Jewish Education in France: starting with the teacher in question

By Haya Prys, ORT Montreuil

Year after year, I hear the same story from my students: “I’ve strayed from tradition because my old Jewish studies teacher put me off it!”

Or equally: “They forced strict religious practices on us but didn’t give them any meaning and so it turned us against it.”

This is often the case at ORT Montreuil where we welcome students from various Parisian Jewish schools where the weekly quota of Jewish Studies lessons was substantial – sometimes up to 10 hours a week!

After such intense teaching of Jewish studies, some don’t show any pleasure in encountering Jewish subjects again.

A Jewish Studies teacher can have a considerable impact on a student’s future.

Yet it’s difficult to speak the language of the students and to make the link with the Jewish world and such disharmony can be detrimental to the relevance of Jewish teaching.

I have been a teacher of Jewish Studies and Jewish History in several Parisian Jewish high schools for 30 years, as well as head of the Talmud Torah at the Grand Synagogue of Paris.

This experience has given me the chance to work with students and families of different socio-cultural backgrounds, whose religious positioning calls for the choice of specific schools.

Every school has its religious standpoint, be it Orthodox, consistorial or being very much or not at all committed to the question of Zionism. These differences in point of view consequently influence the educational choices made for the Jewish studies syllabus.

Equally, we could focus on technology both as an obstacle and an astounding learning tool, and its influence on students’ relationship with knowledge and learning.

The evolution of science and the popularization of TV programs sometimes make our youth more knowledgeable about different subjects than their seniors.

Other changes such as the evolution of the family dynamic considerably impact the relationship between youth and adults as well as how teenagers view authority.

Education is inevitably impacted by all these changes; and this is especially the case for Jewish Studies, which acts as the echo of tradition and puts our young people, in search of meaning, face-to-face with their questions.

And those who want to find answers are just as keen to draw them from solid references.

How do we draw meaning from a multi-millennial tradition, with the never-ending concern of interesting the young?

The matter of Jewish education in France is a vast and fascinating subject and we may be faced with similar questions around the world:

  • How many hours a week should be dedicated to Jewish teaching?
  • Should the lessons be taught in Hebrew or the native language?
  • How does Jewish education fit in with mainstream subjects?

One of my first tutors, Doctor Elie Cohen of Marseille, often said to us: “We no longer teach what we are but what we know.

The young are indeed looking for role models. They need to feel that whoever transmits the Torah resonates with its teachings, embodies its values and is driven by the desire to pass its messages.

How can we nurture the ability of young people to question themselves, to study the text and to understand abstract ideas?

At ORT Montreuil, students have an hour a week of lessons in ‘Jewish Thought’ alongside those of Jewish history and Hebrew.

Here are some personal experiences that I would like to share:

In a year 11 / tenth grade class, where we had tackled a problem of bullying, it seemed a good idea to talk about the power of words, especially on social networks, putting this subject in perspective with the laws of “Lashon hara”/ bad-mouthing.

Rather than teaching the Shoah as a historical event that only concerns the Jewish people, we studied the Genocidal Process (see the works of G. Stanton).

Approached in this way, the subject of the Shoah has a universal scope and affects more students – Jews and non-Jews while allowing them to study human behavior in its broadest sense.

All these experiences and many others make me think that Jewish Studies teachers are essential to the transmission of Jewish values, provided they are capable of giving a current resonance to the Texts.

And the Texts are full of timeless issues: romantic relationships, the environment, the power of words, self-image, idolatry, the relationship with the body, the relationship with material objects and violence, to name a few.

The stakes and the challenges are great but the question is how do we face them?

The idea is to improve teacher training so that they can extract the substance of the Texts, to make relevant educational choices and to work on putting them in perspective with topical matters.

It’s a question that is both educational, theoretical but above all, humanist.