Many schools are facing a crisis due to the dearth of Jewish studies teachers. I, therefore, feel it is important for me to share my journey from wanting to leave teaching to fully loving my job. I hope that my personal experience and the process outlined in this article can serve as a model for other schools and encourage struggling teachers to find the support they need so they too can thrive in their classrooms.
“Why do I have to learn Jewish studies? My parents don’t care anyway.”
This was the refrain I was hearing often from my middle school students and which I felt was interfering with their engagement in my class. These comments generated negativity and impeded my students from putting forth their best effort in Jewish studies.
I teach in a pluralistic day school and many of our families are not involved in Jewish practices on a daily basis. However, I do believe that Jewish learning is still very important to them and is a large part of why they choose to send their children to a Jewish school. I wanted to find a way to support parents in conveying that message to their children, to create a culture where students could appreciate and be motivated to engage in their Jewish studies learning.
This problem became compounded by an innocent action from my administration. Our school has student-led conferences with parents, even as young as second grade. This generally is a wonderful educational experience, as it enables students to have ownership over their learning. One challenge, though, was that parents complained that participating in a conference for every class with every child was time-consuming and tiring for both parents and children. The school appreciated those concerns and told parents that they could pick a minimum of three conferences to attend in the fall semester conferences, during November 2022.
What the school did not anticipate, was that most parents picked English, math, science, and/or social studies for their conferences and did not attend conferences for Hebrew or Jewish studies. This aggravated the problem. “I don’t have to work hard in this class since my parents didn’t choose to do conferences in it,” was a statement I heard frequently. This intensified my struggle to encourage students to engage in my class.
In conversations with the Jewish studies team, we noted that early childhood and lower school students were mostly very excited to learn Jewish studies and participate in tefillah, havdalah, and any other programs related to Judaism. We were concerned about, and struggled to understand, what was happening at the middle school level that was blocking students from finding joy and meaning in these experiences.
I understood that middle school students begin to differentiate their thinking, but felt that there was definitely potential to improve the Jewish studies situation. Students didn’t necessarily like what they were learning in their secular studies but knew that they needed to put in effort in those classes, whether they personally cared about them or not. Students did not complain about learning about the U.S. Constitution, for example. They understood that it was required so they did the work, even if they didn’t find it interesting or inspiring. Furthermore, once students accepted that they needed to learn specific content, it often opened them up to find more depth, richness, and interest in the learning. How, I wondered, could we shift that culture to Jewish studies as well?
On a personal level, this situation was greatly impacting my teaching experience. I love my students and have a deep desire to help them connect to Jewish topics but the above issues created an environment where it became very difficult and disheartening for me to come into my classroom day after day. I felt so frustrated, that it became clear to me that if something did not change, I would not want to continue to teach Jewish studies at my school.
I discussed this issue with the Jewish studies team, my administration, and a teacher coach. I am grateful to say that they took the time to listen to my issues, validated my concerns, and put time and effort into working together to tackle this issue. The team brainstormed many ideas and ended up coming up with a multi-pronged approach to shifting the culture of middle school Jewish studies at our school.
In order to enable the reader to clarify which aspects of our approach might be most helpful to their classroom and school environment, I clarified the rationale behind our actions in italics below.
Step 1: Dramatically change the status quo and demonstrate to students that things would not continue as they had in the past.
On the first day after winter break, students were told to gather in the Beit Midrash instead of going to their usual Jewish studies classroom. Around the large room were PJ Library posters with quotes about Jewish values. Students were invited to walk around the room and read all the quotes. Then, they were asked to choose to stand by the one that was most meaningful or interesting to them.
Step 2: Help students discover that Jewish values are important and meaningful to them. Demonstrate that these values are important to the secular staff as well.
We moved the students into group discussions based on the value they chose. The groups were facilitated by members of both the Jewish studies and the secular studies staff who shared their thoughts about the value. The goal of the conversation was to help students find deeper meaning and relevance with the Jewish value they had chosen.
Step 3:Help students understand and appreciate some of the goals of learning Jewish studies.
I then introduced the 18×18 Framework (18 things Jews should be able to do by the time they are 18). I had my students review the list and asked them to mark the ones they felt were the most important to them. I also invited them to reflect on which items on the Framework they felt were significant to their families, and then to the school. We reflected on their answers which enabled great discussions about the goals of our Jewish studies class.
