In an atmosphere of anticipation and excitement, a group of Jewish day school educators, scholars of Rabbinics and education and experienced Jewish educators has begun to collaborate on a compendium of Standards and Benchmarks for the study of Rabbinics in Jewish day schools. The initiative is under the auspices of the Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education at the Jewish Theological Seminary. The compendium will guide Jewish day schools in planning and implementing goals for rabbinic studies for their students. It is especially heartening that the group working so collaboratively represents a cross-denominational selection of schools: modern Orthodox, Conservative and Community.
This effort officially kicked off with a three-day conference at the end of October, to be followed by a series of writing institutes. 16 schools are participating as “partner schools”, and will be committing time, resources and faculty expertise to the writing process over the coming year. Their educational leaders and faculty members will work first within their schools on developing standards and benchmarks; the schools’ educational leaders will then come together for two intensive writing workshops in the coming months. They will be joined at the writing workshops by scholars from across the denominations to determine the most important goals for learning rabbinic texts and make those goals accessible through specific benchmarks and performance assessments.
The history of Rabbinic standards really began in 2003 with the development of standards and benchmarks for the study of Tanakh in Jewish day schools, also under the auspices of the Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Since then, close to 80 schools have worked with skilled Tanakh Educator Consultants on establishing outcome-based Tanakh learning in their schools based on the standards and benchmarks document developed in 2004. The project provides participating schools with a yearlong professional development program for teachers and Judaic studies leaders (and a follow-up year) to address questions such as: What are the essential questions our students should be grappling with when they study the texts? What do we want our students to know when they finish each grade level and when they graduate high school? Instructional leadership institutes for Judaic studies heads provide them with the knowledge and skills that they need to effectively lead their faculty members through this (and future) educational journeys.
Building upon what they’ve learned in their years of experience with the TaNaKH standards project, Charlotte Abramson (Director) and Rabbi Sheryl Katzman (Rabbinics Initiative Leader) have designed the Rabbinic standards initiative to include school leaders and faculty members more actively from the very beginning in formulating and writing overarching standards and detailed benchmarks for different grade levels. The interchange between the schools that will adapt these guidelines for their own student learning and the scholars whose lives are devoted to study of the texts will lead to standards that reflect the complexity of rabbinic texts while guiding each school in adapting the standards to its own mission and unique learning environment.
The participants in the opening conference addressed questions like: What does literacy in rabbinic texts mean? How does the study of text differ when looked at from different perspectives, such as historic, literary or halakhic (based on Dr. Jon Levisohn’s “A Menu of Orientations to the Teaching of Rabbinic Literature”)? How can students learn the skills necessary for learning texts as well as experience the meaning of the texts in their own lives?
A Standards and benchmarks document for the study of Rabbinics in Jewish day schools is by no means a recipe for standardized learning or conformity to a single approach. It is, rather, a road map for schools by which to chart a thoughtful path toward goals in Rabbinic studies that will reflect their own unique visions and direct their students toward an understanding and appreciation of the rich world of rabbinic text. AVI CHAI is supporting this ambitious effort in the belief that it will bring the level of Judaic studies to an even higher level of excellence within Jewish day schools across the spectrum.