telling stories

When Our Jewish Tradition Isn’t Developmentally Appropriate

In Short

How do we synthesize the essence of our holidays, rituals and stories to ensure they are taught in a developmentally appropriate way?

There is a popular children’s book about an extremely powerful person. This person was so powerful they had the ability to control the wind and the rain, the sun and the moon. One day, this powerful person decided, completely on their own, that because everyone was making bad choices they would kill all of them. Well, except for a few.  

Naturally, this isn’t actually a popular children’s book. It is the story of Noah and the flood, a story we tell annually to our youngest learners, a story we would never consider reading to them otherwise because the content is clearly not developmentally appropriate.  

In my fourth year of rabbinic school, as I delivered a sermon on the portion Tazria, I argued that we can not simply ignore the parts of our tradition that make us uncomfortable — that we have an obligation to ensure we embrace all of our tradition, not simply the “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” parts. 

And I still believe this to be true…as long as we are also ensuring that the content is developmentally appropriate for the group to whom we are teaching it. I am not saying we can never teach the story of Cain and Abel or Judith’s beheading, I am simply saying that our first step should be to think thoughtfully and intentionally about what we choose to teach for each age group, and not to throw away everything we know about what is developmentally appropriate learning simply because, “It’s Purim!”

The second step is to acknowledge there is a difference between “dumbing things down” and teaching things in a way that students can cognitively and emotionally process in a safe way.  Dumbing down would be telling students that the first-born children in the story of Passover got boo-boos; it is wildly divergent from the facts of the story and students may feel embarrassed or ashamed when they learn the truth (particularly if they shared their understanding in a public space only to be corrected). Teaching this in a developmentally appropriate way might look like a discussion about consequences — Pharaoh said he was going to do something, he didn’t follow through and so he received a consequence. Not only is this exactly what is happening in the story, it is something even our youngest learners can relate to personally. Later, when the student learns about the plagues they will have the foundational learning to remember, “Oh yes, the consequences!”  

And the final step is being honest with ourselves about the fact that our most fun holiday activities do not always serve our goals in the most effective ways. Of course fun can and should be a part of our learning, but if we are going to make frog masks, it should be the culminating activity after talking: 1) about consequences, 2) thinking about what would be hard to do with frogs all over the place, 3) singing the frog song and 4) getting to touch actual frogs. If we all do our jobs right, this one lesson won’t be the only or last opportunity we have to teach on a particular subject. 

It is our job to help our students extricate meaning, connection and value from generations-old traditions. It is our job to help them understand how something old can be new again and again.  But it is also our job to create safe learning spaces. For example, we would not typically have a conversation with eight- or nine-year-olds about murder or adultery (let’s be honest, many of the Ten Commandments would get some side eye from Common Sense Media), but they can absolutely engage in a discussion about how we assess whether a rule is a good rule that we should follow, or a rule that we should push back against.   

When Moses’s mother places him in a basket and sets him out into the river, she is doing it because of the love a parent has for their child. So this year, instead of telling children a terrifying story about how a mom saved her child’s life by sticking him into a river for someone else to find, maybe instead we talk about the things our parents do to show us they love us —  something that is both developmentally appropriate and the true essence of this part of our Passover story.  

Rabbi Carrie Vogel is a rabbi and Jewish educator at Kehillat Israel in Los Angeles.  In her 13 years overseeing K-12th grade programming and working closely with the ECC, she has explored the many ways in which we can teach our entire tradition to learners of all ages.