A Study of the Teaching of Jewish History in Modern Orthodox Yeshivah High Schools

  • by: David Bernstein
  • Submitted on July 20, 2016

This article originally appeared in Jewish Education 54:4 (Winter 1986), p.27-38. Reprinted here with permission.

This essay discusses the major findings of a study of how Jewish history is taught in modern Orthodox yeshivah high schools. [1] The researcher examined five of the largest schools of this type in the United States [2] during the 1983-84 academic year, attempting to define the “state of the art” in regard to the views of Jewish history in the schools, as reflected in the number of hours devoted to the subject, stated and implied goals of the respective principals and Jewish history teachers, textbooks, curriculum materials, and the perceptions of the advantages and disadvantages of integrated and separate Jewish history courses. The two basic curricular structures for teaching the subject – integrated with world history, and Jewish history as a separate course -provided a basis upon which to group the schools for comparative study.

Jewish History Class Hours

School A, at least on the surface, offers the most class hours per week of Jewish history among the schools studied (see Table 1 below). However, a number of qualifications must be made. First, it became clear from the interviews conducted with faculty and administration at School A that the 9th and 10th grade Jewish history class (within the Prophets course) is far from ideal. The focus of the course is on the prophetic writings, and the Jewish history component is often neglected. Moreover, the teachers are themselves Bible instructors, rather than history teachers.

Jewish History: Judaic or General Studies and Number of Class Hours/Week

Number of Class Hours in Grades:
School Department 9 10 11 12 Total

School A Judaica 1b 1b 5 7.5 14.5
School B General 0 0 5 2 7
School C Judaic 2 0 4 4(+ 4)d 10(+ 4)d
School De General 5 5 0 2 12
School E General 2 5e 2 2 11

a Except for American Jewish History
b As part of Prophets Course
c Except for Zionism courses, both required and elective
d (Elective course in Zionism)
e Figures are for Integrated World/Jewish history course


In addition, more than half of the total number of Jewish history periods at School A is concentrated in the senior year, when 40 percent of the class has already left the school on early college admission programs. (These are also usually the most academically talented students.) Thus, only 60 percent of the students who attend the school will reap the full benefit; the remainder, who graduate after the junior year, will miss about half of the Jewish history class hours offered at the school.

A similar situation exists at School B, where only 40 of the 114 members of the class of 1984 remained for their senior year. For the majority (53 percent), their only Jewish history course will be in the 11th grade, meeting toward the end of a long school day when attention spans may very well be shortened.

School D, it would seem, offers a relatively large number of class hours of Jewish history instruction. However, as these are part of an integrated course for world and Jewish history, many of these hours are spent on general history. The figure for Jewish history is sometimes higher when 12th grade elective courses (for a full or mini-semester) in Jewish history are offered. Although such courses (e.g. Holocaust, Zionism, anti-Semitism) have been frequently offered in the recent past, there were no such offerings for the period surveyed (1983-84).

School E is the only school to offer Jewish history in every grade level (9-12) in a setting of history instruction. (School A offers Jewish history in grades 9 and 10 only as part of the Prophets course.) It is also the only school to teach Jewish history in both an integrated and separate format.

Table 2 below gives the “real” hours of Jewish history instruction, i.e., the figures given in Table 1 minus the teacher estimates of how much time is devoted to world history. The “real” number of Jewish history periods (Table 2) at School D and School E indicates that the schools which offer integrated world/Jewish history programs teach fewer “real” class hours of Jewish history. It should be borne in mind, though, that there is greater efficiency in class time in the integrated program, where the general background to any event/movement in Jewish history is included. So, for example, if a class would be studying the Haskalah, or enlightenment, among the Jews of Europe in the late 18th through the 19th centuries, they would of necessity have to study the general, non-Jewish Enlightenment which preceded it. This requires that the Jewish history instructor take time out of Jewish history. In fact, the Jewish history teachers (of non-integrated courses) indicated that anywhere from 10-35 percent of their class time was spent on the general history background to Jewish history, the average coming to 19 percent. This means that one-fifth of Jewish history class time was devoted to general history.

