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  • Chief Rabbi Goldstein

Q&A – January 2012 – Back to School : “Jewish Life” magazine

Kids are back to school, what are the issues we are facing?

Children spending too much time in front of screens is an important challenge for us all to address. It is not good for their intellectual, emotional, and spiritual development. Both as a medium – whether it is television or computer games – and the content – which can have such a damaging impact on their value system.

How so?

Our values systems are created in the most subtle but profound ways, and when something negative becomes part of the very atmosphere, protecting our kids from it requires a lot of effort.

What do you mean part of the atmosphere?

It is much easier to put the baby in front of the screen as a babysitter, for example. One has to make a commitment to put time and effort into our children rather than leaving them to their own devices. If one puts time and effort into enriching a child’s life in all aspects –sport, reading, family, relationships – that itself will take over the space of the negative. The Gemara says that many sins are borne out of boredom.

So how do we do address this?

It is about encouraging them to be well rounded human beings. There are a number of important things here – fresh air, exercise and socialising – and reading. A child’s brain is developed in so many ways through the process of reading – language skills, imagination, brain development. Then of course there is Torah learning.

But isn’t that the job of the school?

The minimum content has to be taken care of at schools, yes, that is what they are there for, because that is the only practical way to do it. In fact, the whole concept of schooling was established by Rav Yehoshua ben Gamla in the times of the Gemara – before that children were home schooled.  This was long before the rest of the world set up schooling systems. And the Gemara points out that before the formal schooling system was established, Torah learning was very haphazard – those who had parents that were capable of teaching them learned very well, those that didn’t, struggled. But ultimately the school system does not discharge the original responsibility of the parent, but rather has the mandate to give over the content and skills of what is required to be a Torah literate Jew, up until a point. Then comes the relationship of the parent and the child and the transfer of values. 

How is this done by the parent?

Through learning Torah. Learning is enjoyable, bringing parent and child closer together. It can be at a designated time that works for both parties, and parents need to be creative so that the learning in the home does not become another stress on the life of the family or the flash point of contact of conflict.

Even if it’s enjoyable though that is a lot to expect from our kids…

A child needs to be happy and content with their life, yes, but one cannot underestimate them either. They have great potential. And this is where I think screens are so damaging, again in terms of the content as well as the medium. Particularly challenging are cellphones, which give children complete, unmonitored access to the internet and can cause huge personal devastation. This really is not an easy problem to solve but as a community, we need to start thinking about it. And another issue is distraction. If a child takes  a phone to school, or even a parent sitting with their phone every minute of the day, checking for smses and emails and bbms constantly –it is  a distraction, that takes your concentration away from the task at hand.

But is it realistic to expect parents and children to learn Torah together?

Yes – it’s actually a wonderful experience and is an opportunity to bring parents and children together.

Many people struggle with the generation gap between parents and children. Indeed, parents and children are from different generations and have grown up with different circumstances.  How are they to communicate?  What common ground do they have? 

When parents and children sit down to learn together they are bringing G-d into their relationship, which helps strengthen the unity and bond between them.  It brings the light of Hashem’s Torah into our lives. This bond is not only between the parents and their children, but spans generations, going all the way back to Mount Sinai.  When we are learning we are linking up with all of the generations that have come before us. We are not just learning on our own, or strengthening a bond between parents and children; we are linking ourselves back in time, all the way back to Mount Sinai.  

Isn’t this just too academic for most people?

Learning Torah together is not just an intellectual experience, but a spiritual and emotional level as well: we are forming a connection between us and G-d; between parent and child; and between us and the previous generations back to Sinai.  We are all learning the same Torah, thus bridging the generation gap, spanning thousands of years.  A parent and child learning in the Middle Ages in a ghetto somewhere in pre-Renaissance Europe and a parent and child learning in the beginning of the 21st century at the southern tip of Africa are learning the same material.  It is an awesome experience to be part of this, something which no other people on earth has the privilege of doing and this is what was so exciting about it.

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