Ideas from the Field
Educators around the country are using JWA educational resources in creative and exciting ways. Here, we feature best practices from the JWA educational community, so that we can all build on the experiences and experiments of our colleagues. We encourage you to adapt these examples to fit your community's needs:
- Great Jewish Books Teacher Resources
- Jewish News Network (JNN) Special Report: Famous Jewish American Educators
- Balancing Freedom's Gifts
- A Visit from Rebecca Gratz
- Teaching Jewish Women to Girls and Boys
Our collection of Best Practices is always growing. Please tell us about your innovative use of JWA educational resources. Send your programming ideas to JWA Education for inclusion in this section, or post comments, below.
Examples from the Classroom
Great Jewish Books Teacher Resources
from Josh Lambert
Academic Director, Yiddish Books Center
Our team at the Yiddish Book Center has created a website with lots of excellent resources for teaching modern Jewish literature and culture at the secondary school level and above, and some of it links to and complements materials that JWA has produced. The site is Great Jewish Books Teacher Resources. It’s relatively new, and rapidly growing. The resource kits on the site are all created by teachers and/or scholars of Jewish literature and culture, and many of the kits focus on women writers and cultural creators, including Emma Lazarus, Grace Paley, Vanessa Hidary, and Gluckel of Hameln.
Jewish News Network (JNN) Special Report: Famous Jewish American Educators
from Tess Goldblatt
Education Director, Rodef Sholom Temple
Our congregation used material from JWA's curriculum to mark the retirement of our religious school principal and honor her 23 years of service. I wrote a script called "Jewish News Network (JNN) Special Report: Famous Jewish American Educators," in which the JNN Time Travel Reporter interviewed historical figures Rebecca Samuel, Rebecca Gratz, Hyman Gratz, and Rosa Mordecai. Primary sources—such as letters and speeches—from JWA's curriculum formed the basis for a majority of the lines of these lively costumed characters.
Here's an excerpt from the play:
...Anchorwoman: I have so many more questions, but now I have to Time Travel to the year 1838! Thank you! Boys! Time Travel music! Hit it! (Boys play several bars while Rebecca Gratz and team get set).
This is a Jewish News Network Time Travel Special Report, reporting to you live from Philadelphia in 1838, where it is the opening day of the first Hebrew Sunday School in America. [Especially to audience] Considering that you're sitting in Sunday School this morning 168 years later, I guess you can figure out this was one very successful idea!
With me now is Miss Rebecca Gratz, the founder and first principal of the first Hebrew Sunday School in America! Tell me, what made your Sunday School so unique?
Lauryl Dougherty/Rebecca Gratz: As you saw from Rebecca Samuel's letter to her parents, early American Jewish communities were not always large enough to have religious schools. Parents, just like Rebecca Samuel, usually educated their boys at home. Sometimes they chose to teach the girls alongside their brothers. But as the years passed, public schools began to open in America, so boys and girls began getting their educations outside the home. The majority of America was Christian, so naturally, those schools were influenced by Christian values.
[Taking more of a speech-like pose, becoming more dramatic...] We are Israelites in a Christian community. Our children play and compete with their fellow citizens in all branches of the arts and sciences. To claim the respect of others, it is essential that our youth be given knowledge of their own religion and be steadfastly observant of the requirements of their faith. The Jews, whom God entrusted His Holy Law, ought to be among the purest and wisest and most faithful followers to their religious duties. It is incumbent on the Jews to "teach their children diligently." [To the audience] I hope you ALL know that famous phrase from the Shema in Deuteronomy 6 verse 7, right?!?
The skit was a big hit. Post-confirmation students played such lively music that many of the participants danced in the aisles. When we time traveled to the future, students added leaves to a "Tree of Life" on which they wrote their desires for the future of their Sunday School program.
Balancing Freedom's Gifts
from Ronna Weinstock
Pritzker Center for Jewish Education
JCC of Chicago
We used Making Our Wilderness Bloom to create the Friday night program for the Women's Get-Away Week-End. The theme of the weekend was "Balancing Freedom's Gifts," in preparation for Passover. We combined aspects of the Seder format with stories of exceptional Jewish women who used their gifts of freedom to improve the lives of others and insure Jewish survival.
