Teaching Jewish History

This is something of a rant. But it’s not truly a rant because I do try to arrive at some resolution by the end. Still, I need your help.

Jewish History.

mosaic Yishay
Tzipori Mosaic, photograph courtesy of Yishay Shavit.

Hertzl Cut Out

Israel Museum, photograph courtesy of Yishay Shavit.
Israel Museum, photograph courtesy of Yishay Shavit.

Part I: The Challenge

Teaching it is MUCH more complicated than I ever imagined. And yet those of us who care deeply about Jewish education need to figure out how to teach it. Do we teach it through TANAKH? Do we teach it in our general studies curriculum? Is it a strand in our Jewish Studies curriculum or a stand alone class? Do we put character cartoon timelines above our whiteboards and hope that they do or don’t ask us when Noah actually lived and whether he has any connection to other Ancient Near Eastern flood based heroes? Do we teach it through the Jewish holidays (which by the way, often have multiple historical resonances)? How do we teach Jewish history???

And in particular, how do we teach Jewish history to elementary and middle school aged children? As one of my Davis Academy colleagues pointed out, her kindergarten students think she’s 50 years old. She’s definitely not 50. Is it realistic to expect a young child or even an early adolescent to be able to fully appreciate a subject as vast and complicated as the history of the Jewish people? Do they have the synapses to put it all together? Is there a cognitive developmental theorist in the house who can advise?

And here are some more complicating factors. My milieu (and probably your milieu) is distinctively American. There’s NOTHING old in America. Nothing ANCIENT. Everything is NEW here. At least in Israel you can take kids to Canaanite and Roman ruins and show them something that is clearly much older than the house they live in. America’s lack of ANCIENT has implications for the teaching of Jewish history I think.

And now for the subject itself. Jewish history. When does it actually start? Is the TANAKH a purely historical document? I’m guessing most of us would say not, and yet it tells us important things about what came before us. Here’s a micro-example: This week our 5th graders chanted Shlach L’cha. There’s a reference to Hebron in one of the passukim. It says that Hebrew was built 7 years before the Egyptian city of Zoar. What on earth do we expect a 5th grader to do with a piece of information like that? How does it impact the narrative of the Scouts? What is it doing there and do any of the Jewish Studies teachers out there relish teaching Shlach L’cha so they can point out this passuk to the students?  Is that how we teach what Hebron was and is? It seems to me that you could teach an entire college level course on the history of Hebron and end up with more questions than answers. And Hebrew is only 1 of the 4 holy cities of Eretz Yisrael!

So remind me, when did Abraham live exactly? How long were the Israelites in Egypt? How many Israelites crossed the Red Sea? Obviously things come into greater focus based on archaeology and as Jewish history progresses, but there are still scholars of Jewish history that question whether there’s even such a thing. Yerushalmi comes to mind. Are we teaching Jewish history or Jewish memory?

Let’s be modest and say that there are at least 3,000 years of solid Jewish backstory for us to think about when it comes to teaching our kids where they came from. Then let’s layer in the fact that much of this backstory happens synchronously all over the globe. And then let’s at least acknowledge that there are both Jewish and non-Jewish sources that weigh in on the subject (sometimes with competing narratives). And then let’s celebrate the fact that we are blessed to have a tremendous amount of primary source material due to the efforts of those that came before us. And then let’s state unequivocally that much of this backstory is hard for elementary and middle school aged kids to relate to and/or incredibly painful and difficult to teach. Again, there are entire college majors and more than a few libraries worth of material on the Shoah, or is it the Holocaust? What do we even call that chapter of our history (and how, if at all, does it integrate with the history of Israel and American Jewish history)? And can you find me two museums that teach the Shoah in the exact same way? And don’t even get me started on the complexities of teaching the history of Israel with the insane amount of revisionism and the unavoidable politicization. Does the state of Israel even have a history is it all just one complex and unending present?

So yes, I think teaching Jewish history is harder than it seems.

Part II: One Idea.

