Choosing to educate one’s children in a day school demands a set of compromises made in the interests of cultivating within them religious and cultural literacy, and a sense of collective belonging. Beyond the impact of day school tuition on the family budget, an oft-cited drawback by prospective day school parents is the lack of cultural and socio-economic diversity. Research conducted by Steven M.
HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal
Jewish Literacy and Curriculum
When formulating a vision of what they want their students to learn, day school educators need to start with a shared understanding of Jewish literacy. This issue explores the connections between a vision of Jewish literacy and a Jewish curriculum. Authors consider the purposes and goals of literacy; suggest ways that Jewish sources can serve as an educational framework; advocate for various subjects, curricular emphases and pedagogical or delivery methods; and share specific initiatives that they have developed.
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Jewish literacy and curriculum require a tremendous amount of thought and work by day school faculty and administrators, day by day, year by year. In this article, we asked four recent alumni to look back over their day school experience and summarize what remains with them now. What lessons, skills, examples, practices or texts that they learned in school do they find still relevant, still playing a role in their thoughts, studies and pursuits today?
Emma Maier, Milken Community High School, Los Angeles, Class of 2014
Can the students in your school name Israel’s capital? Its most populous city? A way it has brought technological advancement to the world? The religions that view Jerusalem as holy? When students can correctly answer these factual questions, it is often assumed that they have achieved Israel literacy. But there’s a big difference between knowing facts about Israel and knowing how to participate in its present and future.
Scholars of English literacy tell us that it’s a difficult subject to pin down: does it refer to the ability to read a Stop sign, an income tax form, or a sonnet? Jewish literacy is even more multiform and elusive. So what does it mean to be literate in “Jewish”?
The entire first floor of The Weber School is a Women’s Gallery, displaying the lives of close to a hundred women along its art-lit hallways and alcoves. These are not the photographs of donors or past presidents. Rather, the lives we celebrate along this floor are ordinary Jewish women who have led often unheralded lives, each interviewed by individual students who then translated their lives into the vocabulary of conceptual art—using metaphor and juxtaposition, texture, color, and symbolic object, using the mixed media tools of the conceptual artist.
Jewish day schools are in a unique position to transmit the Jewish tradition to their students in an environment that is nurturing, inquisitive and embedded with elements of excellence. If we were successful in this transmission and linked our chain to the Torah that was revealed to Moshe and transmitted to Joshua, etc., we would have fulfilled our duties and we could collectively say “dayyenu.” However, it is not enough. We would not be preparing our students for the challenges that await them on campus and in the workplace.
If we were investors in a business venture, we would want to know exactly what service is being created, how it will be presented to the consumer, its effectiveness and, ultimately, what will result in consumer satisfaction. Ironically, when it comes to Jewish education, parents are willing to “invest” tens of thousands of dollars each year to educate their children so that they develop into young adults and literate Jews, but don’t ask the questions that investors are entitled to ask.
It is heartening to see glimmerings of a shift in the debate about the importance of Jewish day school, moving away from “Jewish identity and values” and toward Jewish literacy. For me, the shape-shifting nature of Jewish values crystalized after I read a speech that former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg gave when accepting the Genesis award in 2014. As quoted by the New York Times,
Most educators acknowledge that libraries are a crucial component of a functioning and well-run school. Most do, but unfortunately not all—not by a long shot. It’s a sad fact that when budget cuts are required (as they so often are), libraries, along with programs like art and music, are among the first things to be eliminated.
It is told of the Kotzker Rebbe that he was once asked by one of his students, “Where is God?” He answered, “Wherever we let him in.” Similarly, if we ask, “Where is our Judaism expressed?” We can answer, “Wherever we let it in.”
Jewish sources contain instructions for life. When teachers connect any subject, Jewish or secular, to Jewish culture, they highlight and expand the extent to which Judaism is a “Torah for life,” even in the twenty-first century. Jewish culture is an essential part of every aspect of life; its relevance is not limited to specifically Jewish subjects.
It was about 30 seconds before the bell rang to signal the beginning of class when Matan approached me. “Mrs. Lipman?” I held my breath. Poor Matan. He was such a curious, thoughtful, hard-working student. I knew he had spent more time than any other student studying for the Shmuel Bet test. It seemed almost unfair to write that B- on the top of his exam, yet rubrics are rubrics and Matan had failed to satisfy the requirements that were demanded to attain an A or an A-. Matan knew that many of his peers had likely scored better grades than he, yet he still came to class full of enthusiasm.
“Gilles” and “Laila,” 15-year-old Parisians being played by two Hebrew College graduate students, were planning an intrigue. Having played these roles in a virtual courtroom on a virtual Masada for almost two months, Gilles and Laila were concerned that the case was slanted too much in their favor. While most players in a virtual game or moot court would be thrilled to have the case clearly going their way, Gilles and Laila were not simply players out to win, they were also mentors and teachers in the Jewish Court of All Time.
“Reading is important, because if you can read, you can learn anything about everything and everything about anything.” So said Tomie dePaola, renowned author of over 200 children’s books, and as a reading specialist, I couldn’t agree more. Yet do high school students today recognize the importance of reading? Do they enjoy reading? With all the demands on their time and attention, particularly in a dual curriculum high school, students sometimes turn to shortcuts rather than reading entire books, and even highly proficient readers complain that they have little time to read for pleasure.
A series of television commercials from my youth encouraged viewers who were illiterate to seek help and learn to read. Illiteracy, these ads declared, was a stumbling block, impeding good people from transcending the poverty of their circumstances, but it was not irrevocable.
Milwaukee Jewish Day School is on a mission to bring as many authentic, student-owned learning experiences to our students as possible. The underlying idea is quite simple: authentic learning opportunities lead to much deeper student engagement; and deeper student engagement leads to better learning outcomes.