HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal


Integrating Jewish History Within a General Social Studies Curriculum

by Juli Kramer and Naomi Lev Issue: Teaching Jewish History Denver Academy of Torah

Students in Jewish day schools, even those who claim that history is boring, are curious about their heritage, and as teachers, it is incumbent upon us to fan the sparks and teach about personal and ancestral history.

Some schools have the opportunity to offer dedicated Jewish history courses. When given flexibility of time and teacher resources, topics can mirror those seen at the university level. Courses can be as broad in scope as “From Torment to Celebration: Modern Jewish History 1450-1948,” or as specific as “Jewish Pioneers of the American West.” However, more commonly, with numerous colleges requiring four years of each core topic, English, math, science and social studies, history is often squeezed out in dual curriculum schools. Integrating Jewish history content into Advanced Placement (AP) and College Prep (CP) history courses serves the critical role of satiating students’ hunger to learn about their past while still meeting college entrance requirements enabling students to stay competitive in the college application process with peers from other schools.

Many schools do not have time or resources to offer Jewish history courses and must embed Jewish history within other subjects. For example, in AP World History, a unit on First Civilizations includes the Sumerians, Assyrians and Babylonians. The “Hebrews” during this time period receive only quick mention, solely in the context of being a religion, rather than a people living on and governing a specific area of land. The same holds true during Classical civilizations, such as the Greeks, Persians and Romans.

Asking students broad questions about Jewish history during these time periods can help them learn about their past and reinforce lessons learned in Tanakh and Gemara classes. Some examples include, “How did the government systems of the Jews compare to other civilizations at the time?” “What connections can you make between Hammurabi’s Code and the Torah?” “What impact did the conflicts between the Greeks and Persians have on the Jews?” “How did shifts in religious tolerance, dictated by which empires ruled a region, affect the Jews?” “How did the emphasis on exploration of the natural world during Greek civilization affect Jewish scholars?”

These types of essential questions open up learning about the content of Jewish history and reinforce themes required by the AP curriculum. AP European and AP United States History lend themselves to the same exploration. The key is to ask questions that require acquisition and mastery of content that focuses on the Jewish experience. From here, teachers can develop goals and objectives that guide instruction and ensure that students are mastering big picture ideas and more specific factual content.

In CP history courses, where teachers have greater flexibility over content and the flow of the course, Jewish history can be the foundation from which to explore content about other civilizations and human experiences. For example, when looking at immigration in the United States, the unit could start with students’ family stories of coming to the US and expand outward. The experiences of Jews immigrating through Ellis Island could be compared to those of Chinese immigrants coming through Angel Island in San Francisco. The shifts in US immigration policy to restrict certain groups at different points in the country’s history could start with the Jewish experience and then look at other groups. A unit on invention and innovation in US history could begin with the contributions of Jewish citizens.

When exploring the causes of the Civil War, the entire unit can be taught through a Jewish lens, comparing attitudes and experiences of Jews in the North to Jews in the South, some of whom owned slaves. Essential questions might include, “Why were some Jews supportive of slavery and others opposed?” “What role did Jews play in the abolitionist movement?” “How did slave versus free state laws impact Jewish pioneers?” “How were Jews’ lives affected when the Civil War began?” Perhaps most exciting for students is to use community resources to learn about the history of Jews in their own states or regions. Students have “aha” moments when they realize that many Jews were pioneers, miners or even Crypto-Jews coming from Spain to the US in the 1500s. Essential questions again serve as a powerful tool in the planning process, helping teachers shape goals and objectives for the content.

Other social studies classes can also enable learning about the Jewish experience. In psychology, students can explore why so many Jews were instrumental in developing and applying psychodynamic principles in treating mental illness. Sociology courses can use the Jewish experience to understand the dynamics of “fear of other” in establishing power structures and how people are treated. Government courses can look at the Jewish experience as a variable in the development of political theories such as those developed by Karl Marx, or Michael Walzer’s series Jewish Political Tradition that looks to traditional Jewish sources for theories of governance and civic society. By setting Jewish history as a priority, endless opportunities emerge for seeking out and finding ways to feed students’ hunger to know about their people and their past.

In early elementary grades, social studies curricula begin to look at individuals in relation to community. This is a perfect opportunity for day school students to begin to explore personal Jewish history in light of family. As teachers we can ask questions about family traditions, grandparents, extended families, ancestral nationality and what being Jewish means.

These foundations can be built upon in later elementary grades when students explore American history. What made Jewish people want to move to the New World? How were Jews treated in the colonies? What was the role of Jews in settling new areas? What is the Jewish history of the town where students live? Exploring personal Jewish histories at that young age allows students to connect to their Jewish history and roots, setting the stage for connections to deepen later. Developing the ability to relate Jewish history with the histories of peoples and places among whom Jews lived will empower students to look for and discover connections and patterns throughout history, in all of their studies.

Connecting to experts in the field and working with them to brainstorm on how to integrate content can help teachers feel more confident about what information to include and how. Teachers can contact local experts through Jewish historical societies or professors at nearby universities to come speak with their students, or help them develop lesson plan ideas. The American Jewish Historical Society has links for “Community-Level and National Jewish Historical Societies in the United States and Abroad” that can connect teachers with people passionate about Jewish history to inspire and support them.

Embedding Jewish history in the curriculum allows students the opportunity to learn their personal histories and the history of their people. There is no greater gift educators can bestow on students than an understanding of their culture, heritage, religion and ancestry while lighting the flame of learning.

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