Monday, May 30, 2011

Partnership for a Day School & Informal/Supplementary Jewish Education

Having walked both sides of the proverbial fence, I find myself highly interested in the tug-of-war between Jewish day schools and Jewish informal/supplementary education (specifically religious/Hebrew school models either synagogue or community based). As an educator, I have worked in religious schools and day schools. As a parent, I have children in both.
Both day schools and informal/supplementary education models have the same end goal: to create/cultivate knowledgeable and active members of the Jewish community. The meanings and definitions of creating and cultivating, knowledgeable and active, will vary for sure. But in truth, the end result is we want our children and students to know what it means to be Jewish, to want to be Jewish, and to live a Jewish life. The path to that end goal varies with the educational model – as it should.
The Pesach Haggadah references Four Children: wise, wicked, simple, and one who doesn’t know how to ask. The very story of our exodus and the meaning of the Pesach Seder are discussed from four different perspectives as a result. This fundamental lesson is often overlooked. If we must teach our tradition at the Seder to our children at their level, in a way they can understand and accept, then our educational models should reflect that everywhere. Children (and their families) have different needs and different interests. Day schools are not for everyone and neither are supplemental schools. What has always puzzled me is why it has to be an either or proposition.
Day schools and supplementary education have different paths. Instead of forcing families to choose one, why not allow them to straddle the fence and follow both? My oldest son was in a day school. It was not a positive learning experience for him. When we put him in a public school, he was simultaneously enrolled in a synagogue based religious school to pursue a Jewish education. My family participates in both day school and religious school life. Friends and fellow educators are puzzled – what we are doing is surely redundant and unnecessary. I disagree.
It is a fact that both day schools and informal/supplementary education models are suffering right now. Both are facing problems and are at a critical point where change is both inevitable and necessary. 21st century education is here, and we need to rise to the occasion and welcome the challenge it presents to Jewish education. Judaism can be accessed in so many ways now, without ever leaving the house – we need to provide the relevancy and incentive for people to connect in the physical community and in our educational environments. People no longer have to come to a physical building or space to learn, to form a community, or access extensive knowledge. Websites abound with information about ritual and reason, tradition and text, prayers and Tanakh. There are ways to study Hebrew online – and with native Hebrew speakers for maximum efficiency and learning. Virtual communities online can provide a community connection and collaborative environment for some people. It is our task to find a way to take the abundance of offerings in the virtual world, bring them into the physical space of our schools and educational experiences, and make it all work. We have to ask ourselves what we have to offer beyond what someone can get on their own; what we can do to bring those amazing possibilities into our spaces.
As a day school educator, I am faced with a particularly strong dilemma. Parents do have other options for secular education and for religious education. Day schools are no longer “the” place for a serious Jewish education; informal and supplementary schools have become serious contenders and work hard to provide a solid educational foundation for their students. There are parents that are strongly pro-day schools and parents that are strongly pro-supplementary/informal education models. A large portion of the population is waiting to see, choosing between the offerings based on their needs and desires. Both models are doing something right, both have major strengths. Collaboration and learning between the models will help strengthen both. There is room for everyone – and we can learn from each other.
What the collaboration between day schools and informal Jewish education could look like needs exploring. More importantly – the idea needs to be considered more fully and a substantial conversation needs to take place. One place I want to begin that conversation is at NewCAJE . CAJE collapsed in the wake of the financial scandal and crisis; it was a tremendous loss. NewCAJE has begun and is not replacing CAJE, but reinventing it. CAJE was long the reigning domain of professional developing and networking for informal Jewish educators and professionals. Day school educators were never successfully integrated into the fold, instead they were a separate part of the family that was largely uninvolved. NewCAJE has the incredible opportunity to bridge the gap and bring the two worlds of Jewish education together, to start the conversation and explore the possibilities. Join NewCAJE; come to the second conference (check out the Young Professionals area), be a part of the conversation.
Last year I attended the first NewCAJE conference and Young Professionals post-conference institute. As part of the main conference, I took advantage of conference sessions. These weren’t limited to professional development but also spiritual and personal development. I was one of five or so day school educators present. A few of us offered sessions – and the attendees weren’t day school educators; they were people from all over the spectrum of Jewish learning. They learned something from us – and we learned something from them. In one evaluation, an attendee for one of my sessions said “I was surprised that a day school teacher could make something relevant to me as a religious school teacher. I came to this session without high hopes and I’m leaving with something that I can do and use.” At the post conference Young Professionals institute, a group of young professionals came together for the first time as part of this new organization. We discussed what Jewish education is right now – but more importantly what it could and should be for the future. We formed relationships with other educators and discussed the challenges we all face. I found that the problems aren’t as unique as one might suppose. We highlighted some issues we each are passionate about and began planning ways to address them. NewCAJE is just getting started; we have the opportunity to truly shape what it becomes. It’s rare that an opportunity like this come to fruition; we would benefit greatly from taking advantage of it. The power of any group is in its members. NewCAJE needs a diversity of members from the Jewish professional world; day school and informal/supplementary educators need to come together and shape an educational landscape that will be effective and enduring for all of us.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Embracing Online & Blended Learning

