches to the big ideas found in the text. Students thus gain direct access to the vast integrated network of Torah learning and join their voices in the meaningful conversation of what the texts can mean to us today.
Finally, the development of skill in the realm of tefillah should complement the Hebrew language and Judaic Studies skills. A depth of meaning is brought to our prayers by familiarity with the evolving Hebrew language and recognition of the origins of our liturgical words within the corpus of Jewish texts. In tefillah, we are regularly challenged in balancing skill-building routine and meaning-making, however, for younger students, we find that careful and consistent repetition is central to building the skills necessary for the reading and recitation of our prayers with fluency. We would not choose to sacrifice that skill for more meaning-making in the younger grades, but we do find that having fun and experiencing joy are a natural outgrowth of giving students the proper tools for accomplishing these central tasks of Jewish expression. As they mature, participation in tefillah becomes increasingly meaningful and students will have the tools to engage in tefillah wherever they go and become leaders in their communities.
Transitions in the Tween and Teen Years
With these skills in hand, students can be confident participants in Jewish life even if they end their formal Jewish education before high school. We hope, of course, that they will continue to be lifelong learners of Torah, with the basic doors now opened for their learning.
How and when are the skills acquired at a young age translated into a desire to live a meaningful Jewish life? The time for this process to happen will come during the tween and teen years of later elementary school when students become more independent and are increasingly invested in the development of their own individual identity. At this time, some students will begin to actively question or even rebel against their education. At this critical juncture, typically between fifth through eighth grades, teachers should celebrate, articulate, and give opportunities to process how skills are a vital key to opening opportunities for depth of learning that would otherwise be unavailable. Skills provide students the power to make their own choices and make their own meaning in an informed way.
The act of celebrating skills privately as well as with public audiences encourages students, gives them social support and a sense of belonging, and helps them understand the real-world application of their education. As students mature, they should be challenged to practice skills in novel and increasingly complex situations. For example, a student of Hebrew could be ready to tackle current events involving the complexities of Israel and share their learning and questions with an audience through writing or debate. A student of Judaics could be empowered by sharing their knowledge with younger students, family, and friends, or even in cultural exchanges with students from other backgrounds. A student who has prepared for their bar or bat mitzvah should be given opportunities to join and lead an adult minyan. Students who have the proper skills to participate in these opportunities will have a new understanding of the value of their education.
At this age, teachers should also cultivate opportunities for students to have meaningful conversations with adults who can articulate how Jewish knowledge is valuable to them. Teachers should draw from their own school families and alumni to bring in compelling adult role models who can share examples of their own real-life experiences of how Hebrew and Judaics have been a part of their lives, acknowledging both successes and struggles. Hearing about these journeys can change an abstract study and youthful practice into something more relevant. For example, students may study about and be skilled in the practice of prayer, but hearing from an adult for whom prayer is meaningful can help them imagine the possibilities that are yet beyond their abilities.
Finally, students should have opportunities to process these experiences and explore their own reflections, questions, and beliefs with the guidance of their teachers and in the supportive presence and witnessing of peers. As their skills in speaking, writing, and critical thinking mature alongside their skills and knowledge of Hebrew and Judaic Studies, students will have a growing toolbox to apply their learning inward, through discussion, journaling, creative expression, and honest self-assessment. Students should always be encouraged to have opinions, to speak up, question, and debate, and as a result, become active and engaged Jewish citizens. Armed with skills from their girsa de-yankuta, students will have or will be able to find answers and will be able to pose more sophisticated questions as they explore and define their own Jewish identity.
Devoting time to building essential skills and reflecting upon the value of these skills requires making difficult decisions about what to include and exclude from an already over-taxed dual curriculum. A school should be careful about setting appropriate goals that are sensitive to the needs and aspirations of the families enrolled and strive to balance the general tendencies of the community either toward keva or kavanna.
Nili Isenberg is the Judaic Studies Curriculum Coordinator at Pressman Academy in Los Angeles, where she has served on the faculty since 2009. She has a Masters in Teaching from the American Jewish University. Growing up in Israel (ages 6 to 11) had a lasting effect on Nili’s girsa de-yankuta.