Ridgewood synagogue asks, ‘Are you smarter than a religious school fifth grader?’
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Ridgewood synagogue asks, ‘Are you smarter than a religious school fifth grader?’

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Students at Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center in Ridgewood learn how to conduct a Shabbat morning service, guided by Rabbi Litwin, third from left.

Chances are, viewers of the TV show “Are you smarter than a fifth-grader?” never heard the emcee ask why Shavuot is celebrated seven weeks after Passover. It’s also highly unlikely that any contestant has been asked about the two brachot that come before the Sh’ma in Shacharit.

According to Rabbi Sharon Litwin, director of education at Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center in Ridgewood, students at the shul’s religious school would not be daunted by those questions. Nor would they have trouble explaining why we break a glass under the chuppah at a wedding.

On Jan. 5, Litwin started giving adults a chance to answer such questions as well. In her new mini-course “Are you smarter than a religious school fifth-grader?” the rabbi explores “everything you think you learned in Hebrew school but can’t remember after all these years.”

Describing the course as “a refresher on holidays, Bible stories, the Jewish lifecycle, the siddur, and Shabbat,” Litwin said each of the six one-hour classes is devoted to a different topic.

“We don’t cover the material in depth,” said Litwin, “but we try to have some review of basics so parents can have a conversation with their children about what they’re learning in school.”

The Bible class will focus on Genesis, highlighting key stories “and making sure the family tree from Avraham to Joseph is clear, both [in terms of] structure and how they become important players in the creation of the Jewish people.”

In the holiday segment, Litwin will focus on the Jewish calendar, helping students understand both the seasonal and cyclical nature of holidays in the Torah. The class will also explore how the lesser, non-Torah holidays came into the tradition.

“For the Jewish lifecycle, we’ll ask questions like ‘What is a brit? What does it mean to bring people into a covenant?,'” said Litwin. “We’ll also look at the history of the bar and bat mitzvah and what happens at weddings and funerals.”

The siddur class will focus on the structure of the prayerbook, with Litwin pointing out how each service differs.

Unlike Litwin’s fifth-graders, the adults who attend the course will not study Hebrew. “It’s purely Judaic knowledge,” she said, noting that, in contrast, “our fifth-graders read more than 30 prayers with fluency.”

Litwin said whether parents have as much Jewish knowledge as their children “depends on the families. Some are active in synagogues and attend adult education programs.” Those parents, said Litwin, “also help their children make Jewish decisions,” steering them to Jewish youth groups and Jewish high schools.”

She noted that youngsters who “say goodbye” after their b’nai mitzvah “don’t have the same connection to rituals and Jewish history.”

While Litwin has not offered this course before at Temple Israel, she led a similar program as a pulpit rabbi in Chicago, she said, adding that some parents had a fair amount of knowledge while others did not.

She stressed, however, that all parents can gain the requisite knowledge easily.

“They can read their children’s textbooks or take adult education classes from a wide spectrum of places,” she said, noting that at her own synagogue, the rabbi offers a weekly Talmud class while the cantor runs sessions on basic Torah trope.

Pointing out that her Hebrew school students “come to us for a maximum of five and a half hours a week,” Litwin said, “We do the best we can,” though more time would be needed to provide a full Jewish education. “We try to create a positive experience so the kids will want to stay involved throughout their lives,” exposing them to cultural activities as well as ritual and synagogue skills.

Family involvement is the key, she said, adding that she hopes her course will help families decide to continue their involvement in Jewish education.

For further information about the class, which is open to members of the public, e-mail slitwin@synagogue.org.

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