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 Is the TANAKH a purely historical document?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?

Leadership at the Water’s Edge

When the fleeing Israelites reached the shores of the Red Sea they found themselves trapped between the vast waters and the Egyptian army. According to midrash one Israelite, Nachson ben Aminadav, had the faith and courage to step into the raging sea when all the rest were paralyzed by fear and uncertainty. Rather than waiting for a miracle, Nachshon dove in. He forced the issue and, in part because of him, the waters split and revealed a path to freedom and liberation.

Torah is overflowing with examples of different types of leaders and modalities of leadership. Here are a few lessons communal leaders can learn from the example of Nachson ben Aminadav.

Good leaders…

  1. lead when leadership is needed
  2. are emotionally intelligent and understand the needs, fears, hopes, and feelings of their communities
  3. set a personal example
  4. embrace change
  5. are willing to take risks
  6. bring others with them
  7. have faith in themselves, others, and the bigger picture
  8. are able to be decisive when decisiveness is called for
  9. leave a legacy and inspire others
  10. look to the future with optimism and hope

Lech Lecha– a unique perspective

The following D’var Torah was prepared by Todd Williamson, a member of The Davis Academy faculty. It was shared at one of our weekly Middle School tefilah services in honor of a student that is becoming bat mitzvah this Shabbat and is published here with his permission. Todd has asked me to note that he did not write this D’var Torah expecting that it would be “published” on a blog and therefore did not include citations. He notes that Bruce Feiler’s work on Abraham was very influential in his thinking along with many additional resources.

In addition to being a wonderful D’var Torah in its own right, this post demonstrates part of the unique potential within a Jewish Day School such as The Davis Academy. Consider the following: a D’var Torah lovingly and thoughtfully prepared by a non-Jewish faculty member, presented in front of several hundred early adolescent Jewish kids– an exchange of ideas characterized by great thoughtfulness, tolerance, and pluralism. Some critics argue that Jewish day schools are not diverse. I’d be eager to hear about other Jewish organizations where it would be commonplace for profound words of Torah to be shared by someone of a different faith. The exchange of ideas, the diversity of life experience, and the sharing of Torah that this guest post reflects is truly unique. Todd can be followed on Twitter @Bookman30022. When Todd isn’t writing Divrei Torah he is immersed in technology, teaching, and literature. 


Lech Lecha:  Genesis 12: 1: 17-27

God instructs Abram to leave his father’s house and set off to the “Promised land” G_d will reveal to him.  G_d promises Abram that this land will be set aside for him and his descendants and that Abram will be the father of a great nation.  Abram, Sarai and Lot(Abram’s nephew)  travel to Canaan.

A famine in Canaan forces Abram to seek provisions in Egypt where Abram declares Sarai to be his sister, not his wife.  Abram and his family receive good fortune, while Pharaoh receives plagues.  Pharaoh realizes Abram’s deception and sends Abram, his wife and their possessions out of Egypt.

Abram and Lot separate and live separate lives and soon Lot is taken away as a hostage in a tribal war.  Abram and his men free Lot from his captors and G_d reappears to Abram and promises progeny and land.  Abram confirms G_d’s covenant and then G_d fortells the Israelite bondage in Egypt.  During this time Sarai gives her handmaid, Hagar, to Abram and she bears Abram a son, Ishmael.

G_d once again repeats his covenant to Abram, but requires all males to be circumcised as a sign of the covenant.  Upon this sign, G_d changes Abram and Sarai names to Abraham and Sarah.

Thousands of years ago Abram was called by G_d, just like you are being called to the Torah this Shabbat.  You are a direct lineage to Abraham:  a memory you should be proud to share with our ancestor.   One thing we can certainly learn from Abraham is that G_d listens when we as humans yearn, or cry out for his guidance.  God hears Abraham’s plea for help, but we first must believe G_d.  Abraham does not believe in God, he believes God.  This is a huge difference, so I’ll say it again:  Abraham does not believe in God, he believes God and thus fulfills the covenant promised to him and his descendants, which leads to the original Kehillah of Jews on Earth

Could you follow in Abraham’s footsteps, could you have the faith he had to leave his father’s home and follow G_d’s instructions?  Despite being a believer, I’m not sure if I could…so perhaps I don’t really have the gift of faith: I certainly know I don’t have the faith Abraham had, but I don’t have to:  Abraham had faith for all of us.

