Every year as spring rolls around, we gather together to celebrate Pesach—the transition from winter to spring, from death to rebirth, from slavery to freedom. At this time, Jews all over the world come together to celebrate our ancestors’ exodus from Egypt by way of sharing a ritualistic meal with one another, a seder. Through this shared meal, we retell the story of the going out of Egypt, from the house of bondage. How is this retelling different from all other retellings? When we go to services, we have the opportunity to hear stories from the Torah, retold and reinterpreted as time goes on. The seder retelling, however, contains an extra commandment: to experience this particular retelling as if we personally had left Egypt, as if each of us personally left bondage to receive freedom from the hand of God.
How is the seder different from all other Jewish rituals? The seder inserts the participant into the center of the narrative, so that each person becomes fully immersed, actively participating and serving as the driving force behind the narrative. The seder is a powerful teaching tool that speaks to the multiple intelligences of each of the participants. The symbols of the seder are based in the natural world, perfect for those with naturalist intelligence. There is singing involved, appealing to those with musical intelligence. The seder is communal, allowing for feelings of connectedness for those with interpersonal intelligence. There are physical actions, for those with kinesthetic intelligence. There is rich language employed in the retelling, appealing to those with linguistic intelligence. We are commanded to experience the exodus as though we each personally, and together as a group, left Egypt, allowing for the immersion of those with intrapersonal intelligence. Visual learners are engaged by the table itself with its many meaningful ritual objects.
This past year, I have had the privilege of teaching at Kulanu, the Reform Jewish High School in Cincinnati. As I prepared for my fellowship in a new setting, I really wanted to teach a history course that could appeal to the multiple intelligences that each student brings to the classroom, and to truly enable them to feel immersed in the living history of our people. History is a topic that tends to be more frontal in nature: stories, facts, music, and illustrations can be brought to the classroom to bring history alive, but there is still a major challenge in fully immersing students in history.
I considered: How can my history class be different than other history classes? Because the seder is an interactive teaching tool that brings us all together each year, why can’t a history class create a similar, immersive environment, essentially achieving the same outcome as the seder, a teaching and learning based on an experience? In asking myself these questions, I began to develop a new approach—a history course that allows each of the students to experience history as if they each had personally lived it.
In my personal life, I am a self-described nerd. As such, I spend quite a bit of time playing the tabletop game Dungeons and Dragons (D&D). The DM in the game—the person in charge of writing each storyline and guiding the participants though it—leads the players through an organic storyline in which the players themselves are responsible for making decisions that will ultimately affect the outcome of the story. As the game unfolds, the players play individually but must ultimately work together, each using their unique skills to gain further insight into the most beneficial actions they can take throughout the game.
The premise of the class I developed is to choose a number of prominent historical events in Jewish history and to create a detailed storyline that allows students to feel completely immersed and empowers them to be fully responsible for driving the historical event forward and affecting the outcome. I was initially afraid to stray too far from what actually happened. In order to create full immersion and give the students agency over their story, however, I needed to allow the participants to make their own decisions, even when those decisions might conflict with the historicity of the event. In allowing this opportunity for an organic experience, the students and I actually created a space in which we could compare and contrast their experiences and decisions with the way in which history actually played out, which enabled them to drive the discussion that followed the gameplay.
In our very first campaign together, the students were tasked with figuring out how to acquire and store the Dead Sea Scrolls before the destruction of the Qumran community. At the beginning of the campaign, they weren’t told that this is what they were doing, so it was up to them to navigate the landscape within the campaign and continue to ask questions of their objectives in order to discover and conceal these sectarian scrolls. Once they had obtained the Dead Sea Scrolls and hid them away, the students were then transported forward in time and to a point when they had to lead individuals in the area to the hidden scrolls. When we had successfully completed the campaign, I pulled out two massive tomes containing translations of the entire corpus of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and I invited the students to explore some of the sectarian texts. After reading a bit and engaging with the texts themselves, I revealed to them that these were the texts that they were responsible for hiding. I then led them through the bits of history that we know, so the students were able to discuss their experience in dialogue with the actual events of history.
When I first started teaching the course, there was a learning curve. Not all of the students had played D&D before, and at first it was tough for me to guide each historical storyline in a time-effective way. Because the campaigns are so organic, it is easy for the players to explore every nook and cranny of the campaign landscape, which inevitably takes a lot of time. Once the class started moving forward, though, we were able to stay on track, which allowed us not only to learn history together, but also to wrestle with that history together. We explored the hiding of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile, the tower of Babel (less historical and more dialogue with Torah story), and the exodus from Egypt, as well as a number of different events from the books of Kings.
How is the seder different than all other rituals? It fully immerses each of the multiple intelligences. How was our history course at Kulanu different than many other history courses? Each of the students was able to fully immerse in these historical events. They drove the narrative of that history and created their own experiences within the preestablished, yet organic campaign, both as individuals, and as a cohesive unit.
In what ways were our classroom discussions different than many other classroom discussions? Each of the students engaged more deeply in the discussions because they were based on their choices made in the experience of history we built together. They were not asked to simply repeat facts that they learned and will eventually forget. How was this class different from many other classes? This class was an experience—an experience inspired by one of the oldest, most inclusive teaching tools and experiences that our people has to offer, the Passover seder.
Matt Derenbacher is currently a rising third year rabbinical student at HUC-JIR, serves as a student rabbi for congregations in Michigan and Texas, and is a chaplain candidate for the United States Air Force.