In February, at the North American Jewish Day School Conference, The Jewish Education Project, Jesna and The Avi Chai Foundation announced a partnership promoting Jewish day schools to “explore online learning”. They offered an online space, digitaljlearning, providing a description of online learning, as well as Jewish day school success stories in utilizing online learning as part of their instructional repertoire.

Their website makes the case for online learning in Jewish day schools:
Schools should consider the benefits of online learning such as greater accessibility, the potential for individualized learning, improving the quality of instruction and enhancing students' learning. Online learning can also be cost effective, for example in providing courses to small numbers of students where it is not otherwise economically feasible because of their limited number. 

A quick search online reveals many examples of attempts at online learning in Jewish education, including learning Hebrew Online, college courses and degrees by Gratz and Hebrew College, Bar Mitzvah lessons, Hebrew School and even online smicha. Most of this programs exclusively function online, but many institutions are considering blended learning as well.  Wikipedia defines Blended Learning as the mixing of different learning environments, by mixing synchronous and asynchronous instruction. This takes place with integration of traditional face-to-face and computer mediated instruction.

The choice for determining whether a course should be online, face-to-face or blended depends on the analysis of the competencies at stake, the nature and location of the audience, and the resources available. The mix of technologies and interactions results in a constructive socially supported learning experience. Changes the role of the teacher to dynamic learning facilitator, preparing students for engagement in self directed learning both in their computer driven and face-to-face interactions.

With all this organizational and foundation support for online learning in Judaism, the questions remains what shape will online learning take within Jewish education, and whether this format truly does serve the mission of Jewish education. In their article “Can Blended Learning Enhance Jewish Education? A Call to Action”, Richard D. Solomon and Paul A. Flexner, articulate an understanding of the research behind online and blended learning and its role and function within Jewish education. Solomon and Flexner conclude that the effectiveness of online and blended learning depends on the personnel utilizing the technology and framing the learning. They question whether enough educators have been appropriately trained to understand the benefits and value of blended and online learning.

Solomon and Flexner suggest that:
rigorous research be conducted in real and virtual classrooms and professional development settings to determine if blended learning will enhance Jewish education and teacher training.  Furthermore, we strongly suggest that Jewish educators be trained extensively in the proper use of the Web 2.0 technologies.  It is only when we can test our assumptions in the real world that we will fully understand the power of Web 2.0 technology which has and is becoming such a central component of our lives in the 21st century.

