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“IMA SHEL SHABBAT” AND OTHER GENDERED MOMENTS IN JEWISH PRESCHOOL

Guest post By Eve Sacks, originally posted at The Center for Jewish Feminism By Eve Sacks My two oldest children attended four different Orthodox Jewish nursery schools (kindergarten / gan) in four consecutive years. Of these three were affiliated to Jewish primary schools and one was a stand alone nursery. All four had Shabbat parties where parents were invited. In my work with JOFA I have also spoken to others about their gender experiences in other London Orthodox Jewish schools and nurseries, so I am aware of the issues in many London primary schools. My first Jewish nursery school experience was nine years ago when my daughter started nursery just before she turned three. We chose a nursery that was local, and connected to the synagogue we were members of, an orthodox synagogue with a mixed membership, including both shomer shabbat (religiously observant) families and also those who rarely attended and were not observant. The nursery had a great reputation; the children in the nursery came from a mixed of religious backgrounds; indeed at the Chanukah party most Dad’s did not wear kippot and in the summer the mums didn’t think twice about collecting their children wearing vest tops or gym leggings. Less than a quarter of the 18 children would have been from shomer shabbat homes and it’s also worth noting this was a reasonably affluent suburb of London. Within a few weeks of starting she was asked to be Shabbat Ima – the Shabbat “mother”. I was very excited and took my mother in law with me. My daughter was also very excited to be Shabbat Ima. But I was shocked with what I saw, and as this was the first time I set foot into the nursery I began to worry about what else she was being taught. “So”, said the teacher, “let’s start with getting ready for Shabbat. Will all the girls now stand up? The Mummies are going to do the cooking and the cleaning for Shabbat.” My jaw dropped in amazement as I saw the little girls all stand up and pretend to be first cooking and then cleaning for Shabbat. As the Shabbat Ima my daughter was also given props, some play food and then a broom! “Now”, said the teacher, “the boys can stand up as the Daddies are getting ready for Shabbat! They are all at work and will be coming home soon. Daddies please all march around the room to come home for Shabbat!” So the boys all stood up and marched around the room. It continued, my daughter lit the candles and the 3-year-old Daddy went to shul. I don’t remember much more, I just remember being totally shocked that I had chosen a nursery for its orthodox yet inclusive nature and this is what she was being taught? And who knows what else they were teaching the rest of the time? It was even more surprising as the nursery teacher was young; certainly younger than the mums! Later, my mother-in-law commented on what a “traditional” nursery...

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Do Jewish schools know how to teach Shabbat in a gender-neutral way?

Sara Ivry of Tablet Magazine interviewed Elana for the vox-pop about Educating in the Divine Image. Here's an excerpt: "Take prayer for example. Even among 3- and 4- and 5-year-olds, you have a lot of schools which will still make the boy leading the prayer service, he’ll be the hazzan, what’s called the cantor, the leader. And the girls will be in charge of, you know, choosing a picture or choosing a song or handing out the prayerbooks, the siddurim. So, even then, they’re 3 years old, they’re 4 years old. And the boys are the active leaders. The ones standing in front of the classroom leading. And they’re the ones who get to wear the prayer shawl, the tallit, and they get to make all the brachot, and everybody looks at them and says “Amen” to them. And the girls are the ones, you know, helping out, or looking pretty, or passively taking on other roles. So, that’s one really interesting issue that takes place in early childhood.  "The other one is Shabbat, which is Friday afternoon or Friday morning, where many Jewish schools, and this is not just an Orthodox school thing, but most Jewish schools prepare the children for Shabbat by teaching them that there’s an ima of Shabbat and an abba of Shabbat. Like there is a mother and a father. And schools have many different ways for telling the boys what it means to be the abba, the father, and what it means to be the ima. So, sometimes it’ll be that the boy is in charge of making the blessings on the wine and the girl is in charge of lighting the candles. Sometimes it’s that the boy has to practice singing while the girl has to go home and, you know, bake a cake, for example. But what’s interesting is that in almost every single early childhood classroom, there are gender-segregated roles. So that children from really early on are learning that keeping Shabbat depends on what gender you are. There is a version of Shabbat that’s for boys, and there is a version of Shabbat that’s for girls. Listen to the entire interview here   Read an excerpt of our book, Educating in the Divine Image at The Eden Center blog    

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