Jewish History Class Hours/Week, after Subtracting Estimated Time for General History Background
(all figures rounded off to the nearest tenth)

Grades Average
School 9 10 11 12 Total per year

School A   .7   .7 3.8 5.6 10.8 2.7
School B 0 0 4.5 1.7   6.2 1.6
School C 1.8 0 3.2 3.2(+3.6)a   8.2(+3.6)a 2.05(+.9)a
School Db 2 1.7 0 1   4.7 1.2
School E 1.8 1.7b 1.3 1.3   6.1 1.5

a (Elective course in Zionism)
b Figures are for Integrated World/Jewish history courses


By examining Table 2, it seems that the two schools which consider Jewish history to be part of their Judaic studies program allocate more class time for the subject than the other schools. School A and School C both have the most “real” Jewish history periods per week (10.8 and 8.2 [+ 3.6] respectively) while the other schools have no more than 6.2. However, it should be noted that in both of these schools, part of the required Jewish history courses are in general studies – American Jewish history at School A and Zionism at School C.

The preponderance of Jewish history instruction in the last two years of high school is clear from Table 2. Although the number of class hours at School D and School E – where integrated history courses are taught -are relatively evenly spread among the grades, the other three schools have a very lopsided curriculum. The three schools with separate Jewish history courses have acombined total of 2.5 hours of Jewish history per week in grade 9, and only 7 in grade 10. In contrast, there are 11.5 hours in grade 11, and 10.5-14.1 in grade 12. Thus, there are more than four times the class hours for Jewish history in the two older grades than in the two younger ones.

The reason for this is, at least in part, the desire to prepare students for the college campus, where most of them will be living and studying in a non-Jewish environment for the first time. The Holocaust and Zionism are generally emphasized in the later grades, both because they are issues of potential conflict on campus, and because they are so closely connected to contemporary Jewish identity.

The schools with integrated programs are not part of this trend to concentrate Jewish history hours in the older grades, as Jewish history instruction is tied to world history which is taught mostly in grades 9 and 10.

Class Hours for Jewish History as Compared to Other Jewish Subjects

The percentages in Table 3 below provide a picture of Jewish history periods in each school, by grade, in relation to the rest of the Judaic studies subjects. As stated earlier, these would usually include Bible (Pentateuch and/or Prophets), Talmud (and/or Jewish law), Jewish thought, and Hebrew language. As is clear from the table, Jewish history -in “real” hours based on Table 2 -is a relatively minor subject as compared to other Jewish subjects in grades 9 and 10 in all the schools. In grades 11 and 12, in the schools without an integrated history program, the percentage jumps markedly. In School A, it increases to about 6-9 times the percentage for grades 9 and 10. In School B, it increases from 0 to 15-26 percent; at School C, it more than doubles. In School D and at School E, the average percentage of Jewish history classes -as compared to the rest of Jewish studies -declines for grades 11 and 12. As stated above, this is due to the integration of world and Jewish history, which is concentrated in grades 9 and 10. American history -the focus of the general history program in grades 11 and 12 -is not integrated with Jewish history at either of the schools. Hence, the integrated program – as presently constituted – tends to push Jewish history instruction into the younger grades, while schools with separate Jewish history courses tend to concentrate Jewish history classes in the older grades.

Jewish History Class Hours/Week as Percentage of the Rest of Judaic Studies
(based on Table 2)

School 9 10 11 12 Average

School A   4%   4% 25% 37% 17.5%
School B   0   0 26% 15% 11%
School Ca   8%   0 18% 18%b 11%
School Cc 10%   0 23% 23%b 14%
School D 12% 10%   0 12%   8.5%
School Ea   9%   9%   7%   7%   7%
School Ec 10%   9%   8%   8%   9%

a For students taking intensive Talmud program
b Figures do not include Zionism elective. Percentages approximately double for students enrolled in that course.
c For students taking regular Talmud program


It should not be surprising that the two schools where Jewish history is part of the Judaic studies department have the highest percentages in Table 3. This is not only a product of their actually devoting more periods to Jewish history, but also a result of less periods remaining in the Judaic studies program for other Jewish subjects. Where Jewish history is part of general studies, there are more Judaic studies periods for the subjects other than Jewish history.

Class Hours for Jewish History as Compared to General History

As can be seen in Table 4, the amount of time devoted to Jewish history instruction – as compared to general history -ranges from 35 to 72.5 percent at the yeshivah high schools studied. (This figure includes only required and not elective courses.)

