In the introduction to our Chanukah series, Flora Yavelberg posed the following:
This week we begin the celebration of Hanukkah, Hag Ha-Urim – the Festival of Lights. Light has many associations for us. Light is the first thing created in Genesis 1, the opposite of darkness. We say when we learn something new or understand something that we are enlightened, and no longer “in the dark.” On Hanukkah, light represents joy, religious freedom, the miracle of faith, and Jewish hopes rekindled. What is our part in this story today? How can we, as educators in Jewish day schools, kindle the light of passion and motivation for our students? What can we do to help our students reach a deep understanding of the place Judaism has in their lives, and a sense of accomplishment at having made that meaning for themselves?
Here is Flora’s answer for her school. Please submit yours!
At Golda Och Academy, we believe these flames are best kindled through enabling students to take an active role in their own learning. In the fall of 2012, we instituted a system in which students in grades 10-12 are able to make choices about their classes upon the completion of a core curriculum in 9th grade. The courses are varied, ranging from traditional honors level classes in Tanakh and Talmud text to themed courses such as Jewish Mysticism, Jewish Scribal Arts, Moral Dilemmas in Tanakh, and Two Covenants: Sinai and Philadelphia.
This system increases the flexibility and variety of the Judaics curriculum. It addresses a broader range of student interests and abilities. We are better able to effectively transition students without a day school background into our school, allowing for a more diverse student population. Finally, it instigates a love of learning.
This year we added Avodat Lev (Work of the Heart), an independent, multidisciplinary senior seminar project. In Avodat Lev, seniors are asked to integrate any aspect of Judaism with an area of their own interest. They may choose from any field including the performing or visual arts, research in the humanities or sciences, computer programming, or another discipline.
Each student comes up with an idea, develops a plan to implement it, implements and presents it, and then evaluates his/her experience. Students have program leaders who divide the project into manageable steps for the students. The students also have a mentor from their field with whom they can consult. These requirements prepare our students for the type of work they will be asked to do in the future, on their college campuses and beyond.
In the 11 years I’ve worked at Golda Och, the excitement about the Judaic Studies curriculum has never been higher. Just last week, I had a conversation with a senior in which she started by telling me how much she was enjoying the new classes, as well as her Avodat Lev project, which explores the connection between Jewish ethical texts and American political parties. That opening led us to talk about her hopes for what she wanted to do with her life, and how these texts and ideas fit into that framework. The light in her eyes at that moment showed me her sense of personal motivation and meaning. It is that light that we look to kindle in all of our students.
Flora Yavelberg is Judaic Studies Chair at Golda Och Academy in West Orange, NJ. Dr. Catherine Lasser contributed to this post.