Studying our History to Build a Jewish Future
By Saul Kaiserman
The most important thing you can do for your children, writes New York Times columnist Bruce Feiler, is to tell them true stories about your own family. The more children know about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem, and the greater their resilience in the face of stress. By sharing our childhood memories and the stories of our parents and grandparents, we teach our children that they are part of something larger than themselves, something intergenerational and ongoing. As our children discover that they, too, can be story-tellers, they learn how to make sense of the confusing and sometimes unpredictable world around them.
Stories of redemption – family narratives that tell of overcoming setbacks and recovering from failures – are the most beneficial, according to psychologist Dan McAdams. We help our children to be courageous in the face of adversity when we let them know that although we have had both good and bad times, we have always persevered. Telling stories about the times when we endured hardship without losing hope gives our children confidence in themselves and their capacity to succeed. Further, McAdams’ research shows that those who have both this sense of personal agency as well as intimate, caring relationships are most likely to demonstrate a concern for and commitment to promoting the well-being of future generations.
At Congregation Emanu-El of the City of New York, our religious school history curriculum asks our students to see themselves as part of a great Jewish family whose origins stretch back thousands of years. We call ourselves “b’nai Yisrael,” the children of Israel, the great-great-great-great … grandchildren of Jacob and Rebecca. When our third and fourth graders study the Bible, they learn of the challenges faced by their ancestors and the decisions they made to respond to them, their triumphs along with their mistakes and missed opportunities. We explore the values and beliefs that shaped their actions, and think about whether or not we would make similar decisions ourselves.
I know some of you may be saying to yourselves, but wait, the Bible stories aren’t actually, true, they didn’t really happen. Those may be good stories, but they are just stories. Well, as I’ve gotten older, and started telling stories of my family to my own children, I’ve come to believe that there really isn’t so much difference between those stories of Jacob and Rebecca and those I tell my kids. How well do I really remember that story that my mother told me about my great-grandfather? Did it really happen the way I’m telling it? How much of it am I just making up? Actually, even the stories I tell my children from my own childhood aren’t entirely accurate, shaped as they are by failures in memory and a fair bit of prudent self-censorship. If I extrapolate the process back seventy generations, no doubt there’s been a fair bit of creativity involved in the story telling, but it doesn’t really matter. The point is, here’s a story about your great-great-great … grandparents, that we believe is worth telling again.
In the fifth grade, we explore the amazing journey of the Jewish people from ancient times to the modern era. We follow the ups and downs of the Jewish people, learning how our ancestors continually re-invented themselves and our religion in the face of ever-changing circumstances. We see how Judaism was reformed after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, from a religion primarily centered on sacrificial worship, to one of ideas and literature. We contemplate key moments and turning points in our people’s story, not only the peaks of achievement and success, but also the dark times, such as the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition. We ask, how is it that Jews and Judaism have continued to thrive over all these centuries? How have we adapted to changing circumstances and simultaneously maintained a sense of unity and peoplehood – despite our diversity?
Our sixth grade curriculum takes a close look at how three dynamics of the last century have shaped Jewish identity and set the parameters for Judaism in the 21st century. First, our students investigate why the United States became the largest Jewish population in the world. Then, we explore the rise of Nazism in Europe, acknowledging with honesty not merely the terrible crimes committed against humanity but more importantly the stories of courage and resistance that enabled the Jewish people to triumph in the face of evil. Finally, we study how the modern state of Israel came into being and what it means for both a diverse population and for Jews around the world to call it home.
For most of our history, Jews have lived under the authority of those with different beliefs and values than our own. We learned to flourish under constantly changing circumstances, and this adaptability has prepared us well for an uncertain future. We learned to be collaborators, innovators, and iconoclasts, scientists who challenge long-held assumptions and dreamers who create worlds of imagination. By seeing the stories of those who came before us as our own, by identifying as part of a supportive collective with a strong sense of community, our children learn that they too can and will make a difference. At the same time it is because we share a common set of stories that we have remained a cohesive, international people, even amidst our diverse ways of living as Jews.
Reform Judaism is about transformation; personal, communal, and global. We seek to make ourselves into better people and the world into a better place. When we teach our children that we have a heritage both of glorious achievements and of thriving despite adversity, they learn that they, too, can grow up to be confident, capable and caring Jewish adults.
Saul Kaiserman is director of lifelong learning for Congregation Emanu-El of the City of New York and the editor of the weblog New Jewish Education. He is currently pursuing a doctorate at the Davidson School of Education of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.