Jewish History Class Hours/Week as Percentage of General History
(based on Table 1)

School 9 10 11 12 Average

School A 20 20% 100% 150% 72.5%
School B   0   0 100%   40% 35%
School C 50%   0 100% 100%b 62.5%
School Da 67% 50%     0 100% 54%
School E 67% 50%   50%   50% 54%

a Figures for integrated courses reflect number of periods estimated for Jewish history as percentage of estimated number of periods for general history.


The two schools offering integrated programs are at 54 percent, reflecting a smaller number of general history hours. The total number of general history hours at School D and School E is less than any of the other schools: about 10-11 hours per week over the course of grades 9-12. At the other schools, general history accounts for 12-17.5 hours per week over the course of the four years.

The integrated method of teaching world and Jewish history, then, seems to involve a reduced number of class hours not only for Jewish history (see Table 2), but for general history as well.

School B, at 40 percent, has the lowest percentage in Table 4, because it has the full complement of general history periods (five) per week, for four full years. School A and School C top the list with 72.5 percent and 62.5 percent, respectively. This is due not only to the greater number of Jewish history periods in these two schools, but also to the fact that School A and School C teach a Jewish history course as part of general history. This lowers the number of non-Jewish history periods, thereby increasing the percentage of Jewish history periods.

Jewish History within the Total Curriculum

In terms of class hours, Jewish history – even with recent changes in the schools – remains a minor subject in comparison with other Judaic Studies subjects. However, it now has a much higher profile within the total curriculum than one might expect of a “minor” subject. In the schools with separate Jewish history courses, this is due to two factors. First, the overwhelming concentration of Jewish history periods in grades 11 and 12 here it becomes a “major,” and second, the offering of an “advanced placement” course sponsored by Yeshiva University for which students can earn college credit. In schools with an integrated Jewish history course, on a superficial level it seems as if there are more Jewish history periods being offered (see Table 1), but in reality this is not the case (see Table 2). However, the placing of Jewish history within the general studies program seems to give it greater stature in the eyes of the students, according to both principals and teachers.

Perceived Advantages and Disadvantages of Each Approach

Based on the data gathered by the researcher, it seems that the fears of those opposed to the integration of world and Jewish history are, indeed, generally confirmed. The perception that the amount of material to be covered is simply too massive for the allotment of class hours seems to be true. At both School D and School E, where the integrated approach is used, the major complaint of teachers and principals was the lack of time to cover the material in the integrated history curriculum. The fear that Jewish history will “lose out” in the integration is perhaps indicated by the smaller number of hours for Jewish history instruction at School D and School E, according to the numbers provided by teachers of this new approach at these two schools. The concern that teaching personnel qualified in both subject areas might be hard to find was indeed echoed by the education supervisors who do the hiring of teachers for the integrated curriculum. Lastly, the fear that the religious views of the teachers of a world/Jewish history course might not reflect modern Orthodoxy does indeed seem true. Of the four teachers of integrated history courses studied, only one was religiously observant. The other three were the only Jewish history instructors in the entire study who were not religious; their views of Jewish history were generally not religious ones, as reflected in their emphasis on social and political issues in Jewish history, rather than on intellectual and religious ones; and their goals for Jewish history instruction did not usually include improving religious behavior. In both of these areas, they differed substantially from the majority of teachers of separate Jewish history courses. Two of the teachers of integrated history did not even view the strengthening of the Jewish identity of the students as an important goal. The end of integration in the 9th grade at School E was attributed by the principal directly to his inability to find a teacher who was properly qualified and had traditional religious views.