Investing in training teachers to develop and teach online and blended classes could greatly improve the reach and affordability of Jewish education.  Blended learning will enhance student learning and engagement, while improving access and flexibility. However, to cultivate a beneficial blend, Jewish educators must generate a balanced blended that does not engage in purposeless add on, via the mixing and matching of online and traditional learning experiences.  Educators must explicitly consider the student’s learning outcomes by applying the right learning technologies to match the right personal learning style.  Blended learning must still generate a strong relationship between the educator and student, but must transition from focusing on the teacher to the student, from the content to the experience and from the technologies involved to the pedagogy utilized.

Blended learning will enable educational institutions to encounter a diverse student body and differentiate learning for individual student needs. Most importantly, for the future of Jewish education, blended learning will address many of the key obstacles to many who cannot or opt of engaging in Jewish education.  Blended learning offers a unique entry point for families and individuals whose personal commitments require increased flexibility, remote access.  Through a truly blended experienced, focused on the student’s needs, rather than the teacher’s, will offer preferred student autonomy to learn at their own pace, with a designed structure carefully provided facilitation and necessary support materials.

I would love to conduct an experiment in blending learning that would enable multiple day schools to enable their high school students to learn together in a project based learning course. This course would provide an online space for resources, discussion and exhibition, enabling students from different schools to interact, learn from each other and get to know each other. At each home school, a facilitator would be available to guide the learning from student and serve as a face-to-face instructor to support the learner's in their own school. This program could also enable students to learn from and get know other great educators at school that without the blended learning's online platform, they would never have met. In this case, blended learning would offer students a new community of learners, new teachers to be inspired by and the flexibility to create a self-direction and self-determined learning experience, which many of many students think. I wonder how soon high school would be willing to experiment with this model.

With foundations, like Avi Chai, and organizations, like Jewish Education Project and Jesna, leading the way, we can create an environment for teacher and institutional experimentation for online learning. Yet, Jewish education will only harness the true potential of online and blended learning if there is continued support for training and research side-by-side with the new implementation of programs.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Making the Connection-Israel & 21st Century Jewish Ed

The 21st century and Israel Education are having a tough time together.
The awe-struck, Kibbutz-blue, sabra-promoting ideals of Israel education are long gone. Instead of loving Israel first, and questioning Israel second, our students are questioning first, and sometimes not loving at all. In an age when students expect to be empowered and have access to the world and its information, our students are demanding accountability and morality from an Israel that they do not understand. They are challenging Israel’s actions without any grasp of the complexities of Israel’s reality. Axiomatic love of Israel has become passé, replaced with ambivalence about, and even hostility towards Israel that is impossible to ignore or deny.
For many of our students today, and in fact many of our young leaders, there is a profound alienation between their perceptions of Jewish morality and the actions of the Jewish state. While my parents grew up with Israel-as-David, miraculously winning the Six Day War, my children are growing up with Israel-as-Goliath, the perpetual aggressors. Bombarded by images and blitzed by a world media whose agenda is a de facto de-legitimization of Israel, unless we change course, that alienation will grow more pronounced as we head towards 2020.
I’ve been teaching classes on Israel, Zionist history, and Israel advocacy for years. Do I question Israel? Yes. Do I condemn Israel for its decisions that I agree with? Of course. Do I blindly parrot Israeli policymakers and Likudnikim? Never. But I do begin my criticism of Israel from a place of love and support for the Jewish homeland, and that is an attitude that is less pervasive in our communities and schools than it was even fifteen years ago.
This is an alarming trend, and one that must be reversed. But it’s a dual challenge. We need to both reinvigorate our communities and institutions with a palpable and relevant Zionism that speaks to our contemporaries in new and meaningful ways, and at the same time teach our students about how use technology and the global network in positive ways to effect change.
As an educator, it’s naïve not to admit that the traditional gatekeepers of knowledge and information (teachers, librarians, and parents, for example) have been brushed aside in favor of the iPhone, Google Chrome, and Wikipedia. With all information seemingly a smart-phone touch-screen away, students feel less and less need to consult with us first before leaping to their own conclusions.
Luckily, the job descriptions of “parent”, “teacher”, and “librarian” have been evolving as well. While we aren’t the only sources of knowledge anymore, we certainly have to be more than observers as this generation researches and learns online. We need to, in the context of our teaching, embrace our students’ connectivity but make sure we are doing our best to ensure that they are connecting to the people, places, and networks that will foster the kinds of attitudes that we seek to fill them with. We need to find the leaders in our classes who will be profoundly impacted by attending the AIPAC policy conference, or who design websites like this one (and yes, the founder of that website is my current student), or who will write articles in their student newspapers about Israel.
We are as much teachers now as headhunters, plugging in our most talented voices and motivated students into a network that will push them to become leaders in ways so different that we experienced when we were their age.
The scary thing is that despite all of this, my children, your children, and our grandchildren aren’t going to love and support Israel, and question and demand more of Israel in a way which is affirming of Zionism and Israel’s existence, unless we model that passion and commitment as well. So it’s about way more than protecting them from hateful anti-Israel and anti-Zionist material online, or teaching children that oftentimes videos and photos can be doctored to make Israel look bad on purpose, or giving our students the social media tools to go out and be activists in the global network. It’s about starting at the beginning, teaching a love for Israel and a care for Israel that this new generation will use as the foundation of a lifetime spent searching for meaning and connection to the Jewish homeland. And unfortunately, if we don’t begin now, the alienation may in fact be irreversible.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Knowing in the 21st Century


