You Should Learn So Long – Some Jewish Connections With Progressive Learning


Geyn in kheder bay reads an old Yiddish axiom. “I learned everything I know there”. Where?…at one’s school of course. The kheder or “school room” is where it all started, all the learning about life, death, even the alphabet and maybe a little algebra thrown in for good measure. Of course hipsters might claim that they went to the Marlon Brando kheyder of acting, but that just gives the word more authority as a way of learning instead of just a place where one learns. But new? I think not.

The idea that school (orschola in Latin) can be a way of life or a style of something is an ancient idea. The ninth definition offered in Webster’s refers directly to school as “a way of life, a style of manners, customs…” In fact, the ancient Greeks insisted that school could be an informal setting where “leisure time” was spent in philosophical discussion. It seems that school does not necessarily have to be a deadly serious place set apart from the life and interactions of the community. It can be a lively, friendly setting and even more.

In Jewish tradition, theshul (from the German word schule) means the “courthouse square” or the forum of the community. It is where true learning takes place, but not in isolation. An old adage states “learning is really achieved only in groups” (Berakhot). The house of worship becomes the school, becomes the center of the community, becomes the world. Voila! A community of learners is born. And these shuls were open 24 hours a day; there was no artificial separation between life and education. School was everywhere: in the home, in the temple, on the streets. The shul was just the hub, the place to come back to. Learning was constant and active, not segmented and passive.

Indeed, the idea that learning should be a joyful, pleasurable thing is also part of Jewish tradition. Jews were said to be heard ” singing their studies” so fervently in their shuls that they hoped to be transported to a “higher world” (Finkelstein). This is learning you can believe in!

In fact, Jewish parents would go with their children to their first day of school and give them little honey cakes as they recited their initial Hebrew letters as if to say: here now, isn’t learning a sweet thing? And there’s more. The Jewish concepts of tikkun, the act of repairing the world, and tzedakah (giving of one’s self) speak to the role that a holistic education can play in the local community as well as the world at large. Students who are encouraged by the their schools and communities to perform mitzvahs or voluntary acts of kindness, are helping to mend the world by trying to set an example of a just, cooperative society.

The Hebrew word,Tzedakah,literally means justice but has come to stand for the act of giving back to the community in order to empower those who are less fortunate. Providing students with opportunities to create a better world through works oftzedakah should be on the Gold Standard of any kheyder or shul worth its kosher salt. Most progressive educators would agree. The idea that all learners might come to revere the learning process itself is a worthy goal. That they might come to see themselves as members of a community of learners with a sense of social responsibility to the wider world is part of the vision that drives us to make schools the kinds of places where life is not only examined but celebrated as well.

The Jewish love affair with learning and community involvement should inform, provoke and inspire us to create progressive schools where the fires of our passions and curiosities burn forever, places where one might say: I learned everything I know there.

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