Three people reflect on Waldorf education: Recollections

Copyright 1999 Natural Jewish Parenting

Reproduced by permission: Spring 1999, Pages 44-45

Nine years ago, before I began my Jewish journey, which is a whole other story, I had a daughter. That was a real awakening for me. By the time she was a year old and I envisioned her someday going to school, I had decided that nothing I’d seen was good enough and began looking into Waldorf education. To make a long story short, I became a complete supporter of Waldorf education, started a somewhat unique Waldorf nursery/kindergarten, and determined that our daughter would go to a Waldorf school once she was ready for first grade. I took many classes on the subject of Waldorf education and subscribed to everything I could get my hands on.

Our school grew from four families to 55 families in four short years, so it was certainly a success. But, for me, a problem arose. When my daughter was two, I met our local Chabad rabbi and so began my Jewish education. By the time Kate was four or five, my husband and I were positively torn. I was, and remain, a believer in the Waldorf approach. There is nothing else like it, and it is so perfectly appropriate for the young child. But since Steiner’s belief is that formal schooling should help a child become exactly who he or she is meant to become, how could a non-sectarian Christian school (for that is what they were founded as) help Kate grow into a Jewish woman?

I spoke to many people, including Waldorf educators, took more classes, and suffered with this issue for several years. I watched all the kids Kate started school with move on to larger Waldorf schools. I even contemplated moving to Israel so that Kate could at least go to a Jewish Waldorf school, even though it would not be religious per se. In the end, we kept Kate at the Waldorf school though kindergarten and then enrolled her in a Jewish day school, where she is thriving. (By the way, she didn’t miss a beat moving from no academics–Jewish or secular–to total academics at the age of six and a half.)

Waldorf education is the most beautiful, gentle, child-centered approach to teaching children that I am aware of. But in many schools, the children learn German. (In Waldorf schools, the stated purpose of early language instruction is to arouse the child’s curiosity about another culture.) Non-Jewish teachers are teaching third graders “Old Testament Stories.” The festivals the children celebrate are Christian festivals. The children read stories of the Christian saints. All this could be different, and in some Waldorf schools it is indeed changing. Other languages are offered. Festivals could be seasonal and universal. Children don’t have to read fairy tales and stories of the saints.

What I want to tell you is that I have travelled this road. There is so much more I could say. But my conclusion, after nine or so years of intimate involvement with this issue, is that, in general, the Waldorf approach is perfectly appropriate for Jewish children–in fact, I believe it could be the best there is. But Waldorf schools, as they are currently structured, are not.

Ellen Lester, Mendham, NJ

Anthroposophy is undeniably a form of both occultism and Christianity, neither of which have any place in a Jewish child’s education.  (They are expressed very subtly in the Waldorf curriculum.) I would go so far as to say that sending a Jewish child to a Waldorf school is equivalent to sending him or her to Catholic school. It is also evident that Steiner got many of his ideas from the same place the Nazis got their ideas and that the Nazis used Steiner’s writings for inspiration.

(However, it would not be an easy decision to remove one’s child from a Waldorf school if they were already attending one. For a child, changing schools is a traumatic experience. It is not something to be taken lightly.)

Please don’t think it is easy for me to point the finger at Anthroposophy! I spent ten years of my life in a Waldorf school. I am now questioning a lot that I was raised on and had taken for granted.

Anthroposophy is a religion, and no matter how you slice it, you cannot remove the Anthroposophy from Waldorf teaching methods. Otherwise, the teachers might be free to teach normal science, such as that the heart does indeed pump blood (something I was not taught). And although children may bring matza and sing dreidel songs in some (not most) Steiner schools, that does not take away from the Christianity and paganism that Anthroposophy is made of.

[name withheld], New York, NY

As a teenager, I did not do well in public high school, and finally my parents heeded my  complaints, took me out, and shlepped me over to a private school, where a friend’s son was a student. I had an interview, and before I knew it, I was getting ready for my first day at a Steiner school in suburban New York state. At the time, I had no idea what this meant, nor did my parents, I imagine. I spent two years at the school, at which time–when I couldn’t stand it anymore–I returned to public school, from which I graduated. Here are some of my recollections of being a student at a Steiner school:

The administration of the school felt oppressive to me. One recollection I have is that certain students were assistants to the teachers, and we all had jobs around the school. I remember helping to clean up around the grounds, and going to a large field to help clear it of debris (large rocks and boards) to prepare for future construction. I thought, why I am doing this? I remember feeling used.

I remember one of the teachers beginning each class with a “verse” paying homage to the sun. Now that I have learned that Anthroposophists worship a “sun god” (one of whose symbols is the swastika!) I feel as if the teachers and administration were deceitful and dishonest. I can now see that this school was no place for a Jewish kid.

I remember having to participate in an Xmas program of some sort, and having to sing carols and participate in an Xmas gift exchange with the other students. This happens at public schools as well, but in any setting, it’s inappropriate for Jewish students.

I sometimes like to imagine what would have happened if my parents had pulled me out of public high school, and brought me to one of the nearby yeshivas in Monsey! I like to think that I would have had a “neshama explosion” (as someone once described the baal teshuva experience) and that I would have flourished, after perhaps an initial period of getting used to the surroundings.

The first time l learned the holy Tanya of the Alter Rebbe (in my late twenties), it resonated so strongly, that I felt, at last, I had found what I had long been looking for! The bottom line is this: The Jewish neshama needs Torah to survive and to thrive, just as a fish needs water. I made it through a lot of spiritually dangerous times as a youth, and eventually made my way to the Torah. As the posuk (Torah verse) says, “Whoever is thirsty, let him come and drink” If I had come to Torah 15 years earlier, I could have gotten that much of an earlier start (instead of struggling with the aleph-bais as an adult). I can only dream. I have no regrets, though. The road was (and is) winding and long, but I found my way. Baruch Hashem!

Yosef Resnick, Morristown, NJ