The story of Lech Lecha beckons us, as humans and as Jews, to take risks and travel into the unknown in pursuit of our true purposes in life. It encourages us to listen to our intuitions, to pay attention to the inner voice that more often directs our heart than our head. It teaches us that we may have to leave what we know and move away from areas of comfort, in order to develop our potential.  One day, years down the road, you too, like Abraham will leave your father’s home: which invariably will bring you closer to your family you just left behind. Like Abraham, if we hear the call, we must remember to put our faith in that inner voice that guides us along the way and trust in our strength, ability, creativity and talents that when we make the journey, we too, may find our own personal “promised land” and that you personally will become the wonderful, brilliant and beautiful young lady you are destined to become.

G-d promised Abraham, and in turn promised us, that, if we become leaders and initiators, our initial efforts will never be forgotten.  Have faith and believe G-d and you too, just like Abraham will always be remembered as a blessing!

On behalf of the students, faculty and staff of The Davis Academy, we wish you Mazel Tov.

From the End to the Beginning

Once a year the entire Davis Academy kehillah gathers to celebrate Simchat Torah. We do so by unrolling our two Torah scrolls, symbolically and literally surrounding ourselves in the stories, laws, and customs of the Jewish people and everything else that Torah represents. Faculty members share personal reflections, we sing songs from Jewish tradition and our Davis Academy album, Be a Blessing, a middle school student shares a Dvar Torah, and we fulfill the customary obligation of concluding and beginning the cycle of Torah reading.

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Here are a few takeaways from this year’s celebration.


1. The Torah ends and begins with ruach. Dt. 34:9 describes Joshua as malei ruach chochmah, “filled with the spirit of wisdom.” And Gen. 1:2 references the creative force of ruach Elohim “a wind from God.” Ruach is much more than enthusiasm and energy it is a primal creative force that gives order to chaos as well as a core part of our humanity.


2. Kol Yisrael. The Torah ends with the words kol Yisrael (“all of Israel”). It is the responsibility of kol Yisrael to make Torah relevant and alive in every generation. This morning’s ceremony was immeasurably enriched by remarks that three different Davis Academy faculty members as well as a Davis middle school student. Hearing words of Torah and personal reflections from different voices within kol Yisrael serves as a powerful reminder that Torah is made real through and only through kol Yisrael. We are truly responsible for one another: aravin zeh l’zeh.

The Torah of Kid President

My colleague Drew Frank just sent around the most recent installment of Kid President:


If Kid President doesn’t put a big smile on your face then you’ve fully surrendered to some sort of soul eroding cynicism. In this video Kid President makes one of my favorite observations about education– we’re all teachers and we’re all learners, life is school, and we’re in class all the time (there are no grades).

I’m calling this post “The Torah of Kid President” because his observation about the deep connection between teaching and learning is one that we live here at The Davis Academy where all of us, parents, faculty, and, most importantly, students are engaged in ongoing teaching and learning. It’s also captured by the Hebrew language where the root: Lamed-Mem-Dalet is the source of the word: lomeid (learn) and m’lameid (teach).

We can’t be reminded enough that, from a Jewish perspective, teaching and learning are deeply and inextricably intertwined.

We cannot teach if we aren’t actively involved in ongoing learning. The wells of inspiration, motivation, and information will simply run dry. Similarly, learners of all ages must understand that having much to learn and much to teach aren’t mutually exclusive.

How do we get kids to understand how much they have to teach not just how much they have to learn? For starters, those of us who teach  can be sensitive to the flow and structure of our lessons– how much are we hearing our own voice versus how much we are creating a space for our students to share theirs? When we tip the scales in favor of hearing the ideas and insights of our students then we create communities of learning and teaching that are profoundly dynamic and enriching.




Torah in the Desert- Shavuot

Of all the places on earth that God could have chosen for giving the Torah our ancestors, why did God choose to give the Torah in the barren wilderness of the Sinai desert? Wouldn’t it have made more sense for the giving of the Torah to have taken place in Jerusalem? Or anywhere else in Eretz Yisrael for that matter? Why, davka, did God choose to give the Torah in the desert?