To "know" can mean many things, including:
1.     To grasp with clarity
2.     To regard as true
3.     To have fixed in the mind *
4.     To have experienced of
5.     To Become aware
6.     To possess knowledge*
7.     To have sexual intercourse with (Biblical)

Educationally, knowing has long been a goal for the learning process. However, within the process of schooling, whether for general or Jewish education, what “knowing” was privileged and for what purpose has varied over time.

Andrew S. Molnar, in his article “Computers in Education: A Brief History”, cites Nobel prize winner, Herbert Simon, that developments in science and information process have changed the nature of knowing. While in the past knowing meant having information stored in one’s memory (definition #6 above, and perhaps #3), knowing has evolved to become the process of having access to information and knowing how to use it (close to definitions #1, #4 and #5 above). With the act of knowing changing due the changing nature of how we access and store information in the digital age, we must consider how we educate Jews different to “know” what is necessary to engage as Jews. 

Currently, much of our schooling frameworks, curricula and pedagogies promote the learning of information that can be stored and later utilized, such as the acquisition of information from primary Jewish sources, whether Rabbinic or Biblical, the rituals and holidays engaged in throughout the calendar and lifecycle events and even Jewish narratives.  Perhaps, the question now needs to be how to we construct educational efforts and design schooling that will prepare students with great access to information to use the information properly, to discern what information is appropriate for their chosen path and how to design self-directed engagement with information, so that they will “know” how to use the abundant information recently made open and available, like never before in our history.

In valuing a new form of “knowing” as vital to living and doing Jewish in the 21st century, we redefine our notion of Jewish literacy.  Jackie Marsh, in her article “New Literacies and Old Pedagogies: Recontextualizing Rules and Practices” designed research that determined that the changing nature of what it means to be literate in the outside world dictates that schools must generate new methods, content, learning process and mediums to better reflect these changes. How too must Jewish literacy models reflect the outside world? We must consider new texts, rituals and technology used to engage in Judaism in the 21st century, and not depend on pedagogies and notions of literacy that reflect a Jewish way of life and engagement that has been passed by as we turned the century and entered into a digital reality. Why do we need construct our student Jewish learning around teaching how to utilize tools, content and mediums such as Facebook, blogs and popular culture? Why don’t we teach practices that reflect the breadth of engagement in Jewish world, and ask our students to struggle with the tension for changing rituals and practices? Why not have students explore online articles such as this one on Tattoos by Dvora Meyers on Tablet as a way of engaging in thoughtful textual analysis as a 21st century model for engaging in Jewish practice and behavior?

