“When should my kids start religious school?” It’s one the most common questions I get from parents who are thinking about enrolling their child in our school, by friends and family members, and even strangers who find out what I do.
And I always struggle to answer that question. As a rabbi and an educator, I worry that parents will just assume I have a generic response—or that what I would do for my own children is different from what I recommend they do for theirs because of my role and career.
However, what most people don’t realize is that, as a parent, I struggled with this question, too. I saw how busy my children’s schedules became. But I also knew how much my children loved learning about Judaism while in preschool. And I saw how when my children left preschool and moved onto to public school, they suddenly realized that everyone was not Jewish: That not all children went to Shabbat services or said blessings over candles, wine, and challah.
If you were lucky enough to have your child attend a Jewish preschool, then you know how amazing it is to have your child’s Jewish identity blossom naturally as part of their general growth and development. There is nothing sweeter than a toddler who loves to sing Shabbat songs around the house or who savors dipping apples in honey for Rosh Hashana. The joy and simple spirituality that young children have surrounding their Judaism delights us as parents, and encourages us to think about our own relationships with Judaism.
But Jewish knowledge and understand fades quickly when we are not immersed in it.
So, when should your kids start religious school? The answers depend on how steeped in their Jewish identity, heritage, and tradition you want them to be. It depends on how knowledgeable you want your child to be about holidays, rituals, stories, and more.
If you wanted your children to excel at math, you wouldn’t wait until they were 8 or 9 to have them start learning numbers. And you wouldn’t hope that the things they learned in preschool just stuck with them until later on. If we want our kids to be as good at Judaism, as well-versed and as thoughtful about Jewish life as they are at math, then we have to start as soon as we can!
Still, the idea of starting religious school can seem daunting: How do I know which synagogue is the best for my family? How can I find the environment where my child will flourish? What community most reflects the values of my family?
These questions are important. And hearing them so often is why this year I decided to create a special class at my synagogue’s religious school for members and non-members alike.
For the first time, pre-K and Kindergarten students not enrolled in Stephen Wise Free Synagogue’s Religious School will have the opportunity to experience how enriching Jewish education here can be through our new Challah Club. This special Friday afternoon drop-off class introduces young children to Jewish learning through the lens of Shabbat—without a big commitment from children or parents.
Instead of asking, “When should my kids start religious school?” let’s start asking, “Why shouldn’t my child start embracing Judaism sooner?”
Rabbi Rena Rifkin is the director of the Religious School at Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, a Reform congregation on New York’s Upper West Side. Please visit www.swfs.org/rs to learn more about the Challah Club or to register your child today.