The Desert
Hazal asked this very question and they came up with many explanations. As it turns out they believed that the desert was the ideal place for God to give the Torah. Through midrash Hazal teach us that if the Torah had been given in Eretz Yisrael it would have been disastrous. If it was given in the land of the tribe of Dan, then the leaders of Dan would say: The Torah belongs to us. If it was given in the land of the tribe of Reuven then they would say the same. In fact, if it was given anywhere in Eretz Yisrael our ancestors would have said that the Torah was meant for Jews and Jews alone. God gave the Torah in the desert so that all humanity and all creation would know that Torah is for everyone. While it was given to the Israelites, the messages and teachings of Torah are meant for all humanity.
At The Davis Academy we teach our children and our families that the Torah is for everyone. We unroll the Torah scroll for Simchat Torah and all of our parents and children sit inside. We learn how to write letters in the Torah scroll with a sofer, and all of our students learn to chant from the Torah. Our teachers help each child make their own personal connection to Torah, finding the relevance of her ancient words in our modern times. At The Davis Academy we teach that the Torah can be a lifelong eitz chayyim and source of inspiration whether you want to be a scientist, an artist, a fireman, an astronaut, a rabbi, or a lawyer. At The Davis Academy we teach that the Torah’s wisdom is meant for all of us.

Simchat Torah Verses


Deuteronomy 34:8 (Zack’s verse)

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וַיִּבְכּוּ֩ בְנֵ֙י יִשְׂרָאֵ֧ל אֶת־מֹשֶׁ֛ה בְּעַֽרְבֹ֥ת מוֹאָ֖ב שְׁלֹשִׁ֣ים י֑וֹם וַֽיִּתְּמ֔וּ יְמֵ֥י בְכִ֖י אֵ֥בֶל מֹשֶֽׁה׃


Deuteronomy 34:9 (Sienna’s Verse)

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וִֽיהוֹשֻׁ֣עַ בִּן־נ֗וּן מָלֵא֙ ר֣וּחַ חָכְמָ֔ה כִּֽי־סָמַ֥ךְ מֹשֶׁ֛ה אֶת־יָדָ֖יו עָלָ֑יו וַיִּשְׁמְע֙וּ אֵלָ֤יו בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ וַֽיַּעֲשׂ֔וּ כַּאֲשֶׁ֛ר צִוָּ֥ה יְהוָ֖ה אֶת־מֹשֶֽׁה׃


Deuteronomy 34:10 (Jessica’s Verse)

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וְלֹֽא־קָ֙ם נָבִ֥יא ע֛וֹד בְּיִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל כְּמֹשֶׁ֑ה אֲשֶׁר֙ יְדָע֣וֹ יְהוָ֔ה פָּנִ֖ים אֶל־פָּנִֽים׃

Deuteronomy 34:11 (Cara’s Verse)

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לְכָל־הָ֙אֹת֜וֹת וְהַמּוֹפְתִ֗ים אֲשֶׁ֤ר שְׁלָחוֹ֙ יְהוָ֔ה לַעֲשׂ֖וֹת בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרָ֑יִם לְפַרְעֹ֥ה וּלְכָל־עֲבָדָ֖יו וּלְכָל־אַרְצֽוֹ׃



Deuteronomy 34:12 (Ian’s Verse)

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וּלְכֹל֙ הַיָּ֣ד הַחֲזָקָ֔ה וּלְכֹ֖ל הַמּוֹרָ֣א הַגָּד֑וֹל אֲשֶׁר֙ עָשָׂ֣ה מֹשֶׁ֔ה לְעֵינֵ֖י כָּל־יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃



Genesis 1:1 (Sam B.’s Verse)

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בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית בָּרָ֣א אֱלֹהִ֑ים אֵ֥ת הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם וְאֵ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ׃


Genesis 1:2 (Sarah C. Verse)

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וְהָאָ֗רֶץ הָיְתָ֥ה תֹ֙הוּ֙ וָבֹ֔הוּ וְחֹ֖שֶׁךְ עַל־פְּנֵ֣י תְה֑וֹם וְר֣וּחַ אֱלֹהִ֔ים מְרַחֶ֖פֶת עַל־פְּנֵ֥י הַמָּֽיִם׃


Genesis 1:3 (Jack’s Verse)

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וַיֹּ֥אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֖ים יְהִ֣י א֑וֹר וַֽיְהִי־אֽוֹר׃


Genesis 1:4 (Justin T.’s Verse)

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וַיַּ֧רְא אֱלֹהִ֛ים אֶת־הָא֖וֹר כִּי־ט֑וֹב וַיַּבְדֵּ֣ל אֱלֹהִ֔ים בֵּ֥ין הָא֖וֹר וּבֵ֥ין הַחֹֽשֶׁךְ׃


Genesis 1:5 (Sophia G.’s Verse)

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וַיִּקְרָ֙א אֱלֹהִ֤ים׀ לָאוֹר֙ י֔וֹם וְלַחֹ֖שֶׁךְ קָ֣רָא לָ֑יְלָה וַֽיְהִי־עֶ֥רֶב וַֽיְהִי־בֹ֖קֶר י֥וֹם אֶחָֽד׃