The phrase, L’dor V’dor, is a powerful one in the minds of the children at The Davis Academy. L’dor V’dor directs the mind of the child first and foremost to the immediate past– the generations that they know and that helped create the world they live in. But L’dor V’dor can and probably should extend much further into the past (and the future– a different subject). Rather than lament the fact that many of our students think that Abraham, Moses, Esther, and Hertzl were contemporaries, maybe we can elevate and honor one of the reasons that they might seem so confused on the topic. Maybe, from a Jewish perspective, those 4 luminaries were, always have been, and always will be contemporaries insofar as they remain living, generative, paradigmatic, archetypal, and didactic figures L’dor V’dor, from generation to generation. Did Moses ever sail from Mt. Nebo across the Atlantic to the USA (thank you Book of Mormon for prodding me to ask such a question!)? Obviously not, but plenty of people understood Abraham Lincoln as the American Moses.  So maybe he did.

Here’s how I’m thinking about L’dor V’dor now– Abraham lived (or didn’t) at some specified point in time. From generation to generation Jews have viewed our life experience and historical circumstances in the light of Avraham (AVINU– really???). For that reason Abraham and all the rest have not only survived, but have had additional layers of meaning heaped upon them to the point where they’re almost metaphysical. At the very least they’re more than flesh and blood, more than a set of dates on a historical record.

L’dor V’dor typically means “from generation to generation.” Maybe it is a way to break through some of the potentially paralyzing complexity of teaching kids just how unlikely, miraculous, and truly astounding the fact of our existence here and now actually is.

What do you think?

Children’s Spiritual Watercoloring


I feel close to God when... (from upper left to bottom right) ... I see an ocean.  ...when I am close to my family. ...when I'm inside and outside. ...when I see a rainbow. ...in a synagogue and with my family. ... when I'm at synagogue.
I feel close to God when… (from upper left to bottom right)
… I see an ocean.
…when I am close to my family.
…when I’m inside and outside.
…when I see a rainbow.
…in a synagogue and with my family.
… when I’m at synagogue.


As I look at these water color paintings made by 2nd graders at The Davis Academy I can’t help but feel that there’s something truly refreshing and inspiring about the easy way that children express their spirituality. How can we ensure that as they grow we (parents, teachers, society) don’t inadvertently shut down this natural part of the human experience? How can we ensure that this openness to spirituality thrives and grows, developing alongside all the other capacities that we recognize as being important be they intellectual, emotional, or moral?

One simple thing we can all do right now without any preparation is listen to children when they express spiritual ideas, when they ask spiritual questions, and when they articulate spiritual beliefs. Our lives will be enriched by their innocent profundity and by listening we let them know that we care deeply about what they think, feel, and believe.

Davis Goes to Birmingham

Davis Goes to Birmingham

Fifth Grade students at The Alfred and Adele Davis Academy, Atlanta’s Reform Jewish Day School, just returned from our annual day trip to Birmingham, Alabama.  Why does Davis go to Birmingham? The easiest way to answer is by paraphrasing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who responded to the same question when it was posed to him in 1963, “We go to Birmingham because injustice was there.”  We go to Birmingham to help our students understand the Civil Rights Movement and to reflect on the complicated history of the American South. We go there because, as a Reform Jewish Day School, we are committed to looking at, rather than away from, difficult topics like racism, discrimination, and segregation.

The first stop on our Birmingham trip is in many ways the most compelling and complicated one: Temple Emanu-El. Temple Emanu-El is a synagogue with a rich and celebrated history. We take our students there to reflect on the Jewish experience in Birmingham during the Civil Rights era. Rather than speaking generally about the conflicting forces at play in the Jewish community, we teach them about the extraordinary life of Rabbi Milton Grafman. Rabbi Grafman led Temple Emanu-El from 1941 until his retirement in 1975.

On the Tuesday prior to our trip to Birmingham, students and parents came to The Davis Academy for a family program. Students received name tags that said, “Rabbi Milton Grafman.” That evening we discussed and debated Rabbi Grafman’s  co-authorship of the open letter, “A Call to Unity” in which he and seven other local clergymen called civil rights demonstrations, “unwise and untimely.” We then read excerpts from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s response, the famous, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” in which King criticized Rabbi Grafman and the other clergymen at great length. While the level of discourse was extremely high and the topic deeply nuanced, the adults in the room engaged the children in conversation about the many different factors at play.

