Innovative Tanakh Programs in the Land of Milk and Honey
In 1961, a native-born Israeli teacher was teaching Hebrew grammar to a group of 8-10 year old Kurdish immigrant children in a transit camp off the main Tel Aviv- Jerusalem road. In attempting to attract their attention and establish a sense of decorum, the teacher told her students: “If you are good and behave, then I’ll read you Bible stories.” This pedagogic strategy succeeded as the children loved the biblical texts and were prepared to improve their behavior in order to hear more about their biblical heroes.
This intriguing anecdote is frequently told in order to demonstrate the singular status that the Tanakh once played in Israeli society. To be sure, Bible study is still regarded as a core subject in the Israeli education system: Israeli children are introduced to the Tanakh in early childhood and continue to study the various texts until the end of secondary school when they are required to take a matriculation examination that carries serious implications for their tertiary studies.
In light of the social fabric of Israeli society, Tanakh education is especially vulnerable to political, social and sociological trends. Oftentimes well-meaning Ministers of Education use the Bible program as a platform to trumpet their ideological positions, and in so doing, introduce a host of dramatic and far-reaching changes in the curriculum that are swiftly overturned when new political coalitions take root. For obvious reasons, this sense of political instability produces a series of educational challenges for the educational system in general, and Tanakh education in particular.
This brief social/historical background is intended to set the stage for a cursory exploration of several innovative trends and programs in Israeli Bible education. In selecting three specific initiatives, I will examine one from the national system (mamlachti), a second from the national religious system (mamlachti-dati) and a third from the world of early childhood.
Curriculum Reform: A Narrative Approach
A bold initiative in Bible education was recently launched in middle and secondary schools in the national school system. Traditionally, Tanakh study in these grades followed an historical order, whereby books and chapters were selected according to their chronological sequence, with an emphasis on their social/cultural historical context. The explicit goal of this approach was to provide contemporary students with a sophisticated understanding and appreciation of the Bible within its historical context, and to foster a love for the ancient land of Israel and the wider context of Near Eastern culture. This approach shaped the content of the educational materials and matriculation examinations, as well as the extensive professional training programs that were offered across the country. (The curriculum and its goals can be found here.)
Several months ago, Dr. Roni Megidov, the incoming superintendent for Tanakh education, headed a committee that decided to shift the focus of the curriculum away from the historiographical approach. In its place, a loose narrative is woven together from the various biblical books that appear in the national curriculum. This approach is built on Sartre’s famous observation: “Man sees everything that happens to him through them [stories], and he tries to live his life as if he were recounting it.” The current program underscores the narrative links between the various texts, and invites students to examine the common use of language, plot, themes and characters across the biblical cannon. The emerging program identifies specific skills that must be taught at different grade levels, as well as guidelines that allow students to appreciate the links between the selected texts. The proponents of this new program believe that the narrative approach will forge strong links between the students and the biblical text, as the biblical story will be more accessible and relevant to the lives of Israeli students.
An Integrated Arts Education Program
The Pelech Religious Experimental High School for Girls is deservedly recognized as a leading school for pioneering and cutting edge programs in both Jewish and general studies (http://www.schooly2.co.il/pelech_jer). In recent years the Pelech Tanakh faculty has introduced an innovative and creative program in the eleventh grade that integrates Bible study with a range of topics from the world of the arts. This program mirrors an educational approach that Mitchel Malkus labeled “the curricular symphony” and draws on theories of multiple intelligence and differentiated learning styles for the Jewish classroom. The Tanakh and Arts program is organized thematically, and addresses such topics as holiness, family and women, justice, leadership and the place of Jerusalem. This program’s methods of study are significantly different from those experienced by Pelech students in other grade levels, and through them the girls are introduced to a new set of learning skills and diverse concepts that add a new dimension to their Tanakh study.
The selected topics are initially studied in an intensive way, as the teachers include a heavy dose of classical and modern exegesis, literary criticism, historical context, midrash, etc. At the conclusion of this initial stage, the girls are invited to select a topic that grabs their attention, and, over the course of a month, they conduct an independent study of the topic that builds on and expands the range of analytical resources that were studied earlier. Students are paired with teachers who can help guide them and serve as sounding boards for further developing these topics, and provide them with methodological guidance for the next stages of the projects.
The students are then invited to focus on a particular point of interest, and to choose an art form that they feel would allow them to present their ideas in a creative and compelling way. The students are encouraged to select from an array of art forms, including visual arts, photography, theatre, music and dance, and, under the guidance of a teacher, to refine their ideas and prepare an art project that both demonstrates a sophisticated understanding of the multiple messages of the text and exploits the arts medium as an educational tool. The completed projects are exhibited in the school auditorium and the larger school community is invited to view them, while an evening for parents and friends allows students to share their creations and to explain the process of preparing them and the learning experience engendered by the entire process. Finally, it is worth noting that these projects are graded and comprise a portion of the students’ matriculation grade in Tanakh.
This pilot project is widely regarded as a huge success in Tanakh education, and the National Religious school system has undertaken to replicate this initiative in a host of different secondary schools across Israel.
Active Learning in Early Childhood Education
A unique and powerful Bible experience for young children is offered at the House of Bible, a center in Ramat Gan (http://www.ramat-gan.info/Teachers/merkazim+limudim/beit+hamikra.htm). This program serves as a time tunnel for children to learn, discuss and engage with Tanakh stories in a dynamic and enjoyable way, all the while seeking to raise relevant questions that trigger the children’s imagination and carry meaningful messages for their lives. Children experience biblical stories as active participants in a journey through time, and visit a variety of different biblical periods and foundational texts.
The House of Bible includes three main stations, each designed to involve the children in a different learning experience. The child’s introduction to the House begins with animated performances of key stories from the book of Bereishit. For example, in the story entitled “Rivka and the Slave,” an actress uses life-size puppets to convey the slave’s message. The children accompany the slave on his trek to Aram-Naharayim and, throughout the journey, learn more about his mission. They eventually meet Rivka at the well, where the boys help the slave to “test” Rivka as the girls provide her with suitable replies. The group proceeds to Rivka’s home, where all the children attempt to convince Bethuel and Lavan about the appropriateness of the impending marriage and the need for her to move to Canaan. Finally, the children lead Rivka and the camels to Abraham’s tent, where they join in the extensive wedding festivities. Upon completing this journey, the children are invited to prepare artwork that reflects their impressions of the learning experience.
The second station is an activity center which includes three-dimensional games, puzzles, and a host of different audio and visual programs that are linked directly to the selected stories. The final station is an exhibition room that displays the children’s artwork as well as a computer center where they can access additional resources about the various Tanakh narratives, and independently learn more about the different stories.
In conclusion, this article has described three innovative and refreshing programs that are infusing creative energy into Tanakh Study in different parts of Israeli society. One additional program that is described elsewhere in this issue is the Mikranet project, which serves thousands of Tanakh teachers across the country (www.mikranet.org.il). This extraordinary educational resource provides teachers with a wealth of valuable content sources as well as pedagogic guidance that are most relevant for Tanakh teachers around the world. This site is updated on a regular basis and informs Tanakh educators about new resources that can be easily adapted for Jewish schools worldwide. The educational heads of Mikranet are keen to include examples of good practice in Tanakh education from schools worldwide and this site can serve as an educational platform for a rich exchange of ideas and approaches. The potential impact of Mikranet is most significant and we encourage all Tanakh educators to take advantage of this outstanding educational resource. ♦
Dr. Howard Deitcher is the education director of Revivim, an honors program for the training of Jewish Studies teachers at Hebrew University, and a faculty member at the Melton Centre for Jewish education. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.