Step 4: Demonstrate to students that Jewish studies is important to their parents.
I invited the parents of my students to join our class and study with their children. I emailed them a few reminders and emphasized how important their participation was in empowering a successful semester for their child. To enable more parents to join, we adjusted the time of Jewish studies for that day so it would be right after drop-off in the morning. I was grateful to find that almost all families sent a parent (or grandparent) to participate.
The text I chose for the parent-child “havruta” was about Honi and the carob tree since it was near the time of Tu B’Shvat, the holidays of the trees. This text was perfect as it discussed the value of passing on our legacy to the future. I had them use what we call our “havruta protocol,” an adaptation of the POP (Pedagogy of Partnership) protocol which I created based on our school’s core values (empathy, wonder, and Tikkun Olam). I used slides on the whiteboard to help guide parents and students through the steps of studying together.
Parents really appreciated being invited to participate in our classroom. They enjoyed rich conversations with their children about the legacies their family appreciates from the past and the values they hope their children will pass on to the future.
Step 5:Empower students to have ongoing Jewish studies discussions with their parents. Help students understand that they can be the facilitators of Jewish discussions and experiences for their families.
While our parent body clearly values Judaism, many of them do not have the skills to bring discussions about Jewish ideas to their families. I therefore felt there was an incredible opportunity for students to facilitate discussions of Judaism in their homes, based on what they learned in Jewish studies that week.
The policy I set up in my class was that as long as they stay on task and complete the assigned work during class time, they did not have homework except over the weekend. For Shabbat, the homework assigned was a conversation prompt based on the ideas discussed in class that week, thus continuing this parent-child learning experience throughout the semester.
I introduced this new homework concept when the parents were in school so they clearly understood the expectations and had the opportunity to ask any questions or share any concerns. For the first few weeks, I also sent an email reminder to the parents to help them get into the habit of having these discussions. As the semester progressed, those no longer were needed.
I am sharing a sample homework assignment below:
For Yom Hazikaron (Israel Remembrance Day) we learned about the Mandell and Dee families and how they coped with the terror attacks on their family members.
Choose one family we learned about and share with your parents:
1. What happened to the family
2. How they responded to the tragedy by giving to others
3. Then, ask your parents for their thoughts or reflections
Post your answers to Google Classroom.
Be sure to include:
1. What you shared with your parents
2. Their thoughts/reflections on what you shared
Enjoy the discussions! I look forward to reading your answers.
I received a lot of positive feedback from parents about this homework policy. They really appreciated the opportunity to have meaningful discussions with their children.
Step 6: Have parents and students appreciate that Jewish studies is an integral part of our Jewish Day School.
Once the administration heard what happened with the Jewish studies conferences, they set the policy that parents needed to choose Jewish studies or Ivrit as one of their conferences. This simple step reinforced to students and their parents that Jewish studies is a core value at our Jewish day school.
Overall, I am grateful to say that through the many efforts of our Jewish studies team, coaches, and the administration, the culture of how Jewish studies was perceived in middle school completely changed. I no longer hear students complain that their parents don’t care about Jewish studies—their learning together in school and for homework clearly demonstrated to the students their parents’ appreciation for their Jewish learning. Students had a greater recognition of the relevance and meaning of Jewish studies and their engagement and excitement increased!
It was amusing for me to find that when I was in touch with a friend I hadn’t spoken with in months, she asked me if I was going to continue working at the day school the following year. I was surprised by the question and she reminded me how frustrated I had been in November when she had last spoken with me about school. I so enjoyed and appreciated my job this last semester, that I actually increased my hours for the coming year.
I am truly grateful to the incredible team at my school for listening to my concerns and for taking the time, effort, and energy to facilitate change. I also think it is important to note, that while these discussions did take time and effort, there actually was no monetary cost at all to this process
I am hopeful that these reflections can help others in similar situations, and I would be happy to try to support teachers that are struggling and brainstorm ways to improve their situation so they too can thrive.
Yonina Schlussel, MS OTR, has taught at Torah Academy of Milwaukee for over fifteen years and at the Milwaukee Jewish Day School for three. Her articles have been published in Ami Magazine. She received an award for her Parsha Art Journal Project from the Coalition for Jewish Learning in Milwaukee.