HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

Learning, Doing, Becoming: A Journey to Jewish Identity

by Juli Kramer and Naomi Lev Issue: The Whole Student

Kramer and Lev, pioneers in Jewish project-based learning, describe initiatives in different subject areas that help students integrate Jewish teachings into their lives.

What does it mean to be Jewish, for one to have a fully integrated Jewish identity? This question has no easy answer when looking at the plurality of Jews living in the United States and world today. We propose that engaging in Jewish rituals and routines beyond schools walls helps strengthen and shape Jewish identity. The article provides a model of how to inspire and give students the skills to live Jewishly wherever they may find themselves in the world. The aim is to help students embrace and maintain Jewish beliefs, rituals and practices as a given within their daily lives and express an understanding of and a sense of comfort with who they are as Jews.

Jewish Leadership

Leadership is one area of curriculum content addressed by a significant number of Jewish day schools, whether taught in Tanakh, Jewish history, or leadership development classes. When making decisions about which leaders to include and what to emphasize from their experiences, teachers need to keep in mind the goal of Jewish identity development. A first step towards giving the curriculum real-world context could be to bring in Jewish leaders from the community to speak about their experiences and how Judaism influences what they do. Whether the leaders support Jewish causes or address needs of the broader community, they should share how being Jewish shapes their thinking and actions, which can help bring the curriculum to life.

Empowering students to practice what they learn from the texts about leadership enhances the learning potential. For example, if teachers taught that strong leaders in Tanakh and history build consensus, when students disagree with each other, the teachers could ask them how the leaders they studied overcame this challenge and guide them in applying the lessons. Students could even shadow a mediator. Teachers can create time and support systems to help students use what they’ve learned to speak out against child soldiers, collect cans for a local food bank, or strengthen the school community. Again, the goal is to use curricular content to encourage action.

Embedding a Culture of Tikkun Olam

Tikkun olam is another example of how to inspire students through curricular and pedagogical choices. Whether a student identifies strongly with science, history or Talmud, examples abound of Jews and non-Jews repairing the world. In science, they could learn about ways people use data to help endangered species or ensure access to clean water. In history, students could study how Theodor Herzl fought for a Jewish homeland. And in Talmud they might study texts that focus on social justice issues, such as caring for the poor. Teachers may not always think to include these ideas and therefore miss opportunities to connect students to an amazingly powerful aspect of Judaism.

Embedding cultural and spiritual teachings about tikkun olam in actions beyond the classroom allows teachers to shape how students see themselves as Jews. Whether helping students care for others by feeding people who are homeless, or working with needy children at afterschool programs, or focusing on repairing nature by tending to forests, rivers and animals, teachers can shape students’ perceptions of self. Choosing to use school time for such work tells students that helping the world is at least as important as English, Tanakh, math or Halakhah. It also allows them to be around role models that encourage them and stimulate their thinking about what it means to be a Jew and care for others. The adults with whom students interact when working at various organizations inspire them through their commitment and passion, solidifying the impact of this curricular and pedagogical choice as a method by which to bolster Jewish identity.

Implementing these ideas in trips to Israel provides rich opportunities for Jewish identity development. A large number of schools take their students to Israel, sometimes with a “touristy” focus. It is important to help students go beyond just seeing what Israel has to offer and connect them with the land, people, and spirit of Israel to have a lasting impact. Facilitating student identification with stories from Tanakh while at Ir David, Tel Be’er Sheva, or the middle of the desert; inspiring students as they pray at the top of Masada at sunrise, at a bus stop en route to the next location, or of course at the Kotel; or engaging them in tikkun olam projects across the country such as picking potatoes, building a wall in Tzfat, or clearing underbrush in the Carmel forest enables teachers to link curricular content with lived experiences.

