Anecdotes and Reflections on Gender in Early Childhood Education

  • by: Chaya Gorsetman and Amy Ament

Chaya R. Gorsetman, Ed.D is a Clinical Assistant Professor and supervisor of the Early Childhood Education Track at Stern College for Women of Yeshiva University. She served as the director and co-author of the JOFA Gender and Orthodoxy Curriculum Project, Bereshit: A New Beginning—A Differentiated Approach to Learning and Teaching, and is a Senior Mentor in The Lookstein Center’s ELAI program. Amy T. Ament mentors new teachers through the Jewish New Teacher Project and is a doctoral student at the Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education at Yeshiva University. She co-authored Bereshit: A New Beginning—A Differentiated Approach to Learning and Teaching through JOFA Gender and Orthodoxy Curriculum Project.

Read the accompanying article here.

“…One of the long term goals of early education is to strengthen and support children’s inborn tendencies to be curious and deeply engaged in making the best sense they can of their experiences.” (Helm and Beneke)

Life in our modern Orthodox communities is changing. What might have been true about the role of women only a generation ago can no longer be taken for granted. Women are learning, consulting on halakhah, taking active leadership roles, sitting on shul boards, and even taking on more mitzvot such as insisting on hearing the shofar and sitting in a sukkah.

However, the social reality is not necessarily in concert with the messages being transmitted in day schools. This is a problem that should be of utmost concern to educators, particularly in light of the abundant research demonstrating the ways in which children gain/acquire knowledge by making connections between that which they are learning and that which they have already experienced. Constructivist learning theory asserts that “information not connected with a learner’s prior experiences will be quickly forgotten. In short, the learner must actively construct new information into his or her existing mental framework for meaningful learning to occur.” The central question, therefore, is what happens when a child experiences something in school that contradicts his or her personal perception of reality, or confronts an idea that conflicts with his or her social context/personal experience? The reality for most boys and girls attending modern Orthodox day schools includes men and women who are educated professionals – successful doctors, lawyers, scientists and professors who take an active role in public life. Yet often, the subtle messages they receive in school, specifically in the context of Jewish life, conflict with the social context with which they are familiar. Children are experiencing a disparity between the home and school, and schools have thus far been ill equipped to address the impact of this disparity on the development of young children.

The following stories from the field illustrate these ideas in very poignant ways. All interactions described occurred between teachers and students within modern Orthodox day school settings. Each one highlights important questions and challenges the reader to imagine how it might have gone differently.

1. Some boys in a kindergarten class were not consistently wearing tzitzit to school. The teacher invited the school rabbi to help the boys understand why they should wear tzitzit. The rabbi, speaking to the entire co-ed class, was so effective in his speech, that a young girl commented, “If this mitzvah comes from the Torah and it is so important, I want to wear tzitzit, too.” The Rabbi then gave the explanation that kvod bat melekh penimah – that because girls are innately more spiritual, they don’t need reminders like kippah and tzitzit.” As a result of this conversation, the director fielded several calls from parents the following day, remarking that their sons came home under the impression that girls are more special than boys.

Emerging questions include:

  • What was the teacher’s intention in inviting the rabbi to speak to the class?
  • What was the rabbi’s goal?
  • Why did the (female) teacher not feel she had the authority to address this issue with her own class? What does that say to the children?
  • Did the teacher consider the girls in the class? (The rabbi later reported that he felt badly that he hadn’t thought about the girls while he was giving his speech and felt compelled to give a traditional response when the question arose.)
  • How does a girl feel when a boy takes a tangible, concrete object and recites a berakhah while she has nothing to hold?
  • How do we have the conversation with girls (and boys) about why boys wear kippot/tzitzit and girls don’t?

If a girl asks to wear tzitzit, what are the possible responses? Does a girl wearing tzitzit, like a girl who plays dress up in her father’s tie and carries a brief case, become identified as ‘trying to be a boy’? Why do we treat tzitzit any differently than the mitzvah of lulav, in which children of both genders are often encouraged to take them in school, even though their mothers might not?