We began by telling the story of Miriam in word and in song, and then honored Miriam's spiritual heirs: her Jewish American daughters who for the last 350 years helped create vibrant Jewish communities across America. We incorporated music led by a professional musician who accompanied herself on the guitar and monologues of historic American Jewish women who are role models for us today (these monologues were "performed" by professional actresses in costume).
About 50 women participated in the program and they greatly enjoyed themselves. The Friday night program was a great introduction to the theme of "Balancing Freedom's Gifts," and to other weekend activities, such as a workshop on using and creating a Miriam's Cup for the Passover Seder as well as a biblical text study of Miriam.
A Visit from Rebecca Gratz
from Morah Anne Johnston
Religious School Director
Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation
Evanston, IL 60202
Having been inspired by your curriculum presentation at the Principals' Council in Chicago, I brought Rebecca Gratz to visit our religious school. I dressed up in an costume of a 19th century proper lady.
On Friday night, Miss Rebecca attended and participated in the B'nai Limud/Consecration service at JRC. She read the children a story and commented on how amazing it was to see such beautiful color pictures in books—and how wonderful it was to see Mrs. Noah having a name and a story about her (the book was about Na'amah, mother of seeds). She also remarked on how lax cantors have gotten in their Shabbat wardrobe (and how she'd never see a purple tallis)! The children introduced her to the miracle of lightbulbs (when a younger sibling turned off some of the lights) and microphones. She addressed the parents in Morah Anne's place, and presented the children with their little Torahs.
On Sunday, she visited some of the Religious School classes. In Kitah Gimmel/3rd, she went in to teach a lesson on lashon hora and talked about the names that children in her school used to call each other, and how they'd brag about having a nicer carriage (this was in response to an issue of name-calling the previous week). In Kitah Bet/2nd, she talked about why she started her school, about raising her sister's children, and about how wonderful it was that America was a country where people were free to worship as they chose. In Kitah Dalet/4th, she talked about the various projects she had had the insight to start (the orpan's home, sewing society, and school). She talked about how the important Jewish men in Jewish Philadelphia thought that women should be home sewing—and how some people called her a prophet (this is in the class that spends the year on prophets, and in which the rabbi, in his visit that morning, had talked about another contemporary story of divine insight).
Miss Rebecca, being the proper woman she is, will be following up her B'nai Limud visit with an email to kindergarten families with her picture and a little story of her life. In the older classes, teachers sent an addendum with their weekly emails that provided additional web resources for families to explore.
Thanks for the inspiration!
Teaching Jewish Women to Girls and Boys
from Mel Berwin
Prozdor High School, Newton, MA
As co-author of Making Our Wilderness Bloom, I put many of my best ideas into the writing of the curriculum. But I am also a teacher at Boston's Prozdor High School, a very large and very successful supplementary program (there are 900+ students enrolled, with a waiting-list almost as long), and I had the great fun of test-driving MOWB with two classes at Prozdor this fall.
As I've presented the curriculum to various communities of educators, one of the questions that sometimes arises is: How do we "sell" a class about Jewish women to a mixed group of boys and girls? So this fall, I tested two ways of selling the class. In the coursebook, I offered MOWB to both middle school (7th–8th grade) and high school students (9th–11th). But in the course description for the middle school, I specified that the class would focus on "extraordinary Jewish women," and in the description for high school, I said "extraordinary Jewish role models." Here are the descriptions I used:
Middle School: Making Our Wilderness Bloom: 350 Years of Extraordinary Jewish Women in America
Name a Jewish woman who won the Nobel Prize in science. Who was the first Jewish woman in America to preach from a pulpit? Become a rabbi? How many Jewish women can you name who were activists in the struggles for suffrage, civil rights, or unionization in this country? In this class, you'll encounter extraordinary Jewish women who were pioneers in Jewish life, human rights movements, Zionism, science and health. A creative curriculum lets you decide on which topics and women you want to focus!
