Today, I watched multiple generations of the Jewish chain come together. Three long tables in the shape of the Hebrew letter chet filled a room in a local retirement community. On the outside of the tables sat my first and third grade students, while on the inside sat the community’s residents. After weeks of preparation, my students successfully led an entire Passover seder from start to finish for these residents. I observed as they passed on their newly learned knowledge. It was beautiful to see the residents looking to the bright-eyed students for direction and instruction. The parents of the students also came to watch their children in action, observing the next generation of educated Jews in the making. It was evident that on this day, my students were the teachers.
The Passover seder is pedagogy in disguise. It is Jewish education at its finest. American philosopher, psychologist, and educational reformer John Dewey would be proud of Judaism’s practice of progressive education. The seder is learner-focused, integrates positive values and promotes continual growth. Passover is one of the most powerful of Jewish holidays that keeps the Jewish people alive.
The Passover seder requires everyone to participate. There is even a commandment that“In every generation one must see himself as if he came out of Egypt.” In order to reenact the journey from bondage to redemption, participants are required to partake in symbolic rituals. For example, the dipping of a vegetable into salt water resembles the tears shed during Israel’s bondage in Egypt. Such experiential learning, which is the way my own students learn best, helps seder participants understand an important part of the Jewish people’s story.
Moral education is also integrated in the Passover experience. This type of education cultivates those virtues and values that enable learners to grow into good people. Seder participants see many moral values as they relive the Passover story. These include: empathy (taught through the plagues and identification with the suffering of our ancestors, gratitude (taught through the popular song Dayenu), faith in God (taught through the four cups of wine and the four expressions of redemption), and the meaning of freedom. From the seder, one can see how moral education is easily woven into Jewish curriculum.
Most importantly, the seder encourages participants to take learning into their own hands. One of the most essential skills for students to have, if not the most essential, is the ability to ask questions. Learning to question enables one to have autonomy over his or her education. Precisely for this reason, the recitation of the Four Questions is reserved for the youngest child present. From this part of the seder we learn that Judaism values when learners ask thoughtful questions (even more than when they give correct answers).
The seder is a classic textbook representation of progressive education. It is experiential, reinforces Jewish principles and encourages future development. Watching my first and third graders share their knowledge with others made me realize that, as a Jewish educator, I’m not just teaching Jewish studies but ensuring the continuation of the Jewish people. Song writer and musician Josh Nelson states, “L’dor vador nagid godlecha, l’dor vador, we protect this chain, from generation to generation, l’dor vador, these lips will praise Your name.” I’m proud to be a Jewish educator protecting this chain.
Alli Cohen’s Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati fellowship involves teaching Hebrew and Jewish history in Hebrew at Rockwern Academy.