As Marsh argues, changing literacy models demands a change in pedagogy and the role of the teacher. Patt Herr demonstrates in her expiremental research documents in the “The Changing Role of the Teacher (Industry Trend or Event)” that the primary goals of schooling have been to transmit culture, from the past generations to the current generation, and to prepare youth for the world we live in.  Jewish Education, having been heavily influenced by universalist tendencies inherent in public schools, function to serve these dual purposes. However, more focus has been paid to the transmission of culture than to effectively preparing youth to live Jewishly in the world we live in. The digital world will make it much more complicated and much more necessary to develop students ability to learn how to live as Jews in the digital world.

This demands models of teaching that deviate from the “Sage on the Stage” model of a teacher Jewish education remains much more comfortable with in formal environments.  This model, established as far back as Maimonides, fits comfortably with the model centralized Rabbinic figure of authority. This was not always the case; for even in Talmudic times, teachers served as facilitator of learning in the “guide on the side model”, a model we need to reclaim and enable Jewish education to be at the forefront of changing the teaching paradigm.

A teacher as guide will be better enabled to move our youth beyond being smart, to being wise, for Judaism as far back as Pirkei Avot has valued Chochma (wisdom). Marc Prensky pushes us beyond the bifurcation of digital immigrant and digital natives to recognize those who have digital wisdom as most capable within the digital world. In “H. Sapiens Digital: From Digital Immigrants and Digital Natives to Digital Widsom”, Prensky recognize that in the digital age, widsom means to access the power of digital enhancements and the prudent use of technology to enhance our capabilities. For Prensky, like Simon, sees wisdom as the highmost realization of knowing how to discern the difference between right and wrong in engaging with the tools and information made possible in our digital age. Prensky makes the case that the ultimate knowing we can enable our students with is moral rather than technological.

We need to consider the fourth son from the Passover seder, the one who does not “know” how to ask.  The worst we can do as educators is not prepare our students to “know” how to access the information and knowledge in order to ask the right questions, moral and otherwise.  We need to utilize our Jewish wisdom to teach how to be digitally wise, in discerning right from wrong

In  “Redesigning Jewish Education for the 21st Century: A Lipmann Kanfer Institute Working Paper” by Jonathan Woocher, Renee Rubin Ross & Merideth Woocher, a case was made for a Jewish educational paradigm designed for a changing digital world. The authors designated three design principles: 1)Learner as active agent;
2) Power of relationships and the social experience of learning; 3)Life Centered Jewish Education.

It has been three and half years since this work was first introduced to the Jewish education conversation. How far have we come? These design principles laid the groundwork for better understanding how to cultivate a generation of Jews who will truly know what it means to be and do Jewish. Will they be wise? Will they know how to utilize and discern the Judaism they can now encounter on their own? Have we truly built or transformed the model what it means to cultivate a literate Jew, in terms of content, process and medium?

Monday, May 2, 2011

Shoah Education in the 21st Century

Today marks Yom Hashoah V'hagevurah, which means the Day of the Catastrophe (Holocaust) and Heroism. I am often remiss that in we often omit the second part of the day's title, not to mention translate Shoah as Holocaust, which actually means burning by fire. This date marks the anniversary of the Warsaw uprising, which is why, in 1951, the Israeli Government chose this date to commemorate the catastrophe of the Holocaust by recognizing both the victims and the heroes.

The commemoration of Yom Hashoah in our Jewish schools offers us a unique opportunity to reflect on the ways we educate our youth about the historical significance of the holocaust and the many lessons to be gained through the study and immersion in this critical event in Jewish history and experience. My colleague and friend, Jake Wirtschafter, an excellent Jewish History teacher and DeLeT Alumni leader posted his thoughts here on the 21st Century JewishEd Blog on the state of Holocaust Education in the 21st Century. Last year, Jake Facing History honored with Margot Stern Strom award for his excellence in teaching the field of Holocaust Education.

