Jewish History Jumping out of the Classroom

Biblical times to modern day Israel—that was the syllabus I was handed for my Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati fellowship at Isaac M. Wise Temple. While I love history, teaching all of Jewish history in the course of a year felt overwhelming. I was happy to work with my education director at Wise and the other sixth grade teacher in trying to narrow down this curriculum. As the year began, I realized the importance of having consistent enduring understandings that continued throughout each week of the year. One of these was: Jews are part of the modern world and still a separate people. No matter what the topic on any given day, there was a common theme: the experience of Jews living in the diaspora. The students could always connect this theme to their own lives as American Jews.

While I have taught a lot of religious school in the past, learning some of the educational theorists this year helped me translate this overwhelming Jewish history syllabus into lesson plans. John Dewey teaches the difference between traditional and progressive learning. He explains that, in traditional learning, knowledge is static, students are passive, and the teacher creates the entirety of the learning environment. On the other side of the educational spectrum is progressive learning, which is focused on freedom, social interaction, and experiences. This year, I worked to create a progressive learning environment where the students had hands-on experiences throughout the class rather than learning stagnant facts. 

I often accomplished this experiential learning by having debates. When we learned about the Babylonian exile, the students argued and voted about whether they would like to stay in Jerusalem under Babylonian rule or go into exile. When we discussed the medieval European Crusades, each student came up with their best response and worked to convince others to do the same. In times of crisis, some Jews chose to flee, to convert, or to stay and hope things would work out. The students came up with the same options on their own. They even dove into maps, attempting to find the best escape routes into nearby countries. When we covered the period of Jewish enlightenment in Germany in the 1800s, students debated which school their families would attend: a Haskalah, or progressive school teaching all subjects, or a Heder, a traditional school teaching only Jewish texts and information.

In all of these contexts, students were granted the freedom to choose sides and come up with their own opinions, and they were encouraged to share their thoughts with their group and the whole class. The debates went on as long as they had something new to say. The classroom became driven by the students, and I, the teacher, was simply their guide. They faced each historical time period as a subject that they were able to experience and even relate to. The experiences they had in each session helped build the arc of the year and mold their interpretations of the Jewish historical narrative. 

Progressive-style learning is so important because it puts the students in the driver’s seat of their own learning. It is completely different from the Jewish education I had. When I reflect on my own experience in religious school, I remember sitting in cold metal folding chairs for a few hours, mainly sitting quietly. When I looked at the syllabus for this year, many of the subjects were not entirely familiar to me. I couldn’t even say I knew facts about them, never mind having any experiences or opinions about the different time periods. In traditional learning, Dewey explains, the classroom exists in its own universe; nothing done in that space extends beyond that space and community. I knew that if I could get students to relate to even one topic in each lesson on an individual and personal level, then the information they learned would go beyond the classroom universe. 

As someone studying to become a rabbi, everything I learn feels related to my whole life. For my students, and even for myself when I was in their seats, much of what was being taught felt irrelevant. The most important task of a Jewish educator in a growing secular and pluralistic world is to connect Judaism to the individual. The more a sixth grader cares about, connects to, is excited about, and feel sownership over a topic, the more relevance it will have to them beyond the classroom and even beyond the synagogue. 

Earlier in the year, I was asked what a successful classroom looks like. How could someone know, just by walking in, that good learning was happening? I struggled with this question at first. Teachers have so many responsibilities: instilling knowledge, inspiring students, teaching them essential skills to become Jewish adults, encouraging them to grow, and so much more. I thought about the many experiences I have had in educational settings where I felt comfortable and where I learned, the many times I have served as a teacher and ended the day either satisfied or distraught. Finally, I considered the many theorists we have covered in this fellowship, their ideas and philosophies on education. A successful classroom, to me, is one in which I am not in the front of the room, where someone passing by may see chaos. A successful learning environment is one in which my students are doing most of the speaking and feel excited to learn, share, and be challenged.

Rebecca Benoff is a second-year rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. This year, she served as the Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati education fellow at Isaac Meyer Wise Temple in Cincinnati.

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