2. The practice in many modern Orthodox schools is for boys to say the berakhah over the tzitzit, and then, lest they feel left out, girls say the berakhah she-asani kirtzono (=who has made me according to His will, the traditional morning blessing for the female). In one particular school, the boys sing a few introductory lines about wearing tzitizit. The girls then sing the following introduction to she-assani kirtzono:

Ani yaldah gedolah (I am a big girl)

Ani yaldah yaffah (I am a pretty girl)

Ani omeret todah Lashem (I say thank you to Hashem)

Shehu bara oti (that He created me)”

  • Why do we parallel tzitzit and she-asani kirtzono? Are these two berakhot equivalent?
  • Why is there a need to insert a berakhah for girls here?
  • Why, when introducing the berakhah, does the song emphasize girls’ physical attributes? The boys’ song focuses on the importance of the mitzvah.
  • If we explain what the berakhot mean, how do we justify to boys that they are not saying she-asani kirtzono?
  • What do we imagine girls are feeling when they witness boys taking a tangible object and wearing, then kissing it whenever it is mentioned in tefillah?
  • What do we imagine girls are thinking/feeling when we teach about brit milah (covenant of circumcision)?
  • What do we imagine boys think when we teach about “tzeniut (modesty, in many traditional settings these lessons are explicitly linked to girls’ behavior and mode of dress)?”

3. During a kabbalat Shabbat celebration in a pre-school class, the teacher turns to the young girl who has been chosen as the Ima and asks what the Ima does to prepare for Shabbat. The girl does not answer right away. The teacher tries to help and says, “You’re the Ima. The Ima prepares for Shabbat by shopping, cooking and taking care of the children.” She then turns to the boy and says, “You’re the Abba. What do you do?” The boy responds, “I am a fire fighter.” The teacher then remarks, “And when you come home, you help, right?”

  • Is it fair for the teacher to assume that women stay home and get ready for Shabbat while men go out to work. Is that true in every family? Why was the girl not asked, “what’s your job?”
  • Is the teacher aware that this characterization may not reflect these children’s experiences?
  • What implicit assumptions was the teacher reinforcing or propagating in prompting the Abba to say he would help?
  • In most modern Orthodox communities, becoming a fire fighter is not a career path which is encouraged, yet he is allowed to take on this role and explore. “In dramatic play, the child develops a concept of his or her own sex role. Numerous social roles are tried out and increase the depth of understanding of many other roles. The child begins integrating the rules of society… A conscience is developing (Hildebrand).” Do we allow girls the same freedom?

How might it have looked if we offered children choices of roles in the kabbalat Shabbat celebration, just as we do in the dress up area? Family roles could be expanded to include grandparents, reflecting the children’s growing reality, as people live longer and extended families get together often. When we plan, we need to be cognizant of children’s experiences. Are fathers active partners in their homes (not just the “assistants”)? Have we ever considered changing the format of kabbalat Shabbat to be more inclusive? Could everyone participate in saying the berakhot? What opportunities do girls have to practice saying kiddush (as they are obligated to if no male is present)? When do boys have a chance to practice saying the berakhah over the candles?

4. A veteran teacher was told she would be involved in a project on gender. Before the project began, she was preparing a packet of handouts for her students about the upcoming high holidays. Suddenly, she realized that all the pictures in the packets were of boys davening – there were no illustrations of girls actively engaged in meaningful observance of the holiday. She felt that she could no longer hand out the packets she had distributed to students for the previous ten plus years. Her consciousness was raised just by virtue of the fact that she was aware she would be participating in some capacity on a project regarding gender.

While acknowledging that herein lay some assumptions and generalizations, and in fact some of these ideas are being implemented in schools already, nonetheless, the problem illustrated is widespread enough to warrant serious examination. The intention here is not to offer directives but rather to encourage teachers to be reflective about the gender messages that are being transmitted through religious instruction in our schools. Through the spirit of such reflection, good practice will emerge.


J. H. Helm and S. Beneke, eds., The Power of Projects (Teachers College Press, New York, 2003).

V. Hildebrand, Introduction to Early Childhood Education, (Mcmillan Publishing Company, New York, 1986).

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