Like Jake, I am concerned with the future of how we educate young Jews about the Shoah.  While the Shoah Foundation has dutifully dedicated immense resources to capturing the voices of many survivors and archived them for a myriad of uses, this does not fully replicate the unique value afforded by the sharing of first hand accounts of their narratives.  However, as time passes and survivors continue to age, less and less holocaust survivors remain available, either because they have tied or are become unable to communicate. This presents a great challenge to creating the unique personal connection necessary to allow Jewish youth to connect with the narrative of the holocaust as part of their personal narrative and not just as another narrative in Jewish history. Zionist/Israel education has struggled as well with maintaining a connection with Jewish youth in their relationship to the establishment of the state of Israel, but more on that next week in honor of Yom Ha’atzmaut.

As the 21st century progresses, Jewish educators will need to determine the message of holocaust education.  Will we focus on the need to confront genocide in the present global reality? Will we focus on the holocaust as a primary part of the large Zionist narrative? Will the holocaust be used to confront anti-Semitism and promote Jewish survivalism? Will we focus our holocaust lesson on teaching tolerance of the other?

Currently, thousands of high school seniors from across the world, including over a hundred from my own school, find themselves in Poland as part of the March of the Living. The BJE-LA organizes the Los Angeles contingent’s program. This week, Jewish Journal editor-in-chief, Rob Eshman, provided an editorial as a letter to his son, one of my school’s seniors participating in the MOTL, which brings up several critiques of this program as a tool for experiential Holocaust education. Despite his concerns, Rob, being the great parent he is, chose to allow his son to make his own decision in experiencing this journey.

The March of Living experience provides a unique first hand encounter with major sites from the Holocaust’s narrative, within a larger narrative of renewal found in the departure from Poland and arrival in Israel in time for the commemoration of Yom Hazikaron (Israel’s Memorial Day) and the celebrations Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israel’s Independence Day). One of the central components of the MOTL experience is the involvement of survivors who participate in the experience with the students.  Critiques of this process have come from many directions, including survivors (see Jake’s post), religion Zionists and Israeli filmmakers, such as Yoav Shamir, whose film Defamation severely critiques the use of the March of the Living’s imprint on Israeli youth.

If experiential programs that bring students directly to the site will not satisfy critics, and will be limited by the lack of access to survivors, what other programs will be able to fill the gap.  Facing History, an in depth curricular program, has invested great resources into training and developing teachers within Jewish and General educational settings to nurture democracy and fight bigotry in ethics education utilizing historical frameworks, including the history of the Holocaust, to foster a more ethical and knowledgeable populace for the 21st century.

Centropa seeks to bring to life the narratives of Jewish life in Central Europe before and after WWII through the use of archival materials.  After investing in bringing Jewish educators to Central Europe to learn together about the Jewish past and present and the central European Jewish communities, Centropa has created numerous curriculums and a central web space called Centropa Student to facilitate the use of their materials within a school setting to foster a direct connection to Jewish life in Central Europe. From my own school, three faculty members have participated, including two non-Jewish history teachers.  One of whom, Nick Holton, who blogs about his work at, has created an impressive project for his 10th grade world history course that utilizes the 21st Century tool of digital storytelling to foster an academic and emotional connection between students and their historical subjects.

Nick describes the project:
Students will engage in a digital storytelling project on the Holocaust. Through these projects, students will need to grapple with some of the greater questions surrounding the Holocaust, their own feelings and emotions and the basic historical content. As they do so they will be writing about these issues in one of two ways. The first is through an “alter-ego” that will experience the Holocaust in its many parts. This “alter-ego” can be fictional or non-fictional. The choice is the students. The second option is a more literal and personal approach through a digital diary. This format allows the student to recap each day of class, the questions posed, the lesson learned and the emotional results it fostered. When finished with the writing, students will then turn their stories or journals into seven to ten minute films or digital stories completely constructed and narrated by them. These films will then be uploaded to your student portfolio network on for viewing by other students, faculty and, of course, parents. This project will complete the courses necessary requirements of Holocaust content, technology integration and 21st century media literacy.