On the other hand, the need for more time for Jewish history instruction was heard among those who teach separate Jewish history courses as well. Although the figures in Table 2 indicate that the problem is worse when integrated, the problem is not solved through teaching the separate courses.The complaint about the lack of qualified (both in terms of knowledge and religious attitude) personnel to teach the course exists, but School D and School E are content to maintain their integrated courses. This seems to reflect a different outlook on Jewish history instruction. The principals of the three schools with separate courses all listed religious goals as their highest priority, which was reflected in their selection of Jewish history teachers (who in their personal religious observance, if not in their own goals for teaching the subject, are all Orthodox). This was not the case at School D. As for School E, the principal’s stated religious priorities seem balanced by his own aversion to the myopic view of Jewish history that he feels is often the result of separate Jewish history courses. Here he alludes to what seems to be the single basic advantage of integrated history courses: the placing of Jewish history in its larger historical perspective. This is cited by all the principals and teachers of such courses, as well as by many of those of the separate Jewish history courses. Indeed, it is clear from those in the latter group that they also devote at least some class time to general history (hence the discrepancies between Tables 1 and 2), following the trend of 20th century Jewish history scholarship. As Gerson Cohen writes [3]:

In the study and teaching of Jewish history scholars of our time have harped on the need for a critical approach so that the orientation of Jewish education should not be totally out of line with the universe of discourse in which Jews are educated for life as a whole. Great stress has been laid on the need to alert the student to an understanding of Jewish history not reflected in dogmatic texts, and, accordingly, to the need of bringing him to see uncensored data and to appraising Jewish political, economic, social, intellectual, and religious development in the light of the general milieu in which the Jews lived.[4]

While one may question the use of uncensored data -which, it may be argued, do not exist -it would seem that this study indicates that, at least to some extent, Cohen’s approach is being followed. Even where Jewish history is taught in a separate format, the majority of teachers and their courses do not rely on the kind of dogmatic texts or isolation from general history that Cohen fears. With few exceptions, there is no separate “universe of discourse.” Rather, university-trained Jewish historians are teaching their subject with reference to general history, and -especially in the older grades -often with material that is critical of traditional religious texts. The concern that separate Jewish history might be taught by rabbis (or others) untrained in history and in an irrational manner seems inapplicable in most of the cases studied by the researcher.

In fact, the teachers of separate Jewish history courses are arguably better trained academically to teach their subject (Jewish history) than teachers of integrated courses, two of whom had noformal Jewish history training. Thus, those who might argue that integration would lead to bringing better- trained teachers into Jewish history classrooms seem to be incorrect, insofar as this study can claim. (This may not have been the case in the mid-70s, when Cohen wrote and when integrated courses were first instituted. That issue, however, is beyond the focus of this study.) For today, at least, it would seem that the case for integration cannot rest on the desire to have a trained historian teach Jewish history in a rational manner.

Generally, the two arguments set forth for integration were that it would result in a higher level of learning, and that it would provide a model for the synthesis of Western and Jewish learning in the student. It is interesting that, in contrast to the literature, among all of the teachers or principals interviewed there was only one allusion to integrated studies itself as an ideal.

Stated and Unstated Goals in Jewish History Instruction

Despite the fact that the fears of those who oppose integration may well have been realized, School D and School E appear content with their integrated history courses, reflecting priorities in Jewish history instruction other than religious goals, which appear to dominate the Jewish history programs at the schools with separate courses. The three principals of this latter group of schools – as well as all of the teachers, except for one at each school -concurred on the importance of influencing religious attitudes, and positive Jewish identity formation, through the teaching of Jewish history. This concurs roughly with the approach to the goals of Jewish history teaching seen in most of the current literature.

There were no significant differences between the religious nature of the goals, or the overall views of Jewish history, seen at the single-sex yeshivah high schools, on the one hand, and at the coeducational yeshivah high schools, on the other hand, despite the more religious image of the single-sex schools.

This general consensus about goals among Jewish history teachers and their principals at the single-sex yeshivah high schools and (the coeducational school, respectively, excludes one teacher at each school who seems to place cognitive goals (e.g. skills, knowledge) above attitudinal objectives. It is interesting to note that all three of these exceptions are religiously observant (as are all of the Jewish history teachers at these schools), and two of them are rabbis. The one common denominator among them is that they are presently all graduate students in Jewish history, either at Columbia or New York University. This status may reflect previously held attitudes in regard to the goals of Jewish history teaching, or it is possible that their graduate studies have influenced their educational objectives in this direction. (Generally most university study of Jewish history follows the Baron-Honor academic approach to Jewish history rather than Grayzel’s use of Jewish history for communal goals.) However, it should be added that four other teachers -who cited religious goals as primary -completed M.A. or Ph.D. programs in Jewish history, all at Yeshiva University. If, then, graduate study in Jewish history affects the three teachers with cognitive goals, it may be due to differences in the approach at Yeshiva, as opposed to that at Columbia or New York University, or to the fact that they are presently engaged in graduate study, whereas the other four have been out of the academic study of Jewish history for some time. The precise determination was certainly beyond the purview of this study.

