After three months and countless e-mail exchanges, my new friend Jim (who lives near the beach in Santa Barbara) informed me that he would steal away from his intense, two-day marketing seminar outside Manhattan so we could finally meet in person over dinner. Although it was our first face-to-face meeting, we were quickly chatting like old friends.
Early in our conversation, Jim (who is a Christian pastor) described his deep respect for Jewish tradition, because it was so child-centered. He noted how much he enjoyed attending Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, moving ceremonies where the Jewish child’s family and community celebrate this milestone in a child’s life and emphasize that child’s sacred place in the Jewish community.
The two-hour dinner with Jim was much too short. Though we richly explored several topics, this concept of Judaism as a “child-centered tradition” left the deepest impression. As I reflected on this idea, I realized that Jim was only scratching the surface. Beyond the numerous Biblical and Talmudic imperatives to educate children, one could view the fundamental Jewish ritual of the Passover seder as deeply child-centered.
The four questions asked by the youngest child present, the text of the four sons, the hiding of the afikoman. The entire evening, narrating the liberation from bondage in Egypt, is an elaborate prepared environment to engage children and inspire them to ask questions about the central historical narrative of the Jewish people.
As I pondered this theme, Jim’s educational challenge to me at dinner reverberated: “Shouldn’t a child-centered tradition like Judaism genuinely support and widely promote the child-centered educational approach of Montessori?”
Decades before the notion of child-centered learning became fashionable in innovative educational circles, Dr. Maria Montessori pioneered the Montessori method of education with the imperative of “following the child.” Dr. Montessori understood, early in the 20th century, that children were natural learners, full of curiosity, eager to investigate and comprehend their worlds. She developed a pedagogical approach where the teacher was not the “sage on the stage,” keeper of knowledge to be poured into the empty vessels of children’s minds.
Instead, teachers were to be trained as “guides on the side,” preparing a rich, multi-sensory environment, filled with hands-on activities that children could freely choose, explore and master. Teachers are not the sole sources of wisdom, but rather work to provide guidance and academic, social and emotional support for the children in their care. Indeed, in many Montessori schools, the adults in the room are not referred to as teachers, but as “guides.”
Each day, every child freely chooses his or her main activities for the day. If a child is riveted by math, he can spend two hours doing math activities. There is no rigid schedule, dictated by grown-ups, that says first we do reading, then math, then social studies.
When children are empowered to own their learning this way, they engage more fully, learn more deeply and generally come to school with a wide smile on their face. Whether they are toddlers or twelve-year olds, they are treated with the same honor, respect and independence as if every day were their Bat or Bar Mitzvah.
The Montessori child-centered approach is implemented at every age level, from infant through high school. Modified in its details to carefully meet each developmental stage of childhood, the Montessori method retains its core principles, whether in a preschool class (ages 3 to 6) or in a classroom of seventh and eighth graders. Montessori classrooms have a mix of ages, because children learn best from each other and demonstrate true mastery, not by acing an exam, but by teaching a concept to a younger classmate.
Over the past 15 years, trail-blazing Jewish educators have adapted this brilliant educational approach to create more than 30 amazing Jewish Montessori schools throughout North America, where children learn Judaic and general studies through hands-on, multi-sensory materials, in classic Montessori mixed-age classrooms. Whether mastering the Hebrew alphabet, the rituals of Chanukah or the principles of biology, Jewish Montessorians have created rich, exciting environments — classrooms where children become so engrossed in their work, they often don’t look up and notice that the clock says recess started 15 minutes ago.
I was privileged in early September to visit the newest member of the Jewish Montessori family, Olam Jewish Montessori, located at Beth Jacob Congregation of Irvine. Visionary founder Robyn Farber and her staff have created a Jewish Montessori preschool that is absolutely stunning and first-rate. From the exquisite materials to the beautifully-designed classrooms to the superbly trained, enthusiastic and loving faculty, I am confident that Olam will quickly become known as a place for outstanding and incomparable Jewish education.
As Jewish parents, we are heirs to a glorious 4,000-year tradition. Transmitting this child-centered tradition to the next generation is perhaps our most sacred obligation. I can think of no better way to fulfill this holy duty than through the child-centered approach of Jewish Montessori.
Daniel C. Petter-Lipstein is the Chief Love Officer of the Jewish Montessori Society (JMS). He walked into Yeshivat Netivot Montessori in Edison, New Jersey, almost 6 years ago and his life has never been the same. He graduated from Harvard College and Columbia Law School and is a lawyer at a Fortune 50 company. The JMS works to create a world where every Jewish child across the globe can attend a Jewish Montessori school within 30 miles of his or her home.