Here is a sample of the project from Nick’s former students (and my current student) Rachel Bornstein:

Another model of bringing holocaust narratives to life through student voices comes from Jennifer Rudick Zunikoff, a master Jewish educator and storyteller, who works with students at Goucher College in a course titled “Oral History of the Holocaust”. Jennifer teaches her students the craft of taking oral histories from survivors and then retelling their stories through the art of storytelling. While Jennifer will have to consider how to college the oral histories one survivors are unavailable, the mastery comes from the students abilities to translate the information they collect and construct a living testament to the person, life and experience of the survivor’s story they are telling.

In the 21st century, the future of holocaust and Shoah education will need to transform into a multi-faceted endeavor that integrates experiential, curricula and self-directed learning efforts. Above all, we need to create ways for students to interact with historical artifacts and through the process of bringing them to life once again because personally transformed. Only through a process of personal transformation when interacting with the Shoah will Never Again be truly possible in the 21st century through Holocaust education. This requires renewed investment not just in the collecting of artifacts in museums, but in training educators in order to allow them to creatively consider the great task of the future of educating Jewish youth about and through the Shoah.

21st Century Holocaust Education

I write this contribution a day after the demise of Osama Bin Laden, who as mastermind of the 9/11 attacks , served as the other "touchstone" in my students' twin history reference points.  The Al-Qaeda leader exists as a polar compliment to Hitler in the minds of many young North American Jews . 

The 21st century Jewish Day School history educator must concurrently work with and challenge an understanding of a world in which Nazis and militant Islamists function as THE nearly exclusive framework for assessing threats to our survival and for formulating ideas about power and policy.  This dilemma was underscored on Yom Ha Shoah eve as Edward Rothstien of the New York Times launched a scathing critique of Holocaust Education in North America.

While reviewing the educational exhibits at LA’s Museum of Tolerance, Rothstein articulated a generalized assessment that “in most institutions and curricula, the Holocaust’s lessons are clear: We should all get along, become politically active and be very considerate of our neighbors. If not, well, the differences between hate crimes and the Holocaust — between bullying and Buchenwald — are just a matter of degree.”

By making a case for teaching about the Shoah, specifically by pre-identifying the "key lessons" of the Shoah, educators have “broken down almost all inhibitions in using the Holocaust as an analogy," claims Rothstein. He indicates that this process undermines an acknowledgment and understanding of the specific vehemence, industrial thoroughness, and transformative legacy of a nearly judenfrei Europe  which is swallowed up in the discourse of comparative Genocide Studies and prejudice reduction.  I agree with Rothstein about the pedagogic pitfalls of historical analogizing just as I wrestle with his plea to separate educating for diversity from engaging with the history of the Holocaust.

The enormity of the Shoah - with all its practical and psychological demands on Jewish educators - presents multiple challenges. Parents and school leaders expect this “subject” to be “taught” even though it is unclear what course, grade-level, or context the Shoah “belongs to” in the day school curriculum.

Judaic Studies faculties tend to believe the precious time they have with students should be utilized to explore the contours of Jewish life - it’s diversity of texts, ideas and practices. Understandably the assault by the German Nazis and their European collaborators is a topic they’d prefer leaving to others. Yet Jewish Studies teachers are essential resources for schools to design pedagogical and theological environments to support students in understanding the Nazi War against the Jews, as Jews.

History teachers work in a context of state and national social studies standards articulated by grade level. So how can you really teach about the Holocaust in a middle school history curriculum where 6th grade is Ancient Cultures, 7th grade is the medieval world, and 8th grade is devoted to the national narrative of the United States? 

