On a recent sunny morning, our third grade class gathered with Mrs. Deutsch in a circle on our high school campus to plant a slender, young cherry tree. Children planting a tree is not that unusual of course (especially in a Waldorf school), but in this case, it was in honor of a special holiday none of them had ever celebrated before: Tu B’Shevat. Also known as the New Year for the Trees, Tu B’Shevat is a holiday celebrated in Israel and other Jewish communities early in the second half of winter as recognition for all the gifts trees bestow upon us – fruit and nuts, shade and sap. It is customary on the holiday to plant a tree (or several; our 3rd graders planted five fruit trees) as a way of doing a mitzvah (good deed) in support of Tikkun Olam (healing the world). The activity was brought as part of their Hebrew class, which, for the first half of the year, introduced them to the Hebrew alphabet, songs and vocabulary and Jewish holidays, games and crafts.
Why a Hebrew class?
This glimpse into the Jewish culture complements the Waldorf Third Grade humanities curriculum, which is rooted in the Hebrew legends, or stories of the Torah (known to Christians as the Old Testament). Rudolf Steiner believed that the arc of these stories mirrored the soul development of the 9-year-old child, helping to anchor them as they more fully and wakefully grew into their bodies and began to see the world more subjectively. Allowing children to experience the nuances of another culture, however, goes beyond simply one year’s stories or lessons in the Waldorf school. Throughout their lower school journey, children are introduced to myriad cultures and their mythologies and spiritual practices: Native American tales in second and fourth grades, Hinduism, Buddhism and Zoroastrianism in the fifth grade’s study of ancient cultures, the life of Jesus Christ, Feudal Japan and African culture during the middle school years. Not to mention the study of Latin American, German, Chinese and other cultures through students’ foreign language studies at Waldorf schools across the country, or the deepening cultural studies they embark on in their high school years.
Making the connections that will make the difference
Our world seems to be growing ever smaller and more connected through technology, and yet there is still strife and misunderstanding between groups in our own country. Given this reality, these cultural windows do not act simply as a form of interesting curricular enrichment; they are absolutely crucial to facilitating young people’s ability to see, hold space for and appreciate those who live, worship and celebrate differently than they do. By offering this path of study, by creating an aperture through which they can follow their own sense of wonder and curiosity, we hope this rising generation will move into their own lives with an openness and appreciation for people from all walks of life and succeed in Tikkun Olam – healing the world.