Science Fiction Torah

“‘Is it possible for me to understand?’
‘Oh, yes. Many could understand it. What people do with understanding is a different matter.’
‘Will you teach me what to do?’
‘You already know.'”
Frank Herbert, God Emperor of Dune

          As a side note I must recommend the first four books of the Dune series to anyone who is even remotely what one might call a “sci-fi” buff. Of course if you read any science fiction then you already know what I’m talking about. For the uninitiated, there’s nothing quite like reading Dune. The fourth book, which is quoted above, has as its protagonist (possibly villian, I’m not quite done reading it) none other than (a/the) God. I’m sitting here trying to think of any books besides Dune and the Bible for which this is the case. Forget science fiction, if you’re interested in religion, theology, or philosophy it’s a must read.
        I’m not going to bother trying to contextualize the passage from the book. Instead, I want to appropriate it, as it’s a useful frame for thinking about education in general and Jewish education in particular.
        1. “Is it possible for me to understand?” The last thing I want to do is strip Judaism of its nuances, complexities, paradoxes, and mystery. At the same time, more of us need to embrace the Deuteronomic concept of lo bashamayim hee (lit: “it is not in heavens…”). Judaism is a here and now faith. It’s a religion of “whatcha gonna do next.” It’s a “what are you waiting for” way of living each day. Judaism is all about empowerment. There’s no limit to how much you can learn or how masterful your command of tradition can be– and that’s empowering. At the same time, there’s a lot you can do with even the slightest motivation– this too is empowering. And while there’s a lot of levels of understanding it is emphatically, undeniably, 100% possible to understand.
        2. “What people do with understanding is a different matter.” The Hebrew word for understanding is havanah. The Hebrew word for intention is cavanah.  While these words sound the same, and are transliterated into English using many of the same letters beware– they are in fact different concepts. Havanah and canavah are not always mutually reinforcing concepts. There are many things that many people understand. However our actions are more less likely to be driven by our havanah than our cavanah. Understanding is critically important, especially given our unique nature as rational beings. But cavanah will always play a more fundamental role in determining how we live each moment. As Jews we are committed to havanah and cavanah. Let us pray for the wisdom to unite these two ways of knowing so that we may live lives of purposeful conduct.
        3. “Will you teach me what to do?” There’s a lot of wisdom floating around out there about the nature of education and how learning occurs. One area of profound consensus is that the openness to learning and the hunger to learn are preconditions for meaningful and transformative development to occur. As educators our role is twofold in this regard: 1) to kindle, or at least keep alive, the innate flame within every person that yearns to know, understand, learn and grow, and 2) to honor the student who comes to us with this question. If we can rise to the occasion of this question guiding our students beyond what they currently can do to that which they are capable of doing with our care, guidance, and teaching, then we’re doing sacred work.
        4. “You already know.” While learning is about journeying into foreign lands, both literally and metaphorically, it’s also about coming home. The wisdom we encounter in the world around us often resides within us as well. Creation is our mirror, showing us something that we can grasp because we are a part of it, and it is already within us, or least the capacity to grasp is already within us. While our students will surely grow weary if the response to every earnest question is “You already know” they will more quickly learn to draw on the vast resources that constitute their innate humanity if we lovingly throw the ball back into their court every now and again.

Reading Torah for the First Time

On Thursday morning one of our 5th grade classes gathered in my office for a moment of reflection. After months of preparation the time had finally come for them to chant from the Torah for the first time. All their classmates and parents were waiting in the library where the Torah Reading Service was going to be held. With guitar in hand I asked the students to take a deep breath and spend a moment opening their hearts. Then we talked about The Davis Academy journey– how every day has the potential to be full of amazing and life changing experiences. But along the journey there are moments of holiness, sometimes little and sometimes big, sometimes planned and sometimes not. The 5th grade Torah Service is such a moment. Each child shared a memory from class– lots of smiles and laughs, lots of “oh yeahs…” A few of the students got a little choked up. I did as well.
We marched quietly from my office to just outside the library. From there we watched the last few students and parents shuffling in. Once everyone was settled inside I, along with the students who were leading, marched into the library singing “Am Yisrael Hai” (“The Jewish People Lives”). In the presence of our community, gathered for the sacred and joyous mitzvah of reading and studying Torah, it was hard not to feel the most profound sense of hope that these children not only embrace Jewish tradition but will build a viable and vibrant Jewish world for future generations.