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Do our schools have enough Jewish History?

Working knowledge of centuries of historical backdrop bolsters one's sense of self and ability to relate to others

Everyone loves high school history, right?

Depending on your teacher it can at times be an interesting experience that we mostly forget. Or it can be a grueling slog of dates and facts we ceremoniously burn both mentally and physically as soon as the school year is over.

Yet, we all want our students to learn history. If we feel the history curriculum is biased, incorrect, or misleading we will move heaven and earth to get it changed to the way we want it. There is a war today in America over American History textbooks and what history we want our kids to know, and not know. And if we are sending our children to a Jewish school we should want our students to learn Jewish History. Yet, all too often Jewish History is at the back-burner of the school curriculum if it is there at all.

History is a means to connect us as a shared culture, religion, and a people. History isn’t just facts, but a series of compelling stories that can tell us who we are and give us pride in our Jewish identity. That is why reading books as an adult is far more interesting than studying dry textbooks as a student. Authors tell stories, while textbook tell facts. It is my belief that a well-designed Jewish History curriculum can decrease assimilation, build bridges within our community, and foster a closer connection to the State of Israel. How you tell the stories matters.

Lack of knowledge or familiarity about a group of people or set of ideas breeds fear of those people or of that idea. The less we know the more we hate. Unfortunately, it is a tendency for people to fill in those gaps of knowledge with negative emotions. The cure for fear is therefore knowledge. Jewish History can be a cure for the divides within our community across both religious and political lines. It can’t solve the problems, but it can reduce the fear of each other and decrease the animosity. Orthodox Jews should learn why Reform Judaism was started and how it has dramatically changed from those beginnings to what it is today.

Learning about Reform Jews does not lead someone to become a Reform Jew. It isn’t kryptonite. Thinking that is thinking with fear. As someone who is Orthodox, I am able disagree with Reform Jews about political platforms or religious practices. But because I know them and understand them, I don’t hate them. I can enjoy having discussions with them or attending family events. And the same is true in reverse. Reform or Conservative family members can better understand their Orthodox relatives. Most people might be surprised that Conservative Judaism was started in part as a reaction against a Trefa Banquet. And we can build these connections at the high school level for our students. Jewish History studies can do that.

Frankly, I don’t believe we are even doing a good job of teaching the Holocaust in our schools. All too frequently, the Holocaust is taught as a narrative about the rise and fall of Adolf Hitler, one man who created a genocide. The tragedy of learning it this way is that it excuses the masses of the German people from culpability. It excuses those Polish and Ukrainian people who aided the Nazis. Today, Poland denies that its people had anything to do with the Holocaust and the world is letting them get away with it. Yet, we are in effect teaching the Holocaust with the narrative that the German people were brainwashed by a charismatic demagogue. This excuse takes away their responsibility. That is not what happened. Hitler did not invent the ideology of the Ubermensch, or the doctrines of eugenics that were practiced even in the United States, or the scapegoating of the Jew in European History.

Holocaust studies must be focused not only on concentration camps and stories of survivors, as important as those are. They must give our students the full historical picture. Students need to learn the true background to racial anti-Semitism, how America refused entry to refugees and withheld knowledge of the Holocaust from our people, the lessons of non-Jews who risked everything to save lives, the stories of the Jewish partisan groups who fought back, and the efforts of Nazi hunters like Simon Wiesenthal. We must be making sure that our students know the lessons of the Holocaust can be applied today, not just for Jews but for any group of people facing discrimination.

The story of Jewish History is also a vehicle to introduce the great women in of our past who are at times unfairly overlooked. The history of great Jewish women of prominence, talent, and leadership are neglected whereas they could be role models and symbols for women today. How much more backbone and strength could knowing the history of a Rebecca Gratz or Henrietta Szold be for women fighting right now for greater leadership positions in our community — to be able to point back and say “she refused to back down and succeeded so why can’t we?” To know that women such as Rashi’s daughters may not only have learned talmudic texts, but also taught and edited their father’s works can provide comfort and resilience to women studying Talmud today. Our past is not piles of stones at dig sites; they are the pillars that we can stand on today.

Having a working knowledge of Jewish History and Zionism can also help in the fight against anti-Semitism on college campuses. In order to fight for something you must first believe in that idea with conviction. Otherwise, your determination can be weak and you are far more likely to back down. The people who are trying to make college campuses forums for anti-Jewish hatred are not ignorant of their version of history, so why are we of ours?

Zionism must be taught to combat the lies of the BDS movement or campus Palestinian groups who are out to demonize Israel, not promote a long term peaceful solution. How can the next generation fight if they have nothing to fight with? Zionism and Holocaust studies must not be elective courses or an extracurricular club. They must be full-time mandatory courses that are treated equally with Biology or English Literature. If we don’t, aren’t we letting those kids on those college campuses down?

My advice is to make sure Jewish History is taught in every Jewish private school over multiple school years. All students should have at least two full years of Jewish History and Zionism at the minimum. Our history cannot be an elective of choice for a select few or a class to put those students who are not in an advanced placement class. Be on top of your schools and do not be afraid to demand that new classes be added. Don’t let our students leave school without a fully Jewish historical identity. Let’s teach farther back into our history. Teach Tanakh history. Teach the history of the Second Temple period. Teach it all.

About the Author
Any description must start with Sidney's love of history, especially military and Jewish history. His background is a masters in history that focused primarily on Middle Eastern history. To that end, he has spent close to 10 years teaching Jewish History, Zionism, and American/World history at the high school level. Sidney considers himself a Zionist at heart and a supporter of women’s leadership and education both in the U.S. and abroad.
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