Making Jewish History Come Alive

What is your favorite memory from your childhood related to Judaism? Is it your mother lighting Shabbat candles? Is it your grandfather leading the seder? The feeling of hot dripping wax from the Hanukkiah on your fingers? Whatever it is, my guess is it is not from Sunday school. Why is that? Well, many of our Jewish memories are based on our experience of Judaism. These experiences help us to form strong Jewish memories and sustainable Jewish identities, but more often than not, the religious school classroom falls short.

When I began teaching religious school in 2012, the obvious place for me to begin was Jewish history. At the time I was working on my Master’s degree in American Jewish History. When I was asked to teach history, I quickly said no. As much as I loved history, I had no clue of how to teach it to eleven-year-olds. How would I be able to make Jewish history fun and interactive? How could I make it relevant, and how could I make it stick?

Ironically, this year, almost four years later, I found myself in a Sunday school classroom at Isaac M. Wise Temple teaching Jewish history to sixth graders. I still had the same questions and insecurities as before, but I wouldn’t let them stop me this time. Instead, I remembered my tenth-grade honors history teacher and how she had made history come alive for me. We were always doing some kind of project, acting out a scene, or debating what could have been. I’ll never forget spending hours building a replica of the pyramids with real sand and the heated discussions we had in class about monarchs and the proletariat. I knew, if nothing else, that I wanted to be just like my teacher in this new classroom. I wanted to find a way to make learning history as experiential as possible, and I wanted to talk about history in a way that connected my students to the world around them and helped them to further define their Jewish identities.

My goal this year, while teaching at Wise Temple, was to fill my classroom and my students’ lives with Jewish experiences tied to Jewish history and to the language of our people. This year I created no less than five separate experiences for my students. They learned about the Dead Sea Scrolls — where they were found and how they were often in fragments — by putting pieces of a scroll back together. After putting the text back together, they had to use a key to determine what one word said in paleo-Hebrew, and they discovered Elohim, a name for God. My students also learned about King Herod and his building projects by creating models of Masada and the Second Temple out of candy. They also created their very own shtetl where they had the opportunity to dress up, learn a few Yiddish vocabulary words, and prepare and share a Shabbat meal like a family in a shtetl. We also reenacted arguments between the Mitnagdim and Chasidim, which resulted in a good old fashioned dance-off — after all, the Chasidim are known for singing and dancing. At the end of the year, my students participated in the creation and exploration of their very own Yad Vashem Children’s memorial for Yom HaShoah. In addition, they created their own ceremony for Yom HaZikaron as if they were Israeli Scouts. Each one of these experiences provided my students a means to connect to physical, emotional, and intellectual aspects of history. Our experiences took them out of the norm of the classroom and into the realm of play and exploration.

Over the course of this year, I formulated one of my now many educational mantras: Experiences create memories, and memories can last a lifetime. I firmly believe in the power of experiential learning. The memories students take away from the experiences they have connect them emotionally and physically to the material they learn. Every week I teach my students history, but they learn so much more than that. They learn with their hands, their hearts, and their minds. They see Jewish history alive before their eyes, and they are forced to think about the meaning we can find in historical events and their impact on their lives. This is especially true when it comes to emotional experiences, like they had with the Children’s Memorial and Yom HaZikaron ceremony. Kinesthetic learning is emotional learning. As my students walked around our Children’s Memorial, they were able to relate to the lives of the children, whose faces they saw, who looked not so different from their own. This activity enabled them to ask deep questions about the Holocaust that they might not have thought to ask in other circumstances. Although they may not have been able to set their Hebrew rope words on fire like the Israeli Scouts do every year during their memorial services for Yom HaZikaron, their experience of creating their own memorial ceremony still combined Hebrew with history and tactile learning. In the process, my students’ experiences brought home the reality of the sacrifices Israelis make every day for the continued existence of the state of Israel. Without this concrete experience, they would not have had a real feel for the meaning behind Israeli independence and the history of the state of Israel.

Human beings learn by experiencing the world around them. They learn with their eyes, hands, and hearts. They learn by exploring relationships, asking big questions, and discovering meaning in the process. In a world filled with choices, we must find ways to allow our students to make their own choices, to explore and learn by creating and promoting their own creation of playful and yet deeply meaningful experiences that are impossible to forget.

Experiences create memories; memories can and do last a lifetime. My hope is that, at the end of the year, my students will go home remembering not simply basic facts but also (and primarily) the joy and depth of their experiences related to Jewish history, as the memories created by these experiences will with them for the rest of their lives, forming pieces and parts of their Jewish identities.

Bailey Romano is a TJF Fellow at Isaac M. Wise Temple

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