Mother Rachel is Crying Again: Why skimping on teaching Jewish History is a dangerous thing
When I penned this last week for the Detroit Jewish News, Joseph’s Tomb had not been set on fire by Palestinians twice. Yet. The thought of the Palestinians petitioning UNESCO that the Western Wall should be declared a Muslim holy site went beyond the pale of imagination.
But here we are. According to the world authorities, Rachel’s Tomb and the Cave of the Machpelach have no Jewish connection. Will this be enough of a shakedown to shake us out of our complacency?
On Oct. 8, The New York Times published an article that disregarded any Jewish historical claims to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Ask the average pre-bnei mitzvah adolescent attending a supplementary congregational Hebrew school why this is so troubling and you may get some blank stares.
In a 2007 study from the AVI CHAI foundation, one Jewish educator lamented that in the ever-shrinking hours of a child’s Jewish education, “we have lost the battle for time.” The paucity of contact hours spent at Hebrew school means that our Jewish kids are getting a minimal Jewish education. They learn to decode Hebrew enough for Hebrew prayer and bnei mitzvah preparation. Through experiential learning, they get the basics of the Jewish holiday cycle and maybe a sprinkling of Torah stories. Teachers need to accomplish this within five or less hours of weekly instruction, all the while dealing with the disruption of kids arriving late or leaving early because of extra-curricular activities.
That means teaching Jewish history – from our most ancient beginnings in Judea, through the Roman exile and all the way up to the birth of the modern State of Israel – has mostly met the chopping block. If you need evidence, visit the resource room or library of any temple or synagogue and you will see volumes of history textbooks printed in the last decade languishing on the shelves.
I speak from experience. I have taught Hebrew school in one capacity or another here in Detroit and in Western New York for 13 years. I have been trained on several curricula that attempt to infuse experiential history lessons into the classroom using both traditional and the most up-to-date methods of the Digital Age, only to scrap carefully constructed lessons for the sake of time.
As a parent, a Jewish educator, and a writer who has been observing media coverage of the Israeli-Arab conflict since college, I cannot help but notice an ominous connection between the neglect of teaching Jewish history and the rise of the distortion and demonization of Israel and of Jews in Israel, on the American campus and throughout the world.
American Jewish kids with a minimal education, or no Jewish education after their bnei mitzvah, are blindsided when they reach the college campus and do not know how to respond when confronted with organizations on college campuses calling to boycott “apartheid” Israel.
As parents and Jewish professionals, we are doing ourselves a disservice when we let our children’s Jewish education take a back seat to our many other priorities. Our children need to learn Jewish history – to see where we have come from and what past generations endured to maintain their Judaism – to shape their own Jewish identity and destiny.
This year, after much soul searching, I decided to “home Hebrew school” my own child. I do not recommend this for everyone. Ideally, Jewish learning needs to take place in a communal setting and with lively discussion. Believe me, getting your own kid to take you seriously as a teacher is no cakewalk, but with the promise of a treat after a certain amount of studying has been accomplished, we settle down and get to work.
Each time, we get through one chapter from an age-appropriate textbook. Fortunately, there are many educational resources and videos online to make ancient Jewish history come alive. Right now, we are working our way through learning about ancient Judea and the Jewish revolts after the Romans conquered Jerusalem.
Even as Israel works hard to preserve its antiquities, there are some who wish to erase them. As we sat learning the other night, an online news source reported that Palestinians had destroyed a 1,900-year-old cave in the Gush Etzion region that dated back to the Bar Kochva revolt. If you had never heard of this era in Jewish history, I encourage you to look it up.