The teachers of Jewish history courses at School D seem to be in basic consensus with the ideas of the school administrators. Two of the three teachers echoed the concern for creating positive Jewish identity among the students, while, again, one teacher had different goals in mind. The religious goals of Jewish history instruction were least in evidence at School D, the only school in the study which teaches Jewish history only in the context of integrated courses.

At School E, however, the two teachers that the researcher was able to interview seem to articulate priorities that seemed at great variance with those of the principal. The teacher of the integrated course clearly had little connection to the principal’s view that Halakhah (Jewish law) was central to Jewish continuity, either in her personal life or in the context of her course. As for the teacher of the (separate) 9th grade Jewish history course, her use of the Artscroll text [5] and preference for only those historical sources that confirmed the Talmud’s views seem to reflect the myopic view of Jewish history that the principal railed against. Thus, of the five schools studied, the disparity between the goals of principals and those of teachers seems greatest at School E.

With only one exception at each school, then, the consensus of Jewish history teachers and yeshivah high school principals in the schools under study was that the study of Jewish history would hopefully lead to greater involvement in Jewish life. In all of the schools except one, this usually was connected to increased religious commitment. At School D, there seemed to be less emphasis on religious behavior and more on positive Jewish identity formation. Only one teacher in each school seemed to make the study of this subject important in its own right, for knowledge or for the acquisition of historical skills. This all reflects much of the literature on goals of Jewish history teachers, in particular the special issue of The Pedagogic Reporter (Winter, 1978) on “The Place of Social Studies in the Jewish School” and Grayzel’s article, [6], as well as the more religiously-oriented Feitman [7] and Lewis [8] articles, to some extent.

Textbooks and Curriculum Materials

The curriculum materials that were made available to the researcher by the individual teachers (i.e. lesson plans, review sheets, Xeroxed sheets for classroom use, and examinations) were, in addition to the class- room observations, a means of determining whether the interview statements were reflected in the actual teaching, and whether there might be additional, unstated goals implied in addition to those explicitly stated. In most of the cases, the stated goals were confined by these additional sources of information, though sometimes with greater or less emphasis than admitted by the teacher, and with additional goals implied.

The textbooks, too, were generally appropriate for the goals of the respective teachers, with three exceptions: At both School D and School E, one teacher used Grazel [9] despite their contrasting goals in relation to the text; and at School E, one teacher’s apparent religious perspective seemed far from that of Laqueur’s History of Zionism. [10].

Views of Jewish History

Almost all of the Jewish history teachers and principals of these schools are modern Orthodox Jews. They work in a modern Orthodox environment which is designed primarily to transmit the heritage to a new generation. Their stated and implied goals, for the most part, reveal a sense of concern for inculcating loyalty to that tradition, and observance of religious law. They are reflected also in most of the texts (particularly Grayzel, the most widely used textbook) and curriculum materials, where the rabbis and spiritual leaders of Jewish life are presented very favorably, and where religious rituals and ceremonies are portrayed in a positive light. It is clear from all of the above (and from other interview comments) that the survival of the Jewish people has been due to its loyalty to this tradition, and that its future depends on continued observance of religious law, Halakhah.

However, despite some references to the role of God in the interviews, most of the texts, curriculum materials, and classroom observations revealed that history is not being taught as Divine Providence. With the exception of two teachers at School E, and two texts which are not widely used, the role of God is avoided. It may be that his role is simply assumed, or that it is dangerous to try to pinpoint the hand of God in history. Whatever the case, Jewish history is for the most part taught without God’s active role. Instead history is taught in the theater of human beings and their actions. The religious viewpoint that is often evidenced thus steers clear of direct divine involvement. The religious texts are important and taken quite seriously; the role of the rabbis and Jewish law is often paramount to anything else. This is apparent even among some of the teachers who emphasize cognitive goals for the teaching of Jewish history. Yet, God is kept out of the limelight. In this sense, Yaakov Feitman’s article, with its emphasis on “eternal Torah truths,” [11] seems reflected in these schools to a much greater extent than Justin Lewis’ call for the students to see the greatness of God’s work. [12]

