New Horizons in Jewish High School Education: Adapting the Tried and Trust Resources to Meet 21st Century Learning

By Judy Snowbell Diamond

“New challenges demand innovative solutions” (Folk saying)

“There is nothing new under the sun” (Kohelet 1:9)

Those immersed in Jewish Education often are torn between these two perceptions. On the one hand is the view that 21st-century Jewish education is a new reality that demands new approaches, while on the other hand is the desire for Jewish learning to follow traditional modes of pouring over texts to discover their layers of interpretation.

So which is it? Do we need to go back to the drawing board and create from scratch new courses that speak to 21st-century learning, or do we cling to the traditional approaches that produced Jewish literacy throughout the ages? How can schools take the best from the past and adapt it to the present?

Add to this the challenge of Jewish high schools that are increasingly taking in students with varying levels of Jewish literacy – some who have many years of formal Jewish education and others who are only starting their Jewish educational journey. As many Jewish high schools try to recruit a diverse student body that mirrors the diversity of the Jewish community, how can they build a curriculum to accommodate this varied community of learners?

And finally, there is a trend towards offering electives that go beyond the classic Jewish studies courses.

It is a daunting process for any Jewish high school to address these overlapping curricular needs, especially in schools that lack the professional or financial resources to invest in comprehensive curriculum development.

Given the limited resources, both human and financial, how can we provide engaging materials for students who are looking to explore more specialized issues such as mysticism, Jewish humor, medical ethics, social justice to name a few? How can Jewish high schools develop a full menu of course options that address competing needs?

Several years ago, as a teacher at TanenbaumCHAT, Toronto, I was a member of the Curricular Development in Tanakh Task Force Committee. Recognizing that effective curriculum development required staff input and ownership, the Jewish Studies teachers were invited to work with the administration on developing student knowledge, skill, and values outcomes for the Grades 9-through-11 Tanakh studies.

After much discussion, defining, and fine-tuning, our staff emerged with a clear set of learning outcomes. With a great sense of accomplishment after this two-year process, we were charged with the next task – merging the content material with the defined outcomes.

But what would that content look like?

As teachers in a Jewish high school that prided itself on scholarship in Jewish literacy, we were interested in text-based learning that was academically rigorous, meaningful, and transformative. Moreover, given that TannenbaumCHAT’s is a community school committed to pluralism, we wanted our text study to combine classical commentaries with contemporary voices that reflected the spectrum of Jewish thinking. And with our school’s growing population of students who were beginning their formal Jewish education in 9th grade and lacked Jewish foundational knowledge, our curriculum needed to meet the varied levels of knowledge of our students and their learning styles.

Over the course of the next several years, the curriculum development committee worked to produce a teacher’s guide in which each unit of study included the texts, commentaries, learning outcomes, background information, and pedagogical suggestions to teachers.

The process, though rewarding and productive, presented some significant challenges and made it difficult to replicate by other departments who began to consider redesigning their curriculum. The length of the process (6 years to complete), the need for staff to invest many hours beyond their teaching hours to develop the content materials, and the challenge in producing a unified source book for students, prompted TanenbaumCHAT to consider other options for their other JS departments.

Fast forward ten years later, TanenbaumChat decided to revisit its Rabbinics curriculum for the New Stream program for students beginning their formal Jewish education in Grade 9.

This time CHAT opted for another option – The Florence Melton High School Initiative which at the time was a nascent program piloted in the Gann Academy and conceived by then-Head of School, Rabbi Marc Baker.

Familiar with the impact of the Florence Melton School in transformative Adult Education, Baker approached Melton’s Director of Education, Rabbi Morey Schwartz with a proposition: to bring the richness of Florence Melton adult courses to their students and invite their professional staff to adapt it to the needs of their students!

And thus the Florence Melton High School Initiative was conceived. Embarking on a two year a process, Gann Academy’s 9th Grade JS teachers adapted Florence Melton’s Rhythms and Purposes of Jewish Living courses to meet the needs of students who began Gann at a beginners and intermediate level of exposure to Jewish text learning.

After two years of experimenting with the readers and working in consultation with Florence Melton staff, Gann developed their own customized student reader including the specific topics and extensive primary sources that reflected their specific curricular goals and catered to student abilities and interests.

The resultant product let Gann benefit from the best of both worlds. Melton brought the content in the form of professionally crafted text-based, pluralistic readers compiled by a professional team of authors, academic advisors, editor, proofreaders, and designer. Gann brought their pedagogical expertise to take ownership of the curriculum through learning activities and assessments related to the content.

As explained by Rabbi Jethro Berkman, Gann’s Dean of Jewish Studies, Melton “had fully developed, comprehensive and well-thought-through curricula based on primary texts. We could continue our emphasis on text skills, while at the same time allowing our students to explore a wider range of approaches to Jewish ideas.” Berkman also pointed to benefits of drawing on the curricular groundwork that Melton already laid. “The care with which the source books have been developed is quite evident, and the texts themselves align nicely with our learning goals for our students. Our teachers are able to spend more time focusing on pedagogy and on careful lesson planning, now that they are freed from the need to collect texts and develop curricular materials.”

Bialik College in Melbourne, Australia, also embarked on a collaboration to adapt Melton’s Purposes course creating their own customized course entitled: Big Ideas in Judaism, a course that was most relevant to the interests of their local high school students. Teacher Toby Mac was the lead teacher in the adaptation, and saw that Melton’s High School Initiative filled an important student need. “At their age [students] are beginning to think about and discuss their Jewish ideas and beliefs and this course gives them access to a wide variety of ideas and concepts, thus helping them develop their own world view,” he explained.

Pauline Kezer, founder of the Susan Komen Race for the Cure, is attributed with having said “Continuity gives us roots; change gives us branches, letting us stretch and grow and reach new heights.” A program that combines the continuity of classical text learning and innovative pedagogical strategies is an ideal solution for helping 21st century Jewish schools and students stretch, grow, and reach new heights.

Today, six Jewish high schools have joined the Florence Melton High School Initiative, with most opting to adapt the Melton Core signature courses. Schools looking to enhance their Bible curriculum or to offer specialized courses may also consider adapting Melton Scholars courses. To find out more about the Florence Melton High School Initiative and how it can meet the needs of your school, contact

Judy Snowbell Diamond is the Educational Projects Coordinator for the Florence Melton School of Adult Jewish Learning, supervising curriculum development and overseeing the Florence Melton High School Initiative. She has taught in in a wide range of Jewish educational settings from elementary to high school level in Israel, Toronto, Indianapolis, and was Tanakh Department Head at Toronto’s TanenbaumCHAT.