It was a long but wonderful week at Shefa! For some of our students, it felt like they needed to re-acclimate and prepare themselves for the intensity of a full week after all of the interruptions of our calendar. But with the high holidays behind us, it was good to feel like we could get into the meat of our curriculum. When we all began together in September, we tried to present you with a sense of the school, and I am hopeful that Curriculum Night (which I was so, so sad to miss due to illness!) gave you a growing sense of what your children are learning, the approach that we use to make the curriculum relevant and accessible, and the effective learning approaches that maximize the effectiveness of our time together with your children.
This week, as I was preparing for Shabbat and hearing the teachers share the story of Parshat Noah with our students, my attention drifted to the last part of the Torah portion, where the story of “the Tower of Babel” is outlined. This story is all about language, and at the Shefa School we too are “all about language.” Our students all come to Shefa because of a challenge in the realm of language and we direct a great deal of our work towards remediating, strengthening and building students’ language skills.
The story opens, “Everyone on earth had the same language and the same words” (Genesis 11:1). What a provocative reality to imagine. The simple translation of this would be that everyone spoke the same language – meaning everyone spoke one language rather than some speaking Aramaic, others Hebrew, others Arabic, etc. But in our own lives – living with our children, partners, families, bosses, and friends – even when we all speak English, don’t we still struggle with speaking the same language? And with email and the speed of all of our modern communications, it feels like the traps of language only grow – as we all too often prioritize speed over precision. So many of our disputes and misunderstandings come because language is so nuanced, and there are different individual ways that we experience the words of others.
At Shefa we have an additional layer, for beyond the usual challenges of being understood, all of our students struggle in some way with language. For some, it is a question of retrieving the precise words that they are seeking. For others, it may be difficulty with receptive language, such that our students may misconstrue the messages that others are giving them. And finally, for those for whom attention is also a challenge, there is an additional risk when focus strays and important communications are compromised.
The work of “speaking the same language and the same words” is our work at Shefa. This is not to say that we want all of our students to say the same thing. We love their individuality, we love their unique ideas, and we appreciate the ways in which our students struggle to be understood and to understand their friends and teachers. But we also work to create common language, common ways of communicating as language is a critical pillar in building community.
We know that at the end of the Tower of Babel story it is written that God “mixed up the language of all the people and scattered them all over the face of the earth.” Diversity is thus our legacy. Yet, there is sacred work to be done as we try to transcend barriers and share our understandings – not only within our own families and communities but also more broadly between Jews and non-Jews, America and the rest of the world and so on. It would certainly be easier to live in a world where we all speak the same language and words. But it is breathtaking to watch the work at Shefa of students working to find language to express their views, and at the same time, to develop the open minds necessary to appreciate and value other perspectives.
Wishing you all a peaceful Shabbat,
Ilana received her B.A. from Harvard College and a Master's Degree in Education from Bank Street College. She was born and raised on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and now lives there with her husband and three children.
Latest posts by Ilana Ruskay-Kidd (see all)
- Gratitude - October 31, 2014
- The Tower Of Babel - October 24, 2014
- The World Was Created For My Sake… I Am But Dust And Ashes - October 3, 2014