Learning about Learning

Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education, Brandeis University

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Inside Jewish Day Schools: Initial Reflections from Conference Participants

Jon A. Levisohn

At the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education at Brandeis, we’re used to hosting conferences of various sizes. At least once a year and usually more often, we bring together groups of scholars, practitioners, and other stakeholders to share ideas and learn from one another. But each time, those first moments catch me off guard. After all the planning, all the coordinating and communicating, all the preparation, people show up on campus and this thing—which had been abstract and conceptual—emerges into a concrete existence. It’s kind of miraculous.

Our conference this year, chaired by my colleague Jonathan Krasner and me, focused on Jewish day schools. But more specifically, we wanted to draw attention to questions of teaching and learning. Hence our title: “Inside Jewish Day Schools.” Some of our plenary sessions explored questions of race and ethnicity, class and economic justice, and gender and sexuality. Other sessions focused on pluralism, teacher preparation, and teachers’ conceptions of purposes, as well as on the teaching and learning of classical Jewish texts, Hebrew language, and Israel.

In the coming days, we will share some reflections from conference participants, cross-posted with our colleagues at Prizmah. Today, we offer two: one from Dr. Sarah Levy, Director of Jewish Life and Learning at Denver Jewish Day School, and a second from Rav-Hazzan Dr. Scott Sokol, Head of School at MetroWest Jewish Day School in Framingham, MA.

. . . these sessions focused on some of the biggest challenges in American education today and highlighted that day schools, while unique in the educational landscape, are not unique in other ways . . .

Sarah wrote:

After the first roundtable, a session called “Embracing Diversity, Teaching Equity: Race and Ethnicity in Jewish Day School” … it seemed as if we were left with lots of questions and no answers. And that was the theme of the afternoon as a session about gender and sexuality was followed by a session about privilege and class, and a session about the emotional climates in Jewish day schools ended the day. During each session, the conversation focused on challenges that are prevalent in Jewish day schools, but not the kinds of challenges that are usually the focus of day school conferences. We didn’t focus on the questions that tend to occupy our daily thoughts in the world of practice such as meeting our fundraising goals, lowering attrition, raising the bar for academic excellence and supporting our teachers in 21st century methodologies.

Rather these sessions focused on some of the biggest challenges in American education today and highlighted that day schools, while unique in the educational landscape, are not unique in other ways, and these are all topics that need to be addressed in our schools. Equity in education is something to discuss, even amongst our population, as race and ethnicity impact our students both inside and outside of our buildings. Questions about gender and sexuality concern our students, not in spite of the fact that they are Jewish, but sometimes even more so because they attend Jewish day school. Economic and class distinctions impact the nature of our schools and who attends our schools. Sure, we’re not driven by standardized testing in the same way as public schools, but the pressure to succeed is just as high, if not higher.

Instead of going to bed depressed, however, Continue reading

Megillat Esther and the Light Within

by Ziva R. Hassenfeld

An eighteenth century image of Queen EstherThe Talmud, in Mesechet Megila 14a, lists Esther as one of seven female prophets in Tanakh: “There were seven female prophets. Who were they? Sarah, Miriam, Devorah, Hannah, Avigail, Holda and Esther.” The reason for three of these women’s appearances on the list is clear: They are called prophetesses in the Torah. Three of these women require some interpretive gymnastics, but their cases basically make themselves. Then there is Esther. How exactly, in the only book of Tanakh where God does not appear, might the protagonist be a prophetess and a model for those of us who think deeply about the purposes of Jewish education?

The Talmud roots its hermeneutic case for Esther in verse 1 of Chapter 5:

וַיְהִ֣י ׀ בַּיּ֣וֹם הַשְּׁלִישִׁ֗י וַתִּלְבַּ֤שׁ אֶסְתֵּר֙ מַלְכ֔וּת וַֽתַּעֲמֹ֞ד בַּחֲצַ֤ר בֵּית־הַמֶּ֙לֶךְ֙ הַפְּנִימִ֔ית נֹ֖כַח בֵּ֣ית הַמֶּ֑לֶךְ וְ֠הַמֶּלֶךְ יוֹשֵׁ֞ב עַל־כִּסֵּ֤א מַלְכוּתוֹ֙ בְּבֵ֣ית הַמַּלְכ֔וּת נֹ֖כַח פֶּ֥תַח הַבָּֽיִת׃

On the third day, Esther put on malkhut and stood in the inner court of the king’s palace, facing the king’s palace, while the king was sitting on his royal throne in the throne room facing the entrance of the palace.

