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 we had chosen. I decided that I was not going to let the matter go. So I spoke to the other parent, the mother of the Shabbat Abba. Yes she said, it was a bit stereotyped but isn’t that what Orthodox Judaism is about? Clearly she parked the misogyny with the other things she did not observe. I spoke to parents who had attended in previous weeks, yes they said but we aren’t observant we can’t complain because we don’t keep Shabbat so we are concerned we will be judged for commenting or criticising Orthodox Judaism.
Finally, I decided to speak to one of the governors of the school, a professional woman, a partner in top law firm, and herself Shomer Shabbat. Yes, she agreed with me, it wasn’t right although she was less aware as it was her son in the nursery rather than her daughter who was younger and hadn’t started yet. But she did listen and she dealt with it, she spoke to the teachers, and the next time I attended in the second term it was much improved.
Dr. Elana Maryles Sztokman is a feminist thought-leader, anthropologist, and writer whose research and ideas help shape a vision for a compassionate society. She has published five books on gender in society, and today helps women amplify their own voices and find their power through Lioness Booksand Media. She coaches women through the writing process, edits, and ghost-writes women's books, and publishes women's writing through Lioness. She also speaks and consults with groups and organizations around the world on gender issues and women's experiences in the world. Would you like to schedule a chat? Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org