Connected but not identical to these religious views is the nationalistic/Zionistic approach which sees the Jews as a separate nation, continuing its existence despite the normal course of history. Although this view overlaps with a religious understanding of Jewish history, there is room here for a more secular nationalistic or cultural view as well. It is this view of Jewish history that attempts to foster “Jewish identity,” as opposed to observance of religious law. This “Jewish identity,” or the feeling of close ties to the Jewish people, was amply evident in the Zionist content of many of the courses offered, teacher interviews, textbooks, and curriculum materials. The majority of teachers and principals also shared this view, though usually in association with the religious view.

It is interesting that of the two single-sex yeshivah high schools, the girls’ school seemed to emphasize Zionism more, both in terms of the amount of hours devoted to the subject, as well as from the interviews of principals and teachers. Of all the schools, School C clearly devotes the most time to this subject, and its insistence on Hebrew as the language of instruction in Jewish history is a further reflection of their Zionist approach.

For two of the four teachers of the integrated course, their view of Jewish history seems dominated by events in general history. All the teachers and principals in the study acknowledged the importance of general history on Jewish history. However, in these two cases, there was a complete absence of any hint that the underlying factors dominating Jewish history lay in anything intrinsic to the Jewish people (e.g., their religion, culture, or national feelings). Rather, their view of Jewish history seems to be that external forces of the society at large in which the Jews lived controlled the destiny of the Jewish people. While none of the others in the study denied the importance of these factors, they did seem to focus more on internal Jewish factors than did these two.

This seems to reflect some differences in the approach to Jewish history in the integrated world/Jewish history courses, as opposed to the separate Jewish history courses. Some of the differences are simply the product of the individual teachers. Yet there does seem to be some evidence that -in terms of class hours devoted to Jewish history, views of Jewish history, and the goals of Jewish history instruction -schools with separate Jewish history courses tend to devote more time to the subject, have more religiously observant teachers, and view Jewish history and its educational goals in more religious terms, than schools with integrated history courses.


The data have indicated that in most cases, the separate teaching of Jewish history does not involve treating the subject in a vacuum, unconnected to the society at large. Yet the data on the principals, teachers, and the materials of the two modes of Jewish history instruction -integrated and separate -often reveal different emphases. This is most obviously reflected in the amount of time devoted to the general (non-Jewish) historical setting, against which backdrop Jewish history unfolds. However, it is also reflected in the greater emphasis on political and social issues in integrated world/Jewish history courses, and greater focus on religious -and intellectual affairs in the separate Jewish history courses. This is connected to the differing views of Jewish history. Most teachers of separate Jewish history courses -and their principals -see Jewish law, its development and observance as keys to Jewish history, and this is reflected in their personal religious behavior. Those teaching the integrated curriculum, not surprisingly, tend to view the interaction between Jewish and general culture as the primary way of understanding Jewish history, and are frequently not religiously observant. Though there is some overlapping, to be sure, there are nonetheless reflected different degrees of concern for Jewish exclusiveness and integration into modern society. One Jewish historian and educator put it this way:

What we take to be the goal of education generally and the way we construe the image of the ideal citizen will largely determine the way in which we study the past…and train others to evaluate the accepted data on the past and any new information that may turn up. [13]

We thus return to the fundamental question of the Jewish day school: To what extent is it designed to foster traditional religious observance and continuity, and to what extent is it to foster integration into modern, western society? Who are the “ideal citizens” produced by the Jewish day schools? Are they the graduates who go on to Ivy League colleges, or those who attend Yeshiva University so as to continue their Jewish education as well? Are they the successful American Jewish lawyers, doctors, and businessmen, or those who opt for the rabbinate? And does the “model graduate” remain in his hometown, or take up residence in the Jewish state, Israel?

Of course, there is not only one ideal type for any school; and each Jewish day school may differ from the next. Yet the real problem is that the question is not seriously addressed. The lack of clear, well thought-out goals for Jewish education is lamented by many. Indeed, as Barry Chazan noted, “Much of the superficiality of Jewish education is caused by its lack of serious concern with goals.” [14] As is clear to anyone, the lack of clearly articulated goals may have a serious impact on educational effectiveness. At the very least, it becomes difficult to measure that effectiveness if one does not know what measuring stick to use.