The Talmud asks, “Shouldn’t it have said, ‘in royal garments?’” (instead of malkhut, ‘royalty.’) The Talmud answers, “This teaches that Esther was clothed in the Divine Spirit… R’ Levi said, ‘As soon as she reached the chamber of idols, the Divine Presence departed from her, and she exclaimed, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’”

In a strange move, the Rabbis justify Esther as a prophetess by giving her divine attention and access, but then take it away right when Esther needs it most, as she prepares to approach King Ahashverosh on behalf of the Jews. The Midrash Yalkut Shimoni adds to this image of Esther’s compromised prophecy by calling this moment in history Eilat Hashachar, the liminal moment in the day where there is the first hint of light. Avivah Zornberg, one of the most poignant and brilliant modern Torah scholars, explains Esther the female prophetess: Continue reading

Stephen Colbert and the Goals of Jewish Education

by Ziva Hassenfeld and Jonah Hassenfeld

Rose McGowan and Stephen Colbert

Stephen Colbert and guest Rose McGowan

It’s not every night that Stephen Colbert talks Tanakh. Last week, in a somewhat unusual interview, actress and activist Rose McGowan brought up the biblical story of Jonah to explain her distaste for organized religion.

“There was a dude in a whale’s stomach that talked for three days or so. Then he got spit out because of Jesus. Am I following that correctly?”

“You… are not,” replied Colbert.

“I’m not?” McGowan seemed perplexed.

Colbert fills in some details of the story, but McGowan was already moving on: “It eventually gets to Jesus, right?” “Eventually, everything goes to Jesus,” he agreed.

As hilarious as this exchange was, there’s something worth lingering on here. Continue reading

Imagination and Interpretation

By Ziva R. Hassenfeld

The painting "Pharaoh Gives Sarah Back to Abraham," painted by Isaac Isaacs in 1640My students and I were in the middle of discussing Genesis 12:10-20, the story in which Abraham asks Sarah to say that she is his sister as they descend to Egypt. The Torah, however, does not record any dialogue when they arrive in Egypt, so that we don’t know what, if anything, Sarah said. Later, when Pharaoh, who took Sarah as his wife, discovers that she is indeed a married woman, he asks Abraham why he said she was his sister.

Saul, a passionate and excited student, raises his hand with a possible resolution.

Saul:  Okay so I think it’s possible that no one said anything and when people saw him–like Avram just walked up to Mitzrayim. And Sarai didn’t introduce herself as his sister and Avram didn’t say anything about that and they just assumed “Okay she’s his sister, let’s take her to Pharaoh.”

Jane calls out: They didn’t lie but they didn’t say anything

Saul: And they didn’t lie but they didn’t correct. And then the courtiers went to Pharaoh and were like, “Oh ya, there’s this girl she’s Avram’s sister.” So then Pharaoh assumed that Avram told them that Sarai was his sister.

Ziva: Love it! Stronger with textual evidence. I think–textual evidence  doesn’t have to be spelling it out for you. This is literature. This is Torah. There can be hints.

There is an interpretive activity that lies at the heart of “advanced” literary analysis as well as rabbinic hermeneutics. It focuses on the details in the text–the words, the syntax, sometimes even the individual letters–in order to make meaning. This privileging of the smallest units of analysis guides new criticism’s close reading and often directs the flow of a daf of Gemara, so that every letter, every seemingly superfluous word, every missing word, teaches us something.

For most of my career as a Jewish studies teacher, I held this type of interpretation up as the gold standard. The value of Saul’s interpretation would stand and fall on whether or not he could make a textual case for it. I wanted to teach this style of interpretation because I believed it prepared my student for both literary and religious text study.  When I was a high school Tanakh teacher, many of my students rose to the challenge and met my expectations. They made meaning out of extra vavs and repeated phrases. They juxtaposed subjects called by proper name and subjects called by pronouns. Some of my other students did not care for it and eventually found themselves utterly uninterested in the study of biblical texts. It was with these students in mind that I entered my doctoral program in curriculum and teacher education.

Five years (and one doctorate) later, I am back in the Tanakh classroom, this time in an elementary school. Immersed in the study of biblical texts with these younger students, I am noticing something I never experienced teaching high school. Continue reading

Understanding Students’ Orientations to the Study of Rabbinics

By Arielle Levites

What does it mean to a student to understand rabbinics?

While rabbinic texts have long played a central role in the development of contemporary Judaisms and Jewish day school curricula, we don’t know very much about students’ learning. While we have some sense of what teachers and other experts think constitutes an understanding of rabbinics (Levisohn 2010, and Kanarek and Lehman 2016), there is little data about what students actually know about or are able to do with particular texts, or what sense they make of rabbinics as a whole.

In the spring of 2017, as part of the Mandel Center’s Students’ Understanding of Rabbinics project, we interviewed twenty students recruited from two Jewish community day high schools about their study of rabbinics. The students we interviewed offered three major types of approaches to understanding rabbinic texts: Continue reading

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