Throughout much of the 20th century, cheder played a major part in Anglo-Jewish education. Particularly when Jewish schools were few and far between, or widely viewed as too religious, generations of Jewish children attended mainstream schools in the day and cheder on weekday evenings and on Sundays. Cheder sought to provide all the Jewish education that a child could need, from reading the siddur to running a kosher kitchen.
In recent years, many cheder settings have encountered two significant challenges.
The first is a good problem to have. Many Jewish children now attend Jewish schools, where Jewish education outstrips what cheder can offer. In a typical Jewish school, there are more hours per week for Jewish studies than in cheder and Jewish studies are not relegated to the end of the day when children are tired and less receptive. Jewish studies are an integral part of the curriculum, giving them a kudos comparable with that of secular studies.
The traditional cheder system may have little to offer to pupils in Jewish schools and a cheder in a Jewish school's catchment area may find itself fighting for a critical mass of students to be able to continue functioning.
The other challenge is one that the cheder system and Jewish schools face together. As Jewish observance has regrettably declined in many communities, cheder teachers can no longer take it for granted that their pupils are motivated to explore and engage with their Jewish heritage. Simply equipping pupils with knowledge of Judaism will not ensure that they will live fulfilled lives as Jews. We will only produce Jews who care about their Judaism if we win pupils' hearts as well as their minds.
Cheder teachers who encounter these issues can respond by changing the cheder's goal and methods. The primary goal should be to inspire. This goal can be met by rethinking the format of the cheder session, bringing in excursions to wonderful places and as much hands-on practical experience as possible in and around the classroom: the more messy or spectacular, the more unlike anything that happens at home or at school, the better. If the children gain nothing but a thirst for Jewish learning and practice, they will be set for a lifetime of engagement with Judaism.
Of course, there is a secondary goal: Jewish inspiration should be accompanied by Jewish education. If Hebrew reading and the liturgy need to be taught, then they should be. In addition, excursions and hands-on experiences in cheder should be meaningful, with deep ideas that are not commonly taught in schools carefully expressed through or woven into memorable and enjoyable events.
Cheder should bestow on the children the life-changing and revolutionary worldview which is their birthright as Jews and which can be discerned in every nuance of Jewish heritage and observance.
Our cheder in Edgware United Synagogue is a case in point. Edgware and its vicinity are blessed with many fine Jewish schools and most local children attend them. We have adapted to this circumstance by changing the cheder's raison d'être. Instead of providing an all-round Jewish education, the cheder functions as an adjunct to Jewish schools, emphasising Judaism's capacity to inspire through hands-on activities and excursions, focusing on learning that is peripheral to the Jewish school curriculum but none the less valid and meaningful.
There is currently little demand for cheder to service the primary years but children do come to learn in the year preceding their batmitzvah and barmitzvah, when parents typically reflect more on children's Jewish identity.
The cheder's new goals have changed the look of a typical morning. We have learned about some of the 39 forbidden activities on Shabbat by devoting part of a morning to laundering socks, writing graffiti (on paper), sieving flour, sorting a mixture of stones and sweets, and toasting marshmallows. We have measured the height of the shul building in cubits to see if Jewish law would permit a menorah to be lit in a top floor window.
Sparklers in heaps of stones have recreated a miniature bird's eye view of the chain of beacons across the mountains of Israel that were used in Temple times to announce the consecration of the new moon. Scattered barley in a patch of grass enables the children to relive Ruth's experience as she gleaned, poverty stricken, behind the reapers in Bethlehem.
We have searched out products listed in the London Beth Din kosher food guide in Sainsbury's, marvelled at the trees in Kew Gardens around Tu Bishvat, had a taste of Jonah's ordeal in the whale at the London Aquarium before Yom Kippur and stood by the colossal statue of Rameses II at the British Museum in the run-up to Pesach.
The system is not perfect, and may never be. I cannot claim to have all the answers regarding the handover of the Jewish legacy to the next generation. But I hope that this look at cheder may raise some questions and help others to advance the precious cause of Jewish education.