Everything Old is New Again: Using Genealogy in Jewish Day Schools

Jeffrey Schrager

For many, the Jewish year climaxes when families around the world, as throughout history, gather for the seder. I fondly remember the sedarim of my own youth, recalling stories, food, and family customs that bind each year’s seder to its predecessors. In particular, I remember my uncle stopping the proceedings and asking for quiet as we were about to read the paragraph Bechol dor vador, in which we state our obligation to envision ourselves as if we had personally departed Egypt. Each year, he paused to emphasize this particular point as the central message of the entire seder.

With time and careful contemplation of Jewish education, I have become convinced that Bechol dor vador may, in fact, be the central message of Judaism as a whole. To be Jewish is to exist simultaneously in the past, present and future. We reflect on a cherished past, understand its implications for the present, and commit to boldly propelling the Jewish story into the future.

Many educators bemoan the difficulty of fostering a connection to the past in students who often seem rootless. Ironically, at a time when the availability of information exceeds that of any previous era, many students seem uninterested in exploring the past. The introduction of large-scale genealogical research projects to our curricula offers one solution to this dilemma by personalizing each individual’s Jewish experience. This type of project can light the fires of Jewish students regardless of denomination and background.

A detailed family history project goes far beyond what currently takes place in schools. By the time they reach middle school most students have, at one point or another, been asked to create a family tree, generally going back two or three generations. We are suggesting much more. Students should undertake intensive research of their family’s history using every available resource including computer programs and websites, online records indexes, oral family histories, and documents both online and off, mining the nuggets of information that prove so crucial to constructing a detailed family tree.

Simultaneously, they should study the experiences of their ancestors in Jewish and world history, explore their cultures and customs in courses on social studies or Jewish law, and discuss the implications of their findings on their lives. In presenting their findings, schools or students may choose to “zoom in” on one particular ancestor or “zoom out” and broadly describe their family experience.

Any amateur genealogist can attest to the patience and perseverance genealogical investigation demands. Genealogists come into contact with a variety of sources and documents and must extract details applicable elsewhere. They must develop and test hypotheses, think creatively, and sometimes experience the frustration of running into a dead end. As a result, our student-genealogists will learn patience, analytical skills, and most importantly the mental toughness required for any real research or intellectual endeavor. Success in family history projects is directly correlated with a willingness to perceive a topic from multiple angles and approaches.

Another strength of genealogical research lies in its versatility. Many classes can be adapted to play a role in such a long term project. History classes, both Jewish and general, gain from the students’ realization that their ancestors lived the events in their books. Indeed, the further back students can trace their roots, the more meaningful history becomes. Understanding an ancestor’s proximity to important figures and places in Jewish history grants a vibrancy otherwise lost.

Other subjects similarly benefit from genealogical discussions. Genetic genealogy, the newest frontier in the field, demands understandings of cells, DNA and heredity. Students are fascinated by a study of common Jewish genetic diseases. They can read books or poems depicting their ancestral areas, research relevant art or Judaica, experiment with Yiddish or Ladino, cook traditional foods and more. Using sheet music that may be found online, musical students can even play or sing melodies their ancestors heard in synagogue on Shabbat or holidays. Possibilities for cross-curricular and interdisciplinary projects are practically endless.

Perhaps the classes with the most potential benefit from genealogical research are technology and computer classes. Many technology classes focus on skills in computing such programming, keyboarding and use of basic programs. Day schools can offer students a completely different set of skills by teaching them how to think critically when their information comes from a screen. Researching genealogy requires carefully scanning a variety of sources: records databases, document images, indexes and a myriad of other documentation. We can use genealogy to teach the larger challenges our students will face, namely sifting through information online. Students will experience the exhilaration of discovery while simultaneously learning the importance of patience, even when looking at a screen.

Yet for all the educational benefits genealogical research can offer, its potential as a meaningful Jewish experience most strongly advocates for its inclusion in our schools. Implicit in both Judaism and family research is the value placed on tradition. Learning about our roots speaks to some unconscious sensitivity within us and awakens a connection with the past our fast paced world often lacks. We don’t just study Shabbat or holidays, we connect with how our ancestors celebrated and identified with them. We can celebrate the concept of minhag and take pride in those customs native to our ancestral homes.

Even a seemingly ordinary activity, preparing a cholent for example, becomes replete with meaning when we awaken a consciousness of and connection to our ancestors who did the same. Additionally, discussions of tradition will yield a contextualization of practice our students are searching for, and a heightened understanding of the “whys” behind Jewish life. They become aware of family customs, their source and significance, and simultaneously develop a newfound respect for tradition in its broader Jewish sense.

But rather than discussing these issues in broad strokes, students personalize the struggle and its implications. “Jews had to decide whether to stay in Europe or journey to America” transforms into “your grandfather had to decide.” Some students are lucky enough to have an opportunity to discuss previous generations’ challenges with grandparents or great-grandparents. Our students rarely seize such an opportunity and fail to ask the questions they may wish answered later in life. This intergenerational dialogue, so crucial in Judaism, anchors our students in their grandparents’ experiences and nurtures an awareness of the value in looking back to answer contemporary questions and dilemmas.

Conducting organized family history research opens a discussion of perhaps the most important questions we and our students face: Why am I Jewish? Inevitably, as students climb further along their family tree, they will find relatives who no longer identify as Jews. Some may even be strongly identifying members of other faith groups without an inkling of their Jewish roots. We can and should ask our students why their family identifies with Judaism, emphasizing the aspects of Judaism their ancestors found compelling.

We must encourage the continuation of that conversation when our students return home. So often, we neglect discussing these larger issues as a result of curricular demands and a never ending shortage of class time. In this context, the single question “why am I Jewish?” hovers above the classroom, demanding each student find a uniquely personal answer.

Initially, I was nervous about teaching students from families with non-Jewish ancestry. I have been pleasantly surprised, however, with how enthusiastically they have embraced their projects. They enjoy learning about their own families, and they approach discussions of Jewish experiences with interest comparable to students with exclusively Jewish roots. Themes like identity and tradition resonate with every student, and each student confronts similar questions regarding their relationship with Judaism. Personally, as half of my family tree is not Jewish, I have found meaning in every generation while tracing the story of how I came to be the Jew and person I am today.

Fittingly, the tree serves almost exclusively as the visual metaphor for genealogical research. We who concern ourselves primarily with instruction of the next generation of Jews play a critical role in nurturing the Jewish family tree. A tree’s survival inherently depends on the depth and complexity of its root system. Connecting the Jewish future to its past reinvigorates a bond that may otherwise atrophy or, God forbid, disappear altogether. We can begin the process and watch as our students blossom, finding their unique story within the Jewish people, fortifying themselves to write the next chapter.♦

Rabbi Jeffrey Schrager teaches middle school Judaic studies at the Akiba Academy of Dallas and is the founder of L’dor Vador, geared towards promoting the use of Jewish genealogy in Jewish education. He can be contacted at [email protected].

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HaYidion Bold Ideas Summer 2013
Bold Ideas
Summer 2013