High School: Jewish Values in Action
Pikuach nefesh, tikkun olam, ahavat Yisrael—you've learned about them before. But in this class, you'll encounter extraordinary Jewish role models whose belief in these values transformed into action. You'll encounter American pioneers in science, health, civil rights, women's rights, Zionism, the labor movement—all of them Jews who put their values into action. A creative curriculum lets you decide on which topics you want to focus!
What resulted? I had a small enrollment of 8 girls in my middle school class, and an overflowing group of 35 students (half boys, half girls) in my high school class, with another 10 students on the waiting list.
The eight girls were lovely. They seemed to enjoy the all-girls environment and clearly appreciated learning about Jewish women they'd never before heard of. They split into three groups for their research projects, focusing on Gertrude Elion, Lillian Wald, and Rebecca Gratz.
The high school class was an active bunch, and as we completed Unit One, I realized I hadn't yet "broken it" to the group that the research projects were all about women. So, on the day I was to introduce the research projects, I reminded the students that this course was about putting Jewish values into action, and we were going to be studying some extraordinary role models who made important contributions to American and Jewish society. First I wanted them to brainstorm some of the role models they'd already heard of. This is how the conversation went:
Mel: I want you just to call out the names of Jewish role models you've already learned about, or even heard of. Who are the biblical figures that come to mind?
Students: Abraham, Moses, Jacob
Mel: Great. What about Talmudic figures, people from the Rabbinic period?
Students: Rabbi Akiva. Hillel and Shammai. Rashi?
Mel: He was a bit later, a medieval Rabbi, but he's also very important. Let's move on to more recent history. Who are Jews who have made important contributions to Jewish education?
Mel: Who are the Jewish schools named after?
Students: Maimonides. Schechter. Brandeis. Heschel.
Mel: Excellent. Ok, what about Jews in science?
Students: Albert Einstein.
Mel: How about in politics?
Students: Joseph Lieberman.
Mel: Fine. What about rabbis who you know who are recognized for their work?
Students: Rabbi Kushner, Rabbi ???
Mel: Ok. So look at all of these names and tell me: what do you notice about them?
One student: Well, they're all men.
Mel: Right. And they're all excellent people to know about, and certainly good Jewish role models. The role models you're going to learn about in this class are women. You know about Albert Einstein and here you'll learn about Gertrude Elion. You know about Solomon Schechter, and I want you also to know about Rebecca Gratz. Senator Joseph Lieberman rolled right off your tongue, and you should also know about Congresswoman Bella Abzug, and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Not a student—male or female—flinched at this, or at the rest of my explanation of the research projects. It was interesting to me—that introduction was also an experiment, because the students could, of course, have mentioned women's names for any of the questions I gave. Certainly they've studied the Matriarchs as well as the Patriarchs, have female rabbis as well as male rabbis in their shuls, and have at least heard the names of prominent female Jewish politicians. But not one was mentioned. I think they, too, realized this.
The students formed into small research groups by common interest in a topic, and of the eight small groups in this class, only one was all-girls and two were all-boys, the rest were mixed. Overall, the girls' interests spanned the range of topics in the curriculum, while the boys were more attracted to some of the less explicitly-gendered topics, such as civil rights, Zionism, and medicine. All in all, the boys in the class were just as motivated and engaged in their research and presentations as were the girls.
Every educational context is different. But when educators have asked us, "Are we really going to get boys to sign up for a class about Jewish women?" we've generally answered, "It depends upon how you frame it." I think my experience shows that how we frame this course does help determine who elects to take it, and that while the guys might not be initially attracted to a class about Jewish women, once they're in the door, if we again frame it in a way that makes sense to them, they have as much interest in learning as anyone else.
More "Best Practices"
How to cite this page
Jewish Women's Archive. "Ideas from the Field." (Viewed on February 3, 2023) <https://jwa.org/teach/bestpractices>.