This was evident to the researcher, in microcosm, as he was gathering his data on Jewish history instruction. The teachers themselves, when interviewed, often responded by saying something like “Gee, I never really thought of that” when asked about their goals, or their view of Jewish history. The comment by Chazan about the lack of concern with goals in Jewish education rang very true. Two teachers explained that they were told only a week before they began teaching that they would be teaching Jewish history. Others complained about the lack of a curriculum and the lack of clear guidelines when traditional religious and modern historical interpretations differed.

The achievements of the Jewish day schools are numerous, including their rapid growth, the recognition of their important role in Jewish life by organizations that at one point opposed their very existence (like the American Jewish Committee), and the high regard granted to them by universities, as reflected in their admissions records. Yet ultimately, they are vulnerable. With tuition costs very high, and a dependence on soliciting contributions to meet the even greater expense of running such schools, it is important for each school to maintain as broad a consensus as possible in the community. It is thus often difficult to take a stand on a major issue. Unlike a few centuries ago, Jewish education is no longer mandatory; no one- not parents or communal leaders -ensures that all Jewish children must attend a Jewish school. It is a voluntary decision on the part of the parents and their children, just as the funds needed to sustain a Jewish day school do not come from a government or a Jewish community tax, but rather from the voluntary act of supporters of day schools. The need for broad support may act as a brake on important educational efforts to more clearly define overall goals in the prospect of greater success in achieving them.


The single problem described by nearly all of the Jewish history teachers interviewed as part of this study can be summarized in a single word: time. This was true of both types of schools in this study, whether offering integrated or separate Jewish history courses. It was true even at School A and School C, where there are the most class hours for Jewish history of any of the schools.

Although this may be a common complaint of teachers of all age levels and subjects, it is also a reflection of the difficulty of attempting to teach a dual curriculum, even in a lengthened school day. It is a particular problem for Jewish history, whose expanse and diversity is much greater than most other history courses. Jews have not only existed for almost 4,000 years, they have also lived in virtually every comer of the world. Even a cursory survey must take into account the very different societies in which Jewish communities lived through various historical epochs.

In short, it would be simple -and desirable -to suggest that more class time is necessary for Jewish history instruction in yeshivah high schools. However, the problems of the dual curriculum make this difficult to translate into reality. Even if it would be, one has the feeling (as at the schools who do devote more hours to the subject) that the teachers’ lament would remain unaffected. Quite simply, the overwhelming mass of the subject matter and the tight constraints of the day-school schedule demand an alternative solution to the problem of time.

It seems that there is no choice but to begin to teach Jewish history more topically, sacrificing some of the names in order to do justice to at least most of the material, and to allow for a more in-depth view of at least selected topics within Jewish history. Such a view would not only allow for greater insight into the historical process in Jewish life, but also for the teaching of the skills of Jewish historical research. It would also seem, to the researcher, that a more in-depth approach would be of far greater interest to students (and perhaps teachers as well) than a superficial survey that often boils down to memorizing names and the sequence of events.

In different schools -and for different teachers -different choices would be made. For some, two of the topics might be “Rabbinic Responsa and Commentaries of Medieval Spain,” followed by a similar topic on the medieval Ashkenazic (German) Jews. Through a look at some of these texts, a picture of the Jewish communities at that time and place could be painted. For someone else, an in-depth examination of Jewish communal structure in a medieval European city might be the way to study medieval Jewish life. A third possibility -perhaps most appropriate for an integrated course – would be to look at non-rabbinic literature (e.g., philosophy and poetry) in order to compare it with contemporary non-Jewish works. All three of these suggested topics are merely examples, and to an extent would probably overlap. However, each teacher/ school could decide on those topics or concepts most important to them, reflecting their own views, goals, and knowledge. Although this process takes place of necessity when any teacher must draw up a lesson plan, the suggestion being made here is that the focus be on broadening the topics while narrowing their number, allowing for greater depth at the expense of some of the breadth.