Sitting in Temple Emanu-El’s historic sanctuary two days later, our students took a deeper dive into the life of Rabbi Grafman. They recalled that the 16th Street Baptist Church was bombed on Sunday, September 15th, 1963 resulting in the tragic death of “four little girls.” They then learned that Erev Rosh Hashanah in 1963 fell on September 27th. Students learned that Rabbi Grafman spoke from the heart that Rosh Hashanah, with notes but not a fully written sermon. They then had a chance to offer suggestions for what Rabbi Grafman might have said to his congregation that evening. After brainstorming suggestions, we listened to an audio recording of Rabbi Grafman delivering the introductory lines of the actual sermon after which some of the students were invited to the very same bimah to read additional excerpts from Rabbi Grafman’s remarks. We processed the experience and concluded with a very special and sacred moment. Thanks to Rabbi Laila Hass of Temple Emanu-El we were able to hear not only Rabbi Grafman’s sermon, but a unique recording of Rabbi Grafman reading the names of the four little girls before the recitation of Kaddish Yatom. We rose as a congregation to recite the words of Kaddish together, not only for the four little girls, but for Rabbi Grafman as well.

From Temple Emanu-El we went to the 16th Street Baptist Church and the Civil Rights Museum. At each step of our journey we helped our students look at, rather than away from, the complex topics of racism, discrimination, and segregation. Together we thought about our obligation as Jews to help build the kind of world in which we want to live, rather than accepting the world as it is.

We went to Birmingham to learn about the injustice that had so deeply defined the city for much of its history. Along the way we learned a deeply moving Jewish story, the story of Rabbi Grafman and Temple Emanu-El. We left Birmingham with a renewed appreciation of the challenges and opportunities that we have as Jews and as Americans.

The Davis Academy’s annual trip to Birmingham is an experience that encapsulates some of the essence of what it means to be a Reform Jewish Day School. We look forward to next year’s trip when an additional seventy students will meet Rabbi Grafman and the congregation that he so courageously shepherded.

8.2 Unsubstantiated Claims (and three questions) about the Meaning and Scope of "Integration" in Jewish and Non-denominational Educational Settings

Welcome! If you’ve made it past the unfortunate title of this post, then there’s something wrong with you: you care. Caring is SO 1990!! Caring means responding, it means engaging in dialogue. It means lovingly denying the premise of the argument. It means sharing your thoughts with me or someone you like more.

Which brings me to the premise (AKA unsubstantiated claim #1):

(1) “Integration” is NOT about making cross curricular references between otherwise discrete and alienated academic disciplines. If that’s the essence/ big idea of integration then “lame” on us!

(2) Integration is a noun and not a verb. It’s not content specific. It’s actually a “process” (really a series of processes).

(3) Integration is a series of processes that reflects a deep and natural human yearning: to be whole. The precondition for integration– the thing that makes integration a necessary process– is the fact that our world is fragmented and broken. The fact that teachers who share walls don’t share goals is but one dim reflection of the shattered world which we are blessed to inhabit. Sadly it’s not our biggest problem.

(4) God has many names: Truth, Good, Beauty, Love, Endlessness, Dwelling… Another name for God is “One.” God is Indivisible Unity. God is Perfect and Seamless Integration. God is Process.

(5) The Divine image that resides within every human being remembers the experience of Oneness that we once self-consciously enjoyed (and still CAN enjoy) but more often than not fail to affirm. Healthy individuals integrate all the time and even have moments of joyful affirmation. Spiritually unhealthy individuals need to be guided back to an understanding of how to integrate. Healthy and unhealthy aren’t meant to be judgments. I’m sorry that they sound like judgments and would love better vocab.

(6) Children know how to integrate IN SPITE of adults. Maybe it’s because they’re closer to the initial experience of Oneness. Maybe it’s because they’re children (but that would be a “tot”-ology). If we think that children are unable to integrate then we need to evaluate the conditions that we’ve imposed upon them that undermine this natural human process. I’m arguing that these conditions are generally unconscious, deeply embedded, and invariably lamentable and arbitrary.

(7) Two critical areas where the process of integration radically transforms social and educational experience (and therefore makes the world more integrated, whole, and healthy):

             Home/School– There is nothing more powerful than the integration of these two institutions. Nothing should be easier. Happens all the time right? Go figure.

