Ariel Horn Levenson

Ariel is a humanities teacher at a Modern Orthodox middle school. Her lesson plan introduces students to Jewish voices from Colonial America through a teacher role play and encourages students to hone critical analysis skills.

Jewish Life in Colonial and Post-Colonial America

Through primary source analysis, students examine the experience of being a Jew in colonial and post-colonial American history.


Enduring Understandings

  • By engaging with primary sources, we can gain insight into what life was like for people in the past, and into how they thought about the world around them.
  • It is important for us to record our own experiences so that people in the future can learn about us, just as we learn about people in the past.

Essential Questions

  • Why is it important to study primary sources?
  • Why is it important for us to record the events of our own lives?


Materials Required

  • Teacher costumes/props for teacher-in-role (optional)
  • Some kind of container to function as a time capsule for the student’s letters


Notes to Teacher

For the first part of the lesson, I use the teaching strategy of “teacher in role” to acquaint the students with the primary sources presented during this class period. I post short bios of the authors of the primary sources behind me on the SmartBoard, and present excerpts from these colonial figures. I present AS these people in role, in costume, reading these figures' own words as if they were my own. Students read along and familiarize themselves with the texts before they jump into textual analysis

Lesson plan


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  • Instructor should post short bios of the authors of the primary sources provided behind them on the SmartBoard, and present excerpts from these colonial figures.
    • Instructor may present themselves as these people in role, in costume, reading these figures' own words as if they were their own. Students should read along.

Document Study

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  • Students are divided into four groups.
    • Each of the four groups receives one of the four sources the instructor previously read in class.
    • Each group works together to complete the “Primary Source Investigator Report”
    • Each student prepares to become "the teacher" in order to teach their classmates in other groups about their assigned document.
  • Students are rearranged into new groups, with one member from each document "team" representing his or her group in their second group, which has one representative from Document 1, Document 2, Document 3, and Document 4, respectively.
    • Within their new groups, students discuss the document they read, teaching one another what they learned using the questions from the “Primary Source Investigator Report”


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  • Students should write a letter to the person whose document they read. The letter should include:
    • One paragraph that is a response to what they read in the document they were assigned; and
    • One paragraph describing life as a Jew now. Students must address their own experiences living in their communities.
  • Instructor will collect the letters the following day and place them in a time capsule, which can be buried somewhere on school property
Document studies

Letter Written by Rebecca Samuel

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Letter from Rebecca Samuel, c. 1790s

Dear Parents:

I hope my letter will ease your mind. You can now be reassured and send me one of the family to Charleston, South Carolina. This is the place to which, with God’s help, we will go after Passover. The whole reason why we are leaving this place is because of [its lack] of Yehudishkeit [Jewishness].

Dear parents, I know quite well you will not want me to bring up my children like Gentiles. Here they cannot become anything else. Jewishness is pushed aside here. There are here [in Petersburg, Virginia] ten or twelve Jews, and they are not worthy of being called Jews. We have a shohet [slaughterer of animals and poultry] here who goes to market and buys terefah [nonkosher] meat and then brings it home. On Rosh Ha-Shanah and on Yom Kippur the people worshipped here without one Sefer Torah, and not one of them wore the tallit or the arba kanfot, except Hyman and my Sammy’s godfather. The latter is an old man of sixty, a man from Holland. He has been in America for thirty years already; for twenty years he was in Charleston, and he has been living here for four years. He does not want to remain here any longer and will go with us to Charleston. In that place there is a blessed community of three hundred Jews.

You can believe me that I crave to see a synagogue to which I can go. The way we live now is no life at all. We do not know what the Sabbath and the holidays are. On the Sabbath all the Jewish shops are open, and they do business on that day as they do throughout the whole week. But ours we do not allow to open. With us there is still some Sabbath. You must believe me that in our house we all live as Jews as much as we can.

As for the Gentiles, we have nothing to complain about. For the sake of a livelihood we do not have to leave here. Nor do we have to leave because of debts. I believe ever since Hyman has grown up that he has not had it so good. You cannot know what a wonderful country this is for the common man. One can live here peacefully. Hyman made a clock that goes very accurately, just like the one in the Buchenstrasse in Hamburg. Now you can imagine what honors Hyman has been getting here. In all Virginia there is no clock [like this one], and Virginia is the greatest province in the whole of America, and America is the largest section of the world. Now you know what sort of a country this is. It is not too long since Virginia was discovered. It is a young country. And it is amazing to see the business they do in this little Petersburg. At times as many as a thousand hogsheads of tobacco arrive at one time, and each hogshead contains 1,000 and sometimes 1,200 pounds of tobacco. The tobacco is shipped from here to the whole world.

When Judah [my brother] comes here, he can become a watchmaker and goldsmith, if he so desires. Here it is not like Germany where a watchmaker is not permitted to sell silverware. They do not know otherwise here. They expect a watchmaker to be a silversmith here. Hyman has more to do in making silverware than with watchmaking. He has a journeyman, a silversmith, a very good artisan, and he, Hyman, takes care of the watches. This work is well paid here, but in Charleston, it pays even better.

All the people who hear that we are leaving give us their blessings. They say that it is sinful that such blessed children should be brought up here in Petersburg. My children cannot learn anything here, nothing Jewish, nothing of general culture. My Schoene [my daughter], God bless her, is already three years old; I think it is time that she should learn something, and she has a good head to learn. I have taught her the bedtime prayers and grace after meals in just two lessons. I believe that no one among the Jews here can do as well as she. And my Sammy [born in 1790], God bless him, is already beginning to talk.

I could write more. However, I do not have any more paper.