To be sure, there are some obstacles standing in the way of the implementation of this approach. One is the Yeshiva University Advanced Placement course, which limits the teacher’s options, as he must prepare students for the examination. The integrated course may create problems, too, in that it would probably necessitate similar topical or concept-oriented teaching in world history. (This, however, would probably be all for the better for general history as well.)

Probably the single greatest obstacle lies simply in the present lack of thought given to the Jewish history curriculum. In none of the schools studied is the supervisor of Jewish history instruction a department chairperson, though such a concept does exist for many other departments at the schools. Moreover, none of the present supervisors are themselves trained in Jewish history. They are for the most part the top educational administrators of the entire school, and have little time or inclination to focus on Jewish history instruction. It is not surprising that the level of supervision, according to many teachers, is not very high.

Despite the fact that Jewish history has become more prominent in these schools in recent years, it remains somewhat adrift in terms of the lack of clearly articulated direction among principals and Jewish history teachers, as described above. This might, in fact, be partially resolved if a curriculum of selected Jewish history topics were developed. Such an approach might not only help alleviate the problem of classroom time for the subject, but the process might help teachers and/or principals arrive at more clearly defined goals and greater awareness of their own views. Although such a discussion might be charged with theological as well as educational differences, proper attention on the level of teachers and principals might very well result in greater achievement of the goals of Jewish history instruction -whatever they might be -on the level of the students.

In order to implement this properly, it would seem necessary to have a department chairperson to work with the teachers in the selection of topics to be studied. Such a person would also be able to maintain a constant examination of the goals of Jewish history instruction at the school and the level of their impact on classroom teaching. It would also provide supervisors for Jewish history instructors who are themselves trained in the field, something that does not exist at present.

Suggestions for Further Research

Through this research, it has become clear that there are numerous related topics which other researchers may be able to examine which would be relevant to Jewish history instruction in particular, and Jewish day school education in general.

This study focused on the goals of Jewish history teaching in the day schools. However, other studies can be done on other Judaic (and secular) subjects as well in these schools. Undoubtedly, some of the same questions are involved: Is the goal primarily knowledge, skills, or Jewish commitment? Do different approaches in a particular subject matter reflect different goals? Do principal and teachers share common goals, or are they disparate?

Another related study might be to compare Orthodox and non-Orthodox schools in their approach to Jewish history instruction. One study, by Howard B. Rosenblatt, claimed that Jewish educators of all types share most of the same “social and individual purposes.” [15] It would be of interest to study the particular goals of Jewish history instructors (and their materials) at non- Orthodox Jewish schools and to compare them with this, and future studies.

A historical study on the place of Jewish history in the day school curriculum, and the goals of instruction, say twenty years ago, would provide an important perspective on this study and on changes in Jewish day school education.

Last but not least, it would be important to study the impact of integrated and separate Jewish history courses on the students. This would be a formidable task -to try to isolate this one factor in a student’s cognitive and religious development -but might ultimately be of great significance for Jewish day school education.


1 Bernstein, David I., Two Approaches to the Teaching of Jewish History in Orthodox Yeshiva High Schools, Ph.D. dissertation, New York University, 1986.

2 Five schools were selected in order to examine different approaches to teaching Jewish history in a modern yeshivah high school. For our purposes they will be called Schools A, B, C, D, and E. The principals and Jewish history teachers were interviewed, lessons were observed, and textbooks and curriculum materials critically reviewed.

3 Baron, Salo W., History and Jewish Historians (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1964), p. 101.

4 Cohen, Gerson, “Translating Jewish History into Curriculum,” in From the Scholar to the Classroom: Translating Jewish Tradition into Curriculum, ed. Seymour Fox and Geraldine Rosenfield (New York: Melton Research Center for Jewish Education at the Jewish Theological Seminary, 1977), p. 35.

5 Goldwurm, Hersch, ed. History of the Jewish People, by Yekutiel Friedman; translated by Eliezar Ebner (New York: Mesorah Publications, 1983).

6 Grayzel, Solomon, “Jewish History as a Subject of Instruction in the Teaching in the Jewish School,” Azriel Eisenberg and Abraham Segal, eds., Readings in the Teaching of Jewish History (New York: Jewish Education Committee, 1956), pp. 97-104.

7 Feitman, Yaakov, “Synthesis of Sacred and Secular Curriculum: A Torah Approach,” HaMenahel, Spