Teaching American Jewish History as Talmud

By Mimi Schneirov

A school teacher holds up a teddy bear made by her grandfather for her mother that represents a story about military service, memory, and Jewish identity. She is one of twenty-nine educators that gathered at the National Museum of American Jewish History earlier this month for its fourth annual National Educators Institute (NEI) – The Art and Science of Teaching American Jewish History. Representing eleven states and twenty cities, and split evenly between day schools and congregational schools, participants immersed themselves in workshops and experiences led by notable scholars and Museum staff. The first-of-its-kind Institute is designed to empower Jewish day and supplementary school educators to teach American Jewish history by learning content and methodologies, developing peer networks, and connecting with Museum staff – who provide ongoing support after the Institute.

The intensive four-day long Institute exposes educators to the major themes of American Jewish History as well as new developments in the field of education. They are also introduced to a learning model called “See, Think, Wonder,” which teaches students to analyze objects, images, and texts. It emphasizes curiosity, attention to detail, critical thinking, and discussion as a way of interpreting historical materials. Teachers benefit from workshops aimed at developing their curricula and discussing educational strategies with each other, including how to combine historical methods with social-emotional learning.

“The seminars were completely engaging, and the strategies are things we can implement in our teaching immediately,” stated one participant. “The Museum itself is a fabulous resource, and we learned how we can use it even at a distance.” Using artifacts, resources, and materials available from NMAJH, they discover accessible, high-quality educational resources that encourage students to understand and identify themselves within the larger arc of the American Jewish experience. Topics covered include religious liberty, immigration, responses to the Holocaust, colonial Jewish life, and civil rights – all have contemporary relevance, allowing teachers to facilitate classroom conversations about history that provide context for current events.

NEI is a proactive response to the dearth of resources for teaching the American Jewish experience. “NMAJH is dedicated to bringing the educational lessons based on the Museum’s collection and content to classrooms across the country,” says NMAJH’s Senior Manager of Education & Interpretation, Ronit Lusky. “Through the Institute, we are spearheading the effort to provide teachers with valuable tools for teaching and inspiring students to understand and identify themselves within the larger arc of American Jewish history.”

The Institute is made possible by a grant from the New York-based Covenant Foundation, which honors organizations delivering the highest excellence in Jewish education. “The Covenant Foundation grant represents a strong endorsement of the Museum’s ability to provide the very best in Jewish education,” says Dr. Josh Perelman, NMAJH chief curator and director of exhibitions and Interpretation. “We are very grateful for the Foundation’s generous award, one that affirms the positive, national impact of our educational initiatives.”

The grant also supports the Museum’s new national curriculum, OpenBook: Discovering American Jewish History Through Objects, which is prominently featured at NEI. Harlene Winnick Appleman, executive director of the foundation, commended the projects for “providing educators with resources that invite students to approach the study of history in unexpected ways and connect what they learn to their own ideas, experiences, and passions.” Based on material culture from the Museum’s collection, OpenBook’s lessons in this national curriculum challenge students to exercise critical thinking and inquiry-based learning skills while exploring the American Jewish experience. Thirteen out of eighteen lessons are completed and ten are currently available for free online. All lessons will be available for free download by 2020.

In the spirit of traditional Talmudic study, OpenBook invites students to approach the study of history in unexpected ways and connect what they learn to their own ideas, experiences, and passions. The heart of each lesson is a “Talmud page,” not actually from the Talmud, but formatted similarly. Each page has an object or image at the center, surrounded by relevant commentaries. Working in groups of two to three, students explore, discuss, and interpret this object or image in conjunction with surrounding texts. Talmudic learning, although sometimes called debate, is not about winning an argument, it is about expanding one’s thinking. This open-ended process of discussion and discovery empowers students to see themselves in the larger story of American Jewish life and inspire a sense of pride and connection to their heritage.

“[These lessons] definitely helped give more context and reinforce that skill of attention to detail for analysis,” reported an alumna who used OpenBook in their class. “I was really impressed with the conversation a group of our seventh-grade girls had,” they added. “Thank you for such a great resource!”

In addition to the annual summer institute in Philadelphia, NEI also reaches educators in communities throughout the nation. NMAJH provides a day-long version of the institute that is a condensed version of the program held at the Museum. “Promoting and celebrating Jewish life in America, and strengthening the next generation of American Jews by supporting outstanding Jewish educators is central to our mission.  It is why we exist.” explained Phil Darivoff, NMAJH Board Chair. Over the past two years, “Traveling NEI” has visited Boston, Detroit, Houston, Indianapolis, Milwaukee, and St. Louis – reaching more than 140 educators participated from more than 50 schools and institutions. This fall NEI will visit norther New Jersey and Palm Beach County.

NEI and OpenBook are examples of NMAJH’s commitment to developing innovative resources that feature primary sources and original artifacts from the Museum’s collection – on site and far beyond the Museum’s walls. “Leveraging these assets, the Museum is uniquely positioned to provide educational tools about the American Jewish experience that simply do not exist elsewhere,” asserted Perelman.

Mimi Schneirov is a NMAJH Trustee and Education Committee Chair.