HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

Connecting Curricula: Jewish Social Studies in a Community Day School

by Andi Koss Issue: Teaching Jewish History

Several years ago, I transitioned from being a general studies teacher in grades 4 and 5 to being a Jewish social studies teacher for grades 3-6. As I looked over the curricula of the Jewish social studies program, it struck me that there were few thematic connections between Judaic and general studies. In the upper grades, Jewish history was basically taught in chronological order, starting with ancient Israel in 4th grade and moving to modern Israel by grade 6. In general studies, however, students study the ancient world in 6th grade and more local and recent history in grade 4.

That summer, I developed a more integrated Judaic social studies program, seeking curricular connections between general and Judaic studies at each grade level. Rather than teaching Judaic studies in a vacuum, I wanted my lessons to support and enrich what my general studies colleagues were doing.

Third graders, for example, study about deserts. We take that opportunity to study about Israel’s Negev Desert in JSS class. We study Bedouin history and culture, making cultural connections to Abraham and our ancient Israelite roots. We investigate ways that Negev inhabitants have traditionally utilized the natural resources of the desert to survive as well as modern methods employed by Israeli farmers and scientists that have made the Negev bloom. We culminate this unit with the construction of a huge Bedouin tent, from which students share research and welcome guests with tea and authentic snacks.

In another example, as 3rd graders study health and nutrition in general studies, we study Jewish food traditions, including kashrut laws and practices, and investigating the role of food in Jewish culture and tradition. Students plan healthy Shabbat and Jewish holiday menus and contribute a Jewish family recipe with an interesting story to a collective class cookbook.

In 4th grade, the general social studies curriculum focuses on local history and New York State. In JSS, we connect conceptually by studying the history and structure of our local Jewish community. We learn how important Jewish values such as tikkun olam, tzedakah, and gemilut chasadim are put into practice. We visit the area synagogues and meet with rabbis and other community leaders, such as the heads of our JCC, Jewish Federation, Jewish Family Service, and Jewish Home for the Aged.

From colonial settlement to the American Revolution, and from the Civil War to the period of mass immigration, the breadth of nearly 400 years of history is included in the 5th grade general studies curriculum. In JSS, that history is infused and integrated with the stories of American Jews. America has offered Jews unprecedented freedoms and extraordinary opportunities. Beginning with the story of the first community of Jews in America, refugees fleeing the persecution of the Spanish Inquisition who found shelter on the shores of New Amsterdam, we use trade books and novels to view American history through a uniquely Jewish perspective. We culminate our year of study with a visit to Philadelphia, where we combine our visit to Independence Mall with a visit to the National Museum of American Jewish History, connecting the history and traditions of the Jewish people with the broader national experience.

Similarly, within the study of ancient civilizations and medieval history in 6th grade, there are several points throughout the year where natural connections can be made between the general and Judaic social studies. From Sumer to Egypt and Babylonia to Rome, the challenges and experiences of the Jewish people can be understood within a larger historical context as students examine secular and Judaic sources simultaneously.

Collaborating with general studies teachers has allowed me to teach Judaic social studies within a much broader context and to make connections, daily, with what students are learning in their general studies classrooms. Learning in one area is supported and enriched by the other. Additionally, collaborative projects make use of reading, writing, speaking and listening skills in Judaic studies classes just as in general ones. Combining general and Judaic topics not only allows students to broaden their perspectives of history, but also makes the most of our teaching time to focus on the same language arts, critical thinking and research skills that are the cornerstone of an excellent elementary education.¿

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Teaching Jewish History

Is Jewish history the linchpin to Jewish identity formation, the weak link in day school Jewish studies, or perhaps both? Jewish history provides students with critical links to their past and gives them the context for their own experiences. Discover insights in this field from senior scholars and educators, and find creative new initiatives being used by teachers in day schools today.

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