Perhaps , argue some social studies teachers, this “topic” should be delayed until High School where it can be dealt with in the chronological context of the second part of a two year Western Civilization Course. The counter-argument to chronology as the preferred setting for Shoah Studies is that the Holocaust’s place in the cycle of the Jewish calendar of memory and as frequently used stage for the narratives of contemporary literature and globalized popular culture. Students rightfully expect history teachers to help them process the everyday discourse of their environment which includes the Holocaust as a critical and ongoing reference point.
I’m thankful that my own introductory training in Shoah pedagogy was conducted by the professionals from Facing History and Ourselves and their Jewish Education Program. Jan Darsa and her colleagues have facilitated the creation of interdisciplinary teacher teams working to address the needs of specific Jewish schools.

 Our work with Facing History stressed the exploration of student’s identity through an examination of diverse expressions of Jewish life in Europe and making connections to their own. In the context of my school, this meant reaching out to survivors in the Los Angeles area, obtaining outlines of their biographies and tasking groups of students to research distinct Jewish communities in different parts of Europe. This research not only prepared students for an eventual encounter with an individual survivor, but stimulated family conversations about the lives of grandparents who came of age in the 1930s and 1940s.

The group work in Judaic Studies was complemented in my History classes where I drew upon the resources of the testimony- based Echoes and Reflections curriculum. These lessons prepared by a consortium of educators from Yad V Shem, The United States Holocaust Memorial and Museum, and the USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education are particularly helpful in introducing the political and social vocabulary needed to tackle the events of the Shoah in a thematic yet chronological manner.
All the Echoes lessons include thoughtful questions for student journal entries reflecting not only on the events and people encountered in documents and testimony, but on philosophical questions such as how to maintain hope in difficult situations and navigating life without a parent. Perhaps Edward Rothstien might find this personal journaling another example of extraneous analogizing, but as a classroom teacher I found this work to be crucial in helping students absorb the facts and images presented to them.

Many day school students in Los Angeles participate in a March of the Living trip sponsored by our local Bureau of Jewish Education. I have not been on the March, but have nevertheless entertained questions about the educational ramifications of taking students on a quick tour of the death camp sites in Poland followed by a joyous journey to Israel. 

One of the survivors we interviewed is Severyn Ashkenazy who launched a perceptive critique of the March during his interview at our school.  Ashkenazy, who is involved in projects of Jewish revival in contemporary Poland strongly feels that the "March" as currently structured (e.g. marching through the Polish countryside with Israeli flags, escorted by armed Israeli guards) causes rupture on the ground in Eastern Europe and ignores the recreation and re-imagination of a vibrant Jewish community in Warsaw and Krakow.

To Ashkenazy this experience precludes an opportunity to explore the Jewish present and to have a dialogue with Europeans who live daily in a nation challenged by legacy of the Shoah. I agree with Ashkenazy that to prepare our students for a complex global reality, this pilgramage to the death camps needs to be re-thought. Perhaps there is a possibility to connect American Jewish students with counterparts in Poland through texting and video-conferencing exploring the Shoah and its ramifications on their sense of self and community identity?

While I consider the Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School Survivor Interview Project to have been a success, I am painfully aware that the opportunity for these types of first-hand encounters is rapidly shrinking. So how do we move forward with student-centered, inquiry based, experiential and collaborative learning about the Holocaust in the 21st Century?

One promising new resource is the USC Shoah Institute’s IWitness, website that will make this collection of video testimonies from archive available on the Internet. I particularly like the questions framed by the educators behind this initiative such as “if you could have 1,000 survivors in the room with you, what would you want to know?”

With the survivor community diminishing daily, I’d like us to more interactively work with their testimony and  contemplate their thoughts about the world after Hitler’s demise. To my mind what these people did with their lives postwar can reveal considerable wisdom that, in turn,  can foster principaled choices in our own.