Kosher or not?
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Kosher or not?

Fourth-graders in Woodcliff Lake learn about kashrut

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Amy Fuchs of Upper Saddle River, a 4th-grade parent, looks at labels with some students from Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley’s religious school.

Shrimp, flounder, anchovy. Which one isn’t kosher?

How long do you have to wait between eating dairy and meat?

What does the OU or OK symbol on packaged food mean?

Rather than learning the Jewish dietary laws only from books and lectures, the 28 fourth-graders at the religious school of Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley in Woodcliff Lake experience kashrut via an active curriculum devised by Rabbi Shelley Kniaz, the shul’s director of congregational education.

“Whether I’m teaching mitzvot that apply between person and person or between people and God, a hands-on approach is most important because mitzvot are things that we do,” Rabbi Kniaz said. “In synagogue school, on Sunday mornings and weekday afternoons, you’re not eating. So I had to find another way to make kashrut hands on and experiential.”

The four-stage process begins with primary sources in English translation. Once the children have learned which animals the Torah deems kosher and and which non-kosher, they sort stuffed animals accordingly, one group sorting land animals and the other water animals. (This fun innovation was introduced by Temple Emanuel teacher Ira Brandwein a few years ago.)

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Sam Shulman, at left, and Max Dryerman inspect a package.

Next, they examine how rabbinic law developed based on Torah verses – such as the separation of milk and meat deriving from the prohibition against seething a kid in its mother’s milk, or how to slaughter an animal as painlessly as possible – and discuss the philosophical underpinnings of these rabbinic enactments. “They learn an aspect of kindness to animals, being aware of their feelings and needs,” for example.

Focusing on the Torah’s only stated reason for keeping kosher – that it makes the practitioner “holy” – they discuss the benefits of self-discipline in other arenas, such as training for a sport or learning to play piano.

Finally, the children make a field trip to the Woodcliff Lake A&P for a “hechsher hunt,” finding kosher-certified ingredients to use as they prepare a Sunday brunch for their parents. The A&P has cooperated with the shul for six years, making sure there is a kosher version in stock for every item on the grocery list. Each group of kids also buys a few items for the Jewish Federation’s food pantry.

“The following Wednesday, the children cook with parent volunteers,” Rabbi Kniaz said. “They make blintz soufflé, ziti, quiche, brownies, and Rice Krispie treats, and on Sunday they prepare a fresh salad niçoise and serve the brunch so they can enjoy the fruits of their labors.”

At the brunch, the kids teach their parents what they have learned through raps, skits, and games such as “Are You Smarter Than a Fourth-Grader?”

Robyn Reifman of Upper Saddle River has had three children go through the curriculum. She said that they all have enjoyed it.

“When I first heard about this program, I thought it was a great way for the kids to learn about keeping kosher and how to identify kosher foods,” she said. “I think the hands-on experience they had shopping for food in the supermarket, and then cooking it, really reinforced their learning in a fun and practical way.”

Like most of the synagogue’s member families, the Reifmans do not observe the Jewish dietary laws. “Although we do not keep kosher at home, this program was wonderful in that it taught our children a great deal about the practice of keeping kosher and what it entails,” Ms. Reifman said.

Rabbi Kniaz said that some families opt to follow up the curriculum with a “kosher week,” during which they might eat out at a kosher restaurant, buy kosher meat, or separate meat and dairy. Over the years she has been teaching the course, some families even made a lasting commitment to kashrut, though this is not the goal of curriculum.

“We’re not telling families, ‘You should be doing this.’ The point is that we’re doing what we’re supposed to do – providing the children with a quality Jewish education. There’s no way to understand the how and why of kashrut without doing it,” she says. “I didn’t grow up keeping kosher and when I became observant I thought I understood it intellectually, but you really don’t until you do it.

“Also, the children will make choices of their own as adults, and they should make informed choices. Generally parents are very open to that.”

Rachel Rimland, whose daughter Leah is a fourth-grader, says she was “thrilled to learn about the program, particularly the interactive nature of the curriculum,” and adds that even though she does not intend to make her kitchen kosher, the program raised her family’s level of awareness about kashrut.

“As a family, we found the notion of self-discipline to be very informative,” says Ms. Rimland, of Upper Saddle River. “Even if we chose not to apply it to our eating habits, it does resonate in many other aspects of our lives. Leah is an animal lover so she was particularly interested in learning about how the animals are treated with respect and minimizing their pain.”

Rabbi Kniaz does similar hands-on activities for other grades and other mitzvot. “Throughout, we work a lot in pairs – classmates teaching classmates and in many cases bringing parents in and teaching them what they learned.”

Formerly, Rabbi Kniaz served as a writer and trainer for Project ETGAR, a curriculum for Conservative synagogue schools in use throughout the country, and as assistant director of the United Synagogue Department of Education.

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