Enlivening Jewish Texts

Curricular and pedagogical choices in the teaching of Jewish studies need to take students beyond textbooks, computers and ancient texts. A sample subject to elucidate this idea is kashrut. Although not all schools include kashrut in their curriculum, hopefully the model presented here will stimulate thinking about how to enliven other content areas. As teachers develop the content for a Halakhah course on kashrut, they need to make clear to students that what they’re learning applies to their lives.

Pedagogically, teachers can set up activities that bring the lessons to life. Engaging students in simulations in the classroom, where they act out scenarios, serves as a first step beyond theory, requiring them to work more deeply with the material and utilize critical thinking skills. Providing students an opportunity to kasher a home for someone takes it to the next level because they are helping and educating the homeowner, and by doing so they realize that their knowledge and skills make a difference in the life of another person. Conversations with the homeowner about the decision to keep kosher crystallize the students’ understanding of what it means to make choices to live Jewishly as an adult.

Going one step further, taking students on trips where they have to learn how to cook in a non-kosher facility gives them an opportunity to practice what they learn in authentically challenging situations. Barriers, excuses that a situation proves too difficult, disappear through a sense of purpose and empowerment. The students’ grasp of “how to” emerges through the practices in which they engage. The “why” develops as a result of conversations with teachers, other adults, and their peers that help them see how the textual and hands-on lessons learned fit into their vision of life as a Jew.

Working with faculty members who teach with passion, commitment and enthusiasm (pedagogical dimension) makes the learning that much more powerful. The students feel the “can do” mentality of their teachers and integrate that energy into their actions. The challenge for Jewish educators is to identify areas of their curriculum that can come to life through action within and beyond the classroom.

Developing Spirituality in Real Time

Another example to show what we mean by putting content into action to build Jewish identity relates to spirituality. When tefillah occurs as part of a regular school schedule, it is as routine as any other class. Students and teachers don’t have to choose whether to pray or struggle to find time to pray; it’s a given, and everyone around them is Jewish and praying along with them. Nevertheless, schools often struggle to instill a sense of both commitment to and spirituality in tefillah, moving it beyond a perfunctory task and inspiring students to connect with God.

Helping students feel what it’s like to pray outside school walls emerges as an opportunity to build Jewish identity rooted in spirituality. Out of the building, students and faculty must be mindful of tefillah in the midst of busy schedules and understand the halakhic hours of the day in order to determine proper times for prayer, a practical skill that students can take with them. Although not all students will choose to follow this path, for those who do, being able to calculate when to pray or know which apps to reference allows them to more effortlessly incorporate tefillah as part of their identity.

Perhaps more importantly, teachers can leave students inspired to integrate prayer into their lives. Whether they are on top of the Great Sand Dunes, in the middle of a city, or driving from one destination to another, making time to pray, even around strangers, provides a chance for students to practice incorporating prayer in their lives. Doing so empowers students, strengthens their Jewish identity and enables them to make tefillah an integral part of who they are, regardless of where they are.

Just as we would not expect students to display proficiency in a sport or academic subject without practice, we should not expect the same of feeling, identifying or acting as a Jew. The more hands-on opportunities, time for reflection and open discussions teachers provide for students, the more likely they are to identify with being Jewish. By incorporating textual, spiritual and cultural learning into curricular and pedagogical dimensions, teachers increase the likelihood of helping students connect to at least one aspect of Jewish life to begin building their identities. Having the privilege to help students shape their unique Jewish identities is a responsibility and opportunity Jewish educators must maximize to their fullest potential.♦

Dr. Juli Kramer is principal of Denver Academy of Torah High School and an adjunct professor in the teacher education program at the University of Denver. She can be reached at jkramer@datcampus.org.

Naomi Lev is assistant principal and director of post-secondary guidance at Denver Academy of Torah High School. She can be reached at nlev@datcampus.org.

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The Whole Student

One way that day schools stand out is the attention they can provide to each and every student, as expressed in the classic line from Proverbs, “Educate the youth according to his or her path.” Authors here offer numerous ways for schools to address the multi-faceted student to ensure that s/he is nurtured academically, spiritually, creatively and socially. 

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