A central goal of the Jewish day school movement is to instill students with a strong Jewish identity. Students need to be able to answer the questions of “Who am I” and “Where do I come from.” The study of Jewish history helps students shape their understanding of the Jewish people and their role within it. Most Jewish history classes focus primarily on ancient Jewish history, the Holocaust and Israel. American Jewish history often does not make the cut even though the topic is most relevant to students’ lives.
At the Museum at Eldridge Street, I take thousands of students through the Landmark 1887 Eldridge Street Synagogue, the first great house of worship built by Eastern European Jews in America. As they explore the magnificently restored sanctuary, they step into history and grapple with the challenges faced by what was once the largest Jewish community in the world.
Out of all the student groups that come from both public and private schools, only a small percentage visit from Jewish day schools. As the Director of Education, this continues to surprise me. As a PresenTense fellow, I have been working to solve this mystery.
Four fifths of American Jews descend from the 19th century immigrant experience, yet how many Jewish day school students learn about this period? When I teach about this historical era, I am struck by the similarities between the Jewish immigrants 100 years ago and contemporary Jewish life. Just as Jewish immigrants debated which synagogue to attend, who to elect as community leaders and what role gender plays in ritual life 100 years ago, Jewish day school students are similarly confronted with these issues. Exploring these issues gives students insight into the development of American Judaism and new perspectives on their role as members of the Jewish community.
With over 5,000 years of Jewish history, figuring out which periods to study in the classroom can be daunting. What place do you think the 19th century Jewish immigrant experience should have within the day school curriculum? Is it extraneous or relevant?