Beyond Imagination: Jewish Education Off-Book
By ISJL Education Fellow Josh Altshuler
Another humdrum religious school calendar is nearing its end. Each year, we observe the same routine, encouraging children and teenagers to invest interest in the Torah and mitzvot (commandments). Perhaps, by the end of the year, some students will be on the verge of advancing their Jewish identity; but soon summer commences, diminishing any progress teachers made throughout the year. It is time to get radical! Forget about those challah covers and colorful workbooks and offer students a more direct link to their heritage. Here are two words to wrap your t’filin (phylacteries) around: experiential education! This “new age” approach allows participants to grasp the true weight of faith and culture through some sensory-based exercises. Interested? Read on for some more concrete examples.
Is it difficult to unpack surreal moments in the Torah, like Jacob wrestling an angel and Moses striking a rock, using solely the original text. Sure, scholars and rabbis consult commentaries and mid’rash (interpretation) to gain insight about the biblical characters and their outlook, but sometimes this analysis is not enough. Children and young text studiers, especially, deserve an illustrative, active lens into the Torah.
The akeidah or binding of Isaac story is an ideal foundation for transitioning to a Jewish experiential method. On a warm day, invite classes outside for a “demonstration.” Tell one student that they must ascend a hill (or the top of a playground) with their closest friend to exhibit their respect for the religious school. Then, order the chosen individual to duct-tape their partner’s body and await further instructions. Just as the student begins to tape their “sacrificed” friend’s mouth closed, teachers will call the group back together to reflect. This mock-akeidah provides a first-hand impression of Abraham and Isaac’s pivotal encounter and elevates students’ lives, inspiring an intimate relationship with Torah.
We all know the story of the prophet Jonah fleeing from God. Need a refresher course? Prompted by God, Jonah must travel to Nineveh and call on the people to abstain from lawless and sinful behaviors. Instead, Jonah decides to hide from his duties by way of a departing ship. The prophet encounters a storm while aboard, is tossed overboard and, ultimately, finds himself in a whale’s belly before deciding that he probably should heed God’s instructions.
This story may already seem vivid enough for most audiences; however, some students may still fail to understand Jonah’s attitude. To help these pupils fully comprehend the prophetic circumstances, take a field trip to the nearest ocean and make students take turns spending an hour or longer in a marine creature’s stomach. We hope this hands-on lesson will ensure that Jonah’s path of repentance is not lost on our students as they approach the High Holidays.
The ISJL Second, Fifth, and Seventh Grade curricula all include the key concept of Jewish lifecycles. Classrooms explore the customs and history behind the b’rit milah (circumcision), b’rit bat (female baby naming), b’nei mitz’vah (children of the commandment ceremony), and, of course, the wedding. While we encourage teachers to emphasize the rituals involved in a traditional Jewish wedding such as the signing of the k’tubah (writing/wedding contract), students lack the maturity to appreciate the gravity of two partners standing together under the chupah (wedding canopy) and committing to a life together.
Given this inexperience, the ISJL suggests that educators pair off students and ask a rabbi to oversee an official marriage ceremony for each couple. Then, watch as the recently-betrothed grapple with the first few weeks of their (compulsory) relationship. Couples will experience the thrills of planning a home together as well as the sacrifices and compromises of devoting valuable time to one another. It does not matter that most of our students are minors! Moreover, the ISJL recommends that these coerced couples take the sentiment “be fruitful and multiply” seriously. After all, there is no time like fifth grade to start thinking about family planning and the trials and tribulations of Jewish adulthood!
At first glance, these lesson innovations may seem drastic and avant-garde. But to keep students and educators on their toes, we need to break out of our comfort zones! Adding sensory and performative levels to Jewish teaching makes curriculum jump off the page and mold memorable experiences.