             Learning/Living– The places where we learn and the places where we live (i.e. act, interact, impact) need to integrate. The school bell should never actually ring. Learning should be learning, learning should be living, living should be learning, living should be living, and this sentence should stop.

(8) Integration undermines the rigidity of roles and strips away the illusions that perpetuate the compartmentalization, departmentalization, Procrustian Bed-itization, Not In My Back Yard-itization, of the human experience. Teachers are students, students are teachers. We’re all in this together. Kumbaya.

Three Questions:

If you’ve made it this far then let’s ask:

(1) What identity markers am I so tied to that I can’t experience the transcendent/grounded fullness of being a radically integrating, processing, striving, embracing creature of God?

(2) Why aren’t more hugs initiated and received on any given day?

(3) Why do I say hello to some people I pass on the street and not others?




Introducing The Davis Academy Beit Midrash

This morning the Judaic Studies team at Davis studied the story of Kamsa and Bar Kamsa as it appears in Lamentations Rabbah 4:3. For those who aren’t familiar the story is about… well that’s the thing. It’s a story that is connected in the “rabbinic imagination” to the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE by the Romans. The story serves as a kind of proof text or explanation for why the Temple was destroyed: baseless hatred and excessive piety.
There’s enduring wisdom in the recognition that the fusion of baseless hatred ande excessive piety is a truly toxic combination. While Tisha b’Av mourns the physical destruction of the Jewish community in Ancient Palestine (and a host of other historical maladies) it also calls upon each of us to participate in the positive destruction of unchecked emotions that detract from rather than contribute to the social good.
This morning’s conversation quickly diverged from a discussion of the moral dimensions of the story into a meta-conversation (I can just see you losing interest). The story of Kamsa and Bar Kamsa is, like many rabbinic texts, an elliptical story. It leaves out plenty of details, raises issues pertaining to narrative plausability, and requires a certain amount of familiarity with Jewish history. Because these are ancient/ classical texts and we are modern/ postmodern readers there are translation issues. These issues range from making sense of the Aramaic to trying to develop an appreciation of whatever genre restraints may be dictating both the content and form of any given story. In the case of Kamsa and Bar Kamsa one’s sense of the text is determined as much by what you bring to the text as what you find there. Is this making sense?
Ultimately our conversation became about the act of reading itself. By the time we wrapped things up the five of us had spent about an hour engrossed in a dialogue that was brought into being by a Jewish text. Our activity connected us to countless people throughout history who had previously studied and discussed the story of Kamsa and Bar Kamsa. Our conversation also connected us with all those who study it today in relation to Tisha b’Av, and to some extent to those who study it in the future as well. In other words through engaged reading we became part of a community and a conversation that transcends time, geography, and ideology.
But at the same time as our conversation connected us with a kind of virtual community, it also forged a much more intimate community– the five of us. The conversation that we had about Kamsa and Bar Kamsa was unique. While probably not unprecedented, it was our own conversation. In addition to mining a variety of messages from the text we also learned about one another– what we see in the text, what we notice, how we analyze, how we think, how we question, what gets us intellectually excited, what Tisha b’Av means to each of us. All of this emerged through the act of reading and is a reflection of the powerful impact that reading can have.
I love reading. I especially love reading Jewish texts because they demand that I be an active, creative, and engaged reader. Jewish texts teach me how to read and enrich the many other readings I am engaged in.
While meta-conversations generally tend to resist pragmatic applications there is a very practical dimension to what I’m describing. At The Davis Academy we are going to be implementing a new initiative– The Davis Academy Beit Midrash. At various times in the year the entire middle school will be coming together to study certain Jewish texts. One goal of the Beit Midrash is to expose students to classical Jewish texts that they might otherwise not encounter in the course of the regular Judaic curriculum and to teach them how to read these texts in the way I describe above. While reading Jewish texts to life we will simultaneously be fostering the kind of community that can only emerge through the kind of reading that Jewish texts invite– a community that is based on shared conversations, dialogues, and ideas. A community of listening and speaking, of debating and relating. A community where teachers are learners and students are teachers. A community dedicated to the exploration of self and tradition, and critical reflection. I’ll let you know how it goes…