There is something fresh and wondrous about the fall here in Ohio. We get lovely tree color, the oppressive humidity is finally blown away by a cool breeze, and with all the kids back in the rhythm of school, there is a kind of humming excitement in the air. It’s no wonder that Sukkot, the holiday where we spend the most time outside, is one of my favorites. We build semi-sturdy structures on any piece of flat ground we have, haul in whatever furniture we can find to make it comfortable, and let the little ones (and the more creative big ones) go to town with their decorating. We make a home outdoors, even if for just a few days.
The experience of sitting in a sukkah is in marked contrast to how I spent my Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati fellowship this summer. After a year of team teaching at Kulanu: The Cincinnati Reform Jewish High School in their ninth grade seminar, I spent the summer applying everything I had learned from that experience, from my education classes at HUC-JIR (under the direction of Dorey Brandt-Finnell, Rabbi Jan Katzew, and Rabbi Samuel Joseph), and from discussions with master teachers to our seminar. The goal given to me by my mentor, Rabbi David Burstein, was to create a “Ninth Grade 2.0” by the end of the summer, a second edition of our curriculum for our newest students. Working off of almost four years of complete lesson plans, taught by instructors I both knew and had never met before, I spent most of my summer organizing, outlining, and restructuring the content, texts, scheduling, and format of the seminar to fit our changing needs.
Needless to say, most of my work was done behind piles of books and lesson plans, sitting at a computer. While there were days when I would drag my laptop and whatever I could outside to brave the summer heat and glare off my computer screen, I often felt that this was a strange way to serve the Jewish community and envied some of my colleagues’ more social and structured fellowships. By the time our end of the summer faculty retreat came along, however, I felt like I had made huge progress and was excitedly nervous to see how our first day of classes would go with the new format.
Little did I realize that curriculum building is much like building a sukkah. We try and build something sturdy with what we have, we drag in the furniture we think we’ll need, and we pray that it doesn’t rain on our heads. We do it that way for two years, maybe three, and then we realize our sukkah-panels are showing wear and we have too many guests for the number of chairs we usually haul in. We might need to make it bigger, get something new for the roof, or replace the sides. Education changes, our demographic grows, and our faculty members are constantly improving themselves, so there is a blessing in being able to take down our “sukkah” and rebuild it with a few new parts.
While I worried at first about trying to create a curriculum that wouldn’t need to be changed, I learned that there is great joy in building something you know will be temporary. Far from feeling like a hopeless task, spending a summer writing a curriculum which would so quickly be in need of revision opened up a new avenue for creativity and helped me understand the importance of a relevant curriculum. I have the privilege of serving the needs of the fourteen- and fifteen-year-olds of today, a demographic which is dynamic and fresh every year. Writing this curriculum reminded me that, while I’m not comfortable with Twitter and Vimeo and have to ask my seven-year-old how to post on Facebook, my students live more and more of their lives on these platforms, and their outlooks on life are increasingly influenced by them. As an educator, I know that what influences them must influence my work in curriculum and lesson planning in order for what I teach to be relevant to my students. Otherwise, they will see Judaism as a relic of the past, with no answers to give to problems of the Digital Age, and this is ground I am not willing to cede.
For those of us who believe that Judaism is not a relic, constantly building new elements into our curriculum in order to remain relevant becomes a way of sanctifying the lives of our students, wherever they live them. We construct our curricular sukkah using the same skeleton from one year to the next, but many of the decorative pieces change. I hope that in a few years, when someone else is given the task to rework this and rethink how to approach Jewish ninth graders, he or she can use some of the materials that I created and curated this summer. I also hope that a lot of new ideas and perspectives go into the next iteration, because I know that, in order for it to remain meaningful, we must change something about our sukkah every year.
Sukkot reminds me that it isn’t my job to complete the work, and that is a breath of fresh air. While the framework, methods, and packaging of this seminar may be different from year to year, we still celebrate the simple joy of Torah and Jewish life with these high school students the way we have always done it: by helping them build a Jewish home in their hearts that is as permanent as the stars over our heads.