HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

A Case Study Approach to Integrating Jewish Values and Modern History

by Neil Kramer Issue: Teaching Jewish History
TOPICS : Jewish Studies

A course at the New Community Jewish High School in Los Angeles employed a case study approach integrating Jewish history and Jewish values, enabling students to apply Jewish values to contemporary challenges of the Jewish world. The case study approach enables students to practice solving real world problems as if they were clergy or leaders acting on behalf of Jewish communal organizations, or as Jewishly engaged citizens.

Students used the KaVoD (Knowledge Values Deeds) method of analysis for each case study. To equip students for the work of applying Jewish values to practical affairs, the work begins with two exercises focusing on Jewish civic enterprises. First, working in groups, students receive the mission statement and IRS form 990 (nonprofit organization tax returns) for one of several Jewish organizations (such as the ADL, American Jewish Committee, Federation, Wiesenthal Center, American Jewish World Service). Students use these materials to create uniform analyses of each organization:

What are the organization’s areas of expertise (Knowledge)?

What are the organization’s Values?

What have been the organization’s accomplishments (Deeds)?

How well does the organization use its resources?

These four questions become the standard for the rubric for evaluating student work.

Students review all the group analyses, then each is tasked with allocating a fictional $1000 among the organizations, explaining the allocations based on the Jewish values the student holds dear. The Jewish values statements must reference specific Jewish texts, including sacred writings, commentaries, documents from the secular historical record (i.e., writings of Herzl), or from other parts of the Jewish historical canon (e.g., Diary of Anne Frank).

The bulk of course work consists of case studies in which students must master the facts (Knowledge) of actual past controversies, select Jewish Values applicable to the case, and propose a course of action (Deeds) to have been taken at the time of the case. A faculty partner who can fill in the content gaps may be brought into the lessons or made available to students who require guidance (whether in history or text) that the main instructor cannot provide. Some Deeds may be excluded by the instructor; I usually forbade prayer, writing to elected officials, or sending money.

In each case study, the student selects his identity—such as congregational rabbi, director of a Jewish civic organization, or a government official (in the USA, Israel, or elsewhere, as the facts of the case determine).

Both high school students and 4th year rabbinical students have been successful using the KaVoD method to analyze cases:

The Jackson-Vanik Amendment (1975): Did congressional efforts to support refuseniks advance or retard the emigration of Soviet Jews?

INS “factory surveys” and Jewish intergroup relations (INS v Gonzalez, 1984): Is the status of non-Jewish immigrants to the USA a “Jewish issue”?

Israel’s birth and the American diaspora (1950): Taking sides in the Blaustein and Ben-Gurion debate.

Playing for Time (1979): Should American Jews oppose PLO-sympathizer Vanessa Redgrave’s casting as an Auschwitz survivor?

Yad Vashem and Bombing Auschwitz (2008): What should a 21st century American president say about the failure of the Allies to bomb Auschwitz or the rail lines leading to it in 1944?

Should zoning regulations forbid construction of a synagogue in a residential neighborhood (Congregation Etz Chaim v Los Angeles, 2013)?

Reagan at Bitburg (1985): How should American Jews respond when the president proposes to honor WWII German war dead, including SS criminals?

These cases arose from the instructor’s research and experience in Jewish communal life. Instructors using this model should use cases most familiar to them or which had been the basis of their research.

Student responses were often surprising and unpredictable. The same student who said, “I asked my dad for help understanding the ADL’s tax returns,” also reported going to both the family’s rabbi and her Chabad rabbi for guidance on selecting Jewish values relevant to the “Bombing Auschwitz” case, and conferring with several friends to figure appropriate Deeds in response to Reagan’s visit to the Bitburg cemetery. This course was also taught to rabbinical students at the Ziegler School of the American Jewish University; interestingly, the high school students tended to show a greater range of sources. Having less certainty about their own identity as scholars and citizens, the high school students searched more widely to find Jewish values to address these real world problems.

The outcome of this work is that students get practice acting as if they were the responsible decision-makers. Knowing that these problems actually occurred and that the people proposing solutions to these problems in real time were not always able to create outcomes consistent with their values, students attempted to come up with better solutions. Those who did so recognized that they could act on behalf of the Jewish community when their time to do so arrived.¿


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