Every year growing up, I knew that the beginning of the school year was also the beginning of the year. Rosh Hashanah’s timing just made sense. January? Makes no sense. As a Jewish educator, though, it is often a challenge when the high holidays are “early.” We have just a few sessions together, if that, to plunge right into our holiday units. Because of that, I used to do an inward happy dance when the holidays fell mostly in October. But then I realized that Rosh Hashanah has much to teach me about how to start a new school year, and now I embrace the synchronicity of the two with my Rosh Hashanah lenses.
Most schools do start before the holidays, in the Hebrew month of Elul. There is a beautiful Chasidic teaching about the month of Elul that I wish I had known in my first year of teaching. Back then, the educational director warned me about the awful behavior of the 6th grade congregational school class, and advised that the best way to keep them in line was to avoid smiling for the first month of school. Because I was a naïve new teacher, I did it, even as it went against all my instincts. What a disaster.
In a parable about the month of Elul, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of Chabad, writes:
Before a king enters his city, its inhabitants go out to greet him and receive him in the field. At that time, anyone who so desires is granted permission [and can] approach him and greet him. He receives them all pleasantly and shows a smiling countenance to all... (*the full parable can be found in the Likutei Torah)
To our students, we are that ruler. Are we kind and benevolent, “ruling” with love and care? Let’s show our students that we are indeed approachable. We will meet them where they are at, and get to know them, beyond their reputations. This is our time to cultivate relationships with our students and help build our class community – our “city.”
Rosh Hashanah itself has many symbols and traditions that can give us inspiration in the new school year.
The blasts are intended to wake us up. Of course, there are three kinds of blasts and each one is meant to have a different effect on us. Likewise, we need to be those shofar blasts for our students at the beginning of the school year. We have to wake them up and engage them in learning – remembering that each student responds to different “blasts”—different methods, activities, and teaching styles.
Just like on Rosh Hashanah, we want our students to know that in this new school year, we all have an opportunity for a clean slate, for do-overs. Rosh Hashanah is a great chance to assess what we need to work on and set new goals. I often have my students write a Rosh Hashanah card to themselves with their goals for the coming year (younger students can dictate them to teachers). I have them write to the self they hope to be, both as a student and as a person in the world. Then, I give them their cards at the end of the year. Inevitably, they forget about them and are very excited to read what they wrote to themselves. Did they achieve their goals? Did they surpass them? Did they become the person or student they were hoping to be?
Apples and honey
We take something slightly tart and dip it in something that is pure sweetness. Isn’t that what we want show our students? Learning is like that apple, while it is tasty (and good for us!), it often has its challenges, like the tartness of the apple. Judaism is sweet; it is relevant, meaningful, and engaging. When we add the two together, we come out with an irresistible treat.
However, if our lessons have no challenge--no apple--then they are just the pure sweetness, like the honey, which ultimately will prove unsatisfying. And if it’s just apple – challenging content – and we don’t add the honey, then our students won’t see the sweetness in what they are learning, and may not bring it into their lives. So, we need both. Our lessons should be like apples dipped in honey.
There are many more symbols and customs on Rosh Hashanah—the round challah, the rimonim, and more. What wonderful lessons will they teach you with your Rosh Hashanah lenses?
Batsheva Frankel is the author of The Jewish Educator's Companion.