Learning to Live Jewishly

When I began my year of teaching at Temple Sholom’s Religious School, I was nervous. It was my first time teaching in a classroom setting, and I was assigned to teach the post–B’nai Mitzvah class with students ranging from seventh to ninth grade. I felt unprepared to teach them but excited to try. For the first class I decided to begin with transparency. I told them that I was just starting out as a teacher, and that I was not sure exactly what I was doing, but that I was excited to learn alongside them. They told me it was okay—I was not their first rabbinical student. In that first class, I also shared my passion for Judaism and social justice through stories, videos, and photographs of some of the projects I have been directly involved with. From day one, I established a precedent for open and honest dialogue in our classroom. My primary goal was for each student to feel confident to share their voice in our classroom. 

The theme of our class was, practicing Jewish values in our daily lives. Unlike many religious school teaching positions, there was no set curriculum for this class. The lack of structure allowed me the creative freedom to develop a curriculum teaching Jewish values that I believed would resonate with my students. As teenagers, they needed space to explore and test their ideas, as well as some structured learning to provide a foundation for that exploration. Most of my lesson plans were separated into three sections. I would begin each session by giving each student an opportunity to reflect on and share a small piece of their past week. During this time, we would often reflect on how we had practiced a Jewish value or witnessed one being lived out in our home or community. Then we would study a specific Jewish value in order to understand what is inherently Jewish about it, and why it is relevant in our modern Jewish lives. I would bring in ancient and modern texts, as well as videos, that reflect the specific value we were studying, both philosophically and practically. We would also spend time each week working on our project, learning about how Jewish values are lived out in our greater Cincinnati community through projects and organizations.

During their research, my class became connected to the organization Project Linus, which donates new and handmade blankets for sick and homeless children. My students were tasked with selecting an organization we could partner with for a hands-on activity to teach the younger classes in our school about tikkun olam and g’milut hasadim,and Project Linus was the perfect fit. In order to deepen their learning about repairing the world and acts of loving kindness, I helped the my students create a teaching tool so they could share what they had learned with the rest of the school. On blanket-making day, my class took charge and led their young friends by teaching them what tikkun olamand g’milut hasadim mean and how those Jewish values could be found in the work of Project Linus. Then my class led the service project, teaching and assisting the rest of the school in making blankets and writing cards with encouraging notes. Together, Temple Sholom religious school created more than thirty blankets to keep children warm and cozy in a difficult time. My class guided their peers through the whole process and kept the conversation about Jewish values going.

Another moment that showed me the impact of my lessons came soon after the Methodist Church’s decision to ban gay and lesbian clergy and same-sex marriages. When my students heard what happened in the Methodist Church they felt they needed to perform an act of kindness for the Methodist church in Clifton, which openly welcomes LGBTQ+ members and clergy. To let this community know that they are not alone, my students made and wrote cards for them. They didn’t need me to come in and tell them that this mattered. They already knew and wanted to share their love.

These stories are examples of my own learning and growth. While I began the year feeling insecure about teaching, I am completing it with a sense of pride and accomplishment. Teaching at Temple Sholom has given me the opportunity to try new things, to succeed, to sometimes fail, and to learn. This fellowship has given me the confidence to go forward in educating current and future generations of Jews.

Madeline Anderson is a rising third-year rabbinical student at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR).

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