Treacherous Torah Teachings

Photo of Phoebe Chapnick-Sorokin and friend Meirav Flatté on a confirmation trip to D.C.

My first encounter with religion in school was in fifth grade when we briefly learned about different religious traditions. The textbook referred to Jews as “Hebrews.” My Jewish friend and I, two of the three Jews in our grade, found this offensive because we had always been taught in religious school that “Hebrews” was a derogatory term. As nervous ten-year-olds, we went home and talked to our parents—her mom a rabbi and my dad a Jewish professional—and asked them about this term. They talked to our teacher, who was very understanding and apologetic; my dad ended up giving the class a lesson on Judaism.

As my friend and I have grown older, our experiences have not differed much from this one, except it has gradually become us, instead of our parents, confronting our teachers.

My sophomore year of high school in AP World History, the same friend and I had a similar experience. In a lesson about religions from around the world, our teacher said a name for God that, in Judaism, one isn’t supposed to say out loud. When we went to talk to him, he claimed that he had been teaching it this way for years and that this is what the curriculum told him to do. We asked to see the curriculum because we were curious why the teachers were being told to present incorrect information. It turned out that the curriculum didn’t even say the specific things to cover, so the teacher was finding his own content off of the internet and from his previous knowledge. By the time we had finished investigating where he got his information, the unit was long over, so the class never ended up learning the truth.

In response to this situation, I wrote an opinion article for the school newspaper. The intent of my article was to emphasize the need for accurate curricula and textbooks, and I was careful to include that the teachers were always very understanding when we confronted them with issues. But still, I received backlash and criticism for calling them out in the newspaper. My article ended up being removed from the website due to hurting teachers’ feelings.

Two years later, this problem still hasn’t been solved.

As a proud member of a religious minority, I see it as my job to educate others about my religion. But, in classes, this should not be my job. Teachers should receive training when preparing to educate students on sensitive topics, such as religion, so that they are providing the students with the most accurate information possible. In my community at least, this would be a very simple task. Although it’s a small community, it has multiple religious leaders who are well-known within the area and are willing to educate others. On a broader scale, teachers have to take a course to get certified to teach AP classes—these courses should include proper education on the subjects that students will be relying on their instructors to teach them.

At the end of the day, this is an issue that needs to be addressed at a higher level than my teachers, or even my school district. But the teachers and school district have the ability to take initiative, and should be doing so, to ensure that they’re teaching sensitive topics correctly and carefully. In a community with very few Jews, it’s hard to stand up in my school and tell people I’m Jewish. It’s even harder to stand up and correct a teacher on something that further calls out my minority status. Teachers should be providing students with the safest learning environments possible, and that includes teaching sensitive information correctly.

This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.

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How to cite this page

Chapnick-Sorokin, Phoebe. "Treacherous Torah Teachings." 12 July 2019. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on October 7, 2022) <>.

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