(Uriel Heilman/JTA)

Jewish Tips to Get You Through the Back-To-School Season

Preparing for a brand-new school year, with some Jewish wisdom.

The back-to-school season is, for all intents and purposes, a period of pure parental mayhem. From tracking down the coolest Batman or Barbie backpack on the block to searching out that elusive five-subject, wide-ruled, perforated spiral notebook that our child needs for Hebrew class, our to-do lists seem virtually endless.

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The Pressure

Still for many modern parents, the stress of preparing our kids for their return to academia pales in comparison to the pressure we endure once they actually get there. After all, in our achievement-obsessed society, it often feels that our parental efficacy is directly correlated with our children’s standardized test scores. It’s no wonder that the sheer thought of homework, report cards and parent-teacher conferences has our stomach turning somersaults.


And if all this academic pressure is tough on us as parents, it’s wreaking absolute havoc on our kids. Research reveals all kinds of worrisome trends showing up en masse in 21st century schoolchildren–from anxiety and depression to psychosomatic illness to drug and alcohol consumption. So intense is the pressure to perform in school, in fact, that a recent cover story of Newsweek magazine titled “Fourth Grade Slump” reported a rampant and unprecedented academic malaise–characterized by declining interest in reading and gradual disengagement from school–that’s striking American kids.

One of the most marvelous aspects of the Jewish tradition is its ability to guide, protect, and strengthen us at times when we need it most. As if our forefathers could see eons into the future–knowing their ancestors would one day be faced with back to school stress of biblical proportions — they’ve sent sage advice our way. The following golden nuggets of ancient Jewish wisdom promise to keep your family sane, happy and healthy this back to school season–and for many school-years to come.

Study for Its Own Sake

The Mishnah states that Torah should be studied lishmah, or for its own sake. In other words, we shouldn’t learn Torah with ulterior motives (i.e. getting on God’s A-list or wowing others with our biblical mastery). Rather, we should release ourselves to the beauty and majesty of the text–enjoying it in its own right. In doing so, it is believed, we achieve a divine level of existence.

By the same token, we should not present the act of learning to our children as a means to an end (i.e. you study science so you can ace the exam so you can get into a really good college one day). Instead, we must help them recognize and embrace the inherent magic, excitement and privilege of discovering the world around them.

“We live in a goal-oriented society. The value of activities is measured in the results achieved. We study to pass tests. We attend classes to earn a degree. Thus, for most of us, the Jewish value of learning for its own sake is often regarded as a quaint but antiquated tradition,” writes Rabbi Jerome Epstein of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. “It is time for Jews to reappropriate the value of Torah lishmah not only for our personal growth but for the healing that it can bring.”

This is not to suggest, of course, that we place no focus on scholastic performance. We should do all we can to help our children realize their potential–academically and otherwise. But we should be careful not to depict education simply as a stepping stone to bigger and better things, while we’re at it.

There’s a beautiful Jewish custom of drizzling honey on the letters the first time a child learns the Aleph-Bet. The purpose of the honey is not to disguise the work that inevitably lies ahead, but to serve as a reminder to savor its sweetness. Similarly, by following up the nightly homework drill with a family nature hike together–or setting aside an hour one evening to cuddle up on the couch with a bowl of popcorn for some family DEAR (Drop Everything and Read) time–we can recapture the inherent yumminess of learning without undermining the importance of schoolwork.

And on the Seventh Day God Rested

Let’s face it. Try as we might to reduce our kids’ academic stress, we can’t do away with it completely. School is after all, hard work by design. While studying is enlightening and empowering it can also be demanding and rigorous. And that’s exactly the way it should be. Judaism places great value on work, and diligence, and of course, on study.

But our religion also believes in downtime. “Six days shall you labor and do all your work” reads the Book of Exodous “and the seventh day is the Sabbath to the Lord your God [on which] you shall not do any work.”

Our kids spend their school-weeks in constant motion, schlepping from classes to baseball practice to violin lessons to Hebrew School. They desperately need a time to recharge and refuel. And in Shabbat, they have it. But Shabbat is far more than just a weekly chill session for our kids. In the Sabbath rituals our children find the consistency and predictability they need to thrive despite a frenetically paced life. They find the spirituality and hope that will keep them emotionally healthy in an unpredictable 21st  century world.

Educate a Child According to His Way

In modern day America, cramming kids into societally constructed Harvard-bound boxes has become parental sport. But the reality is that not every child is hardwired to go to Harvard.

The wise King Solomon recognizes this truth in the Book of Proverbs when he teaches us that we must “educate a child according to hisway”. Notice, he doesn’t say anything about our way; or the school system’sway; or the college entrance board’sway. He says simply the child’s way.

On one level these words entail a basic acceptance of our child’s academic realities–coming to terms with the fact that our son may have certain learning challenges that require a unique educational approach, or that our daughter is simply going to be–despite tutoring sessions galore–a perfectly average math student.

But the commandment of educating a child according to his way also requires us to go a step further by recognizing and nurturing our children’s unique sets of gifts and talents–whether or not they’re considered “gifts” and “talents” by modern societal standards. In his Book of Jewish Values, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin shares his take on Solomon’s words. “As a parent you are obligated to be conscious of your child’s special intellectual and artistic abilities and interests. Yet I’ve met parents who have definite views about precisely what sort of person their child should be, and who do not take into account the child’s personal interests. Such an attitude denies a child’s very individuality.”

One of my favorite tools for illuminating children’s unique gifts is Howard Gardner’s highly acclaimed theory of multiple intelligences (1983, 1999) in which he delineates at least eight distinct types of intelligences of value to society that exist in human beings. Eight different realms in which to uncover the sparks of genius in our children.

Kids who are masters of puzzles and Legos, for example, exhibit what Gardner calls spatial intelligence, while children who love reading and telling stories possess linguistic intelligence. Bug-loving kiddies tend to exhibit naturalistic intelligence, while children who get a kick out of strategy games often have logical-mathematical intelligence. Children with natural leadership skills show have interpersonal intelligence; while introspective, spiritual children have intrapersonal intelligence. Kids with bodily-kinesthetic intelligence are agile and physically coordinated, while those with musical intelligence have a knack for singing and playing instruments.

And if you’re especially lucky along your parenting journey, you’ll get to know a child with menschlich intelligence–a spark of God-given sweetness and compassion that far transcends the 99th percentile on the California Achievement Test.

But even if you conclude that your child is not a budding Albert Einstein, you’re in good company. At the end of the day most of our kids are, well, regular old kids–good at some things, not so good at others. And counting on us to love and support them in all their wonderfully regular-kid glory.

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