HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

Teaching Jewish History Across Disciplines—and Across the Hall

by Joel Abramovitz and Shona Schwartz Issue: Teaching Jewish History
TOPICS : Jewish Studies

We are a middle school social studies teacher and a Jewish studies teacher who regularly engage in a debate over whether the teaching and learning of Jewish history is more suited to a Jewish studies class or a social studies class. In social studies the focus is on historical awareness, research skills and critical thinking. In Jewish studies the focus is on Jewish values, connecting to the experiences of the Jewish people and development of a strong Jewish identity. In other words, social studies seeks to uncover “historical truth” while Jewish studies seeks to discover “spiritual truth.” Over years of working together, we have realized that each class offers unique opportunities and lenses to unpack the meaning and importance of Jewish history—and that, in fact, the answer is: both.

One method we use to approach the dual views is by approaching the same content from multiple angles. In sixth grade, the social studies class learns about ancient civilizations; the Jewish studies class looks at the emergence of the Israelite nation in the First Temple era. The nexus of these units is the Babylonian empire, depicted, somewhat differently, in both biblical and archaeological sources. By looking at the destruction of the First Temple and the Babylonian exile both as a uniquely Jewish spiritual moment, as well as in the context of Babylonian culture and history, the students begin to see multiple viewpoints and significances of a particular Jewish historical event.

Perhaps an even more profound example of how our students are asked to think about different understandings of history is through the story of the exodus from Egypt in the parted Red Sea. The students study the Torah from Exodus 14 in both classes at a literal level. In social studies, the focus of the learning is archaeological. Examining evidence of remains uncovered at the bottom of the Red Sea, the students ask, “What sort of historical evidence do I need to understand the meaning of this event?” It becomes an exercise in understanding the importance of documented and provable historical evidence. In Jewish studies, the focus of the learning is on the spiritual evidence. Focusing on the impact and meaning of the sea crossing, the students ask, “What sort of spiritual perspective do I need to uncover the meaning of this event?” This tends to add to the “sea-change,” in which the sixth graders begin to differentiate the ways they look at Jewish history—but also that these different views are not mutually exclusive.

Sometimes we use this approach for historical periods or cultural history. In seventh grade Jewish studies, the students have a major unit learning about the European Enlightenment and Jewish Haskalah that led to the emancipation of the Jews and the resulting growth of liberal Judaism, Zionism and modern values. The following year, in eighth grade, the students return to the ideas and thinkers of the Enlightenment, but instead of following its ideological course to changes within Judaism, they follow its path to the American Founding Fathers and the Revolutionary War. Investigating the same moment in history from Jewish and American perspectives can teach the students that “history” and “Jewish history” often affect each other—and in turn can deeply affect our students.

We are constantly developing our collaborations and curricular integrations. As our personal understandings of historical and spiritual truths change, so does the way we teach them. Ultimately, we believe that approaching the teaching of Jewish history simultaneously from both educational angles is an effective way for students to understand the importance and relevance of the Jewish past.¿

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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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