I remain, your devoted daughter and servant,

Rebecca, the wife of Hayyim, the son of Samuel the Levite

Letter written by Rebecca Samuel in Yiddish in the 1790s (exact date unknown); sent from Petersburg, Virginia to Hamburg, Germany.

Ray Frank's Yom Kippur Sermon

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A Lay Sermon by a Young Lady

Transcript of “A Lay Sermon by a Young Lady” by Ray Frank

Ladies and Gentleman, and—considering this is Yom Kippur eve, I know you will permit me to say—friends, brothers and sisters; for surely to-night is one of the most solemn and sacred periods in the lives of Israelites, for to-night, at least, we must be brother and sister in letter and spirit. My position this evening is a novel one. From time immemorial the Jewish woman has remained in the background of history, quite content to let the fathers and brothers be the principals in a picture wherein she shone only by a reflected light. And it is well that it has been so; for while she has let the stronger ones do battle for her throughout centuries of darkness and opposition, she has gathered strength and courage to come forward in an age of progressive enlightenment and do battle for herself if necessary, or prove by being a noble helpmeet how truly she appreciates the love which shielded her past.

I can scarcely tell you how much I feel the honor you have this evening conferred upon me in asking me to address you. For a woman to be at any time asked to give counsel to my people would be a mark of esteem; but on this night of nights, on Yom Kippur eve, to be requested to talk to you, to advise you, to think that perhaps I am to-night the one Jewish woman in the world, mayhap the first since the time of the prophets to be called on to speak to such an audience as I now see before me, is indeed a great honor, an event in my life which I can never forget…

I have been requested to speak to you concerning the formation of a permanent congregation. On Rosh Hashana I was surprised to find such a large number of you assembled here for worship, and at that time the idea of a permanent congregation first occurred to me. Mentioning the matter to some of the prominent Jewish gentlemen of Spokane, I was informed that the number of Hebrews and their financial standing was sufficient to warrant an established congregation. “Then,” said I, “how is it you are content to go on this way having neither schule nor a Sabbath School? Do you think you are doing right towards yourselves, towards your children who are growing up without a creed of any kind, a most dangerous thing for society and a most ungrateful way of paying tribute to God.” I was answered that such a difference of opinion existed among you, so many were prejudiced against reform, the remainder stubborn for orthodoxy, that it would be a hopeless task to organize a permanent congregation. Think of it, ye Israelites, the “chosen of the earth,” so divided as to how you will worship Jehovah that ye forget to worship at all! You who have received divine protection through centuries of danger and oppression, you whom the prophets say are to survive for the grandest destiny of man, you to whom has been vouchsafed every blessing,—because you cannot agree as how you will do this or that, how you will say thank you, Almighty, therefore you do not say it at all. O, you intend saying it all in good time! There may be repentance at the eleventh hour, but who can say which hour may not be the eleventh one? This is the time for action—right now, and our solemn Yom Kippur is the right now of our existence.

Now is a most excellent time for you to consider the question. It is the time for you to decide whether you will effect a permanent organization or whether you will continue to go on and hold only one or two services a year. There are here, I know, certain disagreements as to the form of worship, whether we should cling to the old orthodox style or take up the reform that has gradually been instituted in the Jewish church. This is a progressive age, and some of the customs of two or three thousand years ago will not do for to-day, and at the same time many customs which were good then are just as good now, and can be just as appropriately used. It would be well for you to throw aside all little disagreements and unite in the one cause—that of upholding the creed of our religion…

Whatever you do for religion, or whatever you give, must be voluntary and sincere. Coming here because your neighbor does is not religion; neither is it religion to give a certain amount because some one else has done the same. True religion is true repentance for our many sins and mistakes.

…You have always said that in union there is strength, therefore it is necessary that you should unite, giving help to each other through the creed you all believe in. Drop all dissension about whether you should take off your hats during the service and other unimportant ceremonials, and join hands in one glorious cause. We are all Israelites, and anxious to help one another. Look up to our creed and live up to it. It is not necessary to build a magnificent synagogue at once; that can be done in time. The grandest temples we have ever had or the world has ever known were those which had the blue sky for a roof, and the grandest psalms ever sung were those rendered under the blue vaults of heaven…

Form yourselves into a permanent congregation as soon as possible, and organize a Sabbath school. Unless one is established soon your children will grow up without any creed at all. One must believe in something, and one must have faith in something or become a menace to society. Keep one day holy, and teach your children to do the same. It isn’t good for you to do as you are doing. We are no longer a nation of people, although we are often spoken of as such. We have no ruler, but are simply citizens of the country we live in. We are loyal to the civil rule that governs us, and we should be loyal to the religious rule that we all bow to.

Friends, I thank you for the patience with which you have listened to me, and in the name of all we Hebrews hold most dear, I ask you to be patient with each other. Drop all personal feeling in this matter, and meet each other half way over your differences; give each other a hearty handshake for the sake of the cause, and I prophesy Heaven will crown your efforts with peace and prosperity.

From to-night on resolve to be something.

Transcript of Ray Frank, “A Lay Sermon by a Young Lady.” American Hebrew, October 1890.

Rachel Calof's Story: Jewish Homesteader on the Northern Plains

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Rachel Calof's Story, by Rachel Calof

Rachel Calof first published her memoir Rachel Calof's Story in 1936, which covers her life as a Russian Immigrant and Western Pioneer from 1894-1904.

Letter from George Nagel to Berhard Gratz

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Letter from George Nagel to Berhard Gratz

Letter from George Nagel to Berhard Gratz, March 2, 1772. Found in American Jewry: Documents 18th Century edited by Jacob Rader Marcus.


Primary Source Investigator Report

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Ariel Horn Levenson, history teacher at Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy in Livingston, New Jersey.


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Jewish Women's Archive. "Ariel Horn Levenson." (Viewed on February 22, 2024) <>.