Turn It and Turn It Again

This year, I am intimately involved in the creation of a new spiral curriculum around Torah for the religious school at Isaac M. Wise Temple. While I expected to contribute to the congregation and hoped the project would transform how we learn Torah at Wise, I did not anticipate the transformative impact this process would have on me as a Jew and as an emerging educator rabbi. It has led me into a fresh journey of questioning and rediscovering the meaning of Torah in my own life.

The Wise Temple Torah Curriculum (WTTC) grows out of the vision for integrative Jewish education offered by Barbara Dragul, Director of Education and Lifelong Learning. It unites the religious school community in learning and living Torah: exploring the nuances of Torah, finding meaning in Torah, and uncovering how Torah connects us to one another, to our tradition, and to God. Last spring, I was honored to be invited by Barbara to be a co-creator with her in developing this curriculum, and being a supportive coordinator of WTTC is the primary component of my TJF Fellowship for the 2016–2017 academic year. It is my task to translate the vision of WTTC into concrete educational practice. As the religious school year begins, I realize that building the Torah curriculum is a new opportunity for me to grapple with some foundational questions about Torah and its place in my own Judaism.

WTTC is built on the framework of Understanding by Design, an educational model that places understanding at the center of learning and asks what questions and activities will help students apply and grow what they have learned as they continue beyond the classroom. Development began with selecting the enduring understandings, the important ideas or core processes we want students to carry with them throughout their lives. In consultation with HUC-JIR faculty member Rabbi Jan Katzew, Ph.D., we created the following four enduring understandings:

  • Reform Jews are committed to a Torah that is both timeless and relevant.
  • Torah bonds and distinguishes the Jewish people across time and space.
  • Torah is a gift we accept. Each of us receives, shapes, and teaches Torah.
  • Jews learn Torah in order to live Torah.

We also generated a list of essential questions, which have no right answers and are meant to guide inquiry into the enduring understandings. WTTC’s essential questions include (but are not limited to):

  • What is Torah?
  • How can each of us teach Torah?
  • How does the Torah bond the Jewish people across time and space?
  • How can I seek relevance from Torah?

With these enduring understandings and essential questions as our guide, we turned to imagining how students in every grade might use and uncover them.

Barbara and I have worked with a number of individuals to co-create WTTC. We have solicited input from Wise Temple clergy and staff, teaching faculty, and religious school parents at every level of development. Beginning last year, we used a combination of surveys and conversations to learn where the needs and interests of our students and families regarding Torah lie. As the curriculum emerged in a more concrete form, we invited feedback on everything from curricular overview documents to ideas for specific programs. This ethos of partnership both strengthens WTTC and brings our community together in considering the vision we have for learning and living Torah at Wise Temple.

WTTC is a spiral curriculum, which means that students will return to the same enduring understandings at every age in the religious school, with different areas of focus and in different contexts. To accompany each grade-level frame and to communicate a sense of what each grade will explore, we selected theme texts for each year. For example, the first grade theme text is the blessing for Torah study (Laasok B’divrei Torah), and WTTC for first grade will “immerse” (from laasok) students in an interactive, experiential encounter with Torah, through an activity called Torah Godly Play.

For eighth grade, the final year of WTTC, we selected the following passage as the theme text:

“Surely, this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, ‘Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’ No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.” (Deuteronomy 30:11–14, JPS)

This excerpt from one of Moses’ final speeches to the Israelites communicates what he wants them to feel vis-à-vis Torah after they cross into the promised land and he is no longer with them as their leader: confidence and competence in the performance of mitzvot. By the end of eighth grade in WTTC, we similarly want our students to feel confident and competent engaging with Torah for themselves as they go on to high school and beyond. To learn how the students relate to Torah at that moment of transition, we will invite them to craft personal statements that describe the place of Torah in their lives. In the years of WTTC leading up to that point, we will offer learning activities to our students and their families that help them develop confidence and competence with Torah, that help them understand that Torah is very close to them and how to learn and to live it.

In order to refine and bring WTTC to others, I have needed to ask myself the questions we are posing to students, as well as other, even more foundational questions. For example, to make a case for WTTC in good faith, I want to be able to respond thoughtfully to the question, “Why study Torah?” The idea that we as Jews study Torah and the ideology that we should place Torah at the center were, to me, definitional with regard to what it means to be Jewish. However, such an answer is not really an answer at all; it is a version of responding, “Because that is what we do.” Furthermore, since I understand recourse to divine command as another kind of non-answer, another contentless “because,” I want a deeper way to express why studying Torah is a worthwhile activity.

This is an essential question for Jewish life, if ever there were one, so I fully intend to continue developing my answer to it for many years. For now, I can reflect on a few ideas, gleaned from my Jewish life and studies so far, as to why we should study Torah:

  • Studying can create community around a shared text.
  • Learning about Torah can help us understand our own culture.
  • Using Torah as an anchor of collective memory helps us tell our own stories.
  • Developing familiarity with Torah’s language allows us to communicate our experiences through commonly known categories.
  • Being aware of how Torah has been used historically for harm allows us to use it in life-affirming ways.
  • Experiencing Torah’s aesthetic beauty awakens us to new ways of making meaning in the world.
  • Reflecting on how we read the text reveals aspects of who we are.

In the spirit of one of WTTC’s enduring understandings regarding Reform Jews, I affirm my commitment to Torah study for all the above reasons and more.

I am now in my fifth year of rabbinical studies, and I grew up attending religious school, Jewish camp, and Hillel. But not until my work with WTTC did I find myself engaged with such a fundamental question as “Why study Torah?” Perhaps I previously lacked the experience even to engage the question, but it strikes me that a question so basic to Jewish life should be one we continually reflect upon at all ages. I am grateful that developing WTTC has prompted me to begin thinking more systematically about how I might answer the question now, at this stage in my life. As I will soon begin searching for my first position as an ordained rabbi, I am glad to have begun developing language with which to talk about why studying Torah is a valuable activity in Jewish life. My journey with WTTC has given me more tools as an educator to guide others through their own processes of discovering, questioning, and wondering at Torah.

The educational strategies of WTTC, of its spiral nature and its focus on enduring understandings and essential questions, have thus been revealed in my own life. At this new juncture, I find myself returning to the roots of my Judaism in the community where they first took hold, questioning them in ever more sophisticated ways. The experience affirms for me the importance of re-asking the basic questions from time to time. It deepens my commitment to uphold the cyclical nature of Torah study, since every time we revisit our texts, our questions change as we change. Now, as we have recently turned our Torah scrolls back to the beginning on Simchat Torah, I am reminded of the the fifth grade theme text for WTTC, the words of the sage Ben Bag Bag: “Turn it and turn it again, for everything is in it” (Pirke Avot 5:26). May we all ask new questions and grow our understanding with every turn of the Torah.

Sam Pollak is a returning TJF fellow at Isaac M. Wise Temple, the congregation where he grew up. In addition to his work on the Wise Temple Torah Curriculum, Sam coordinates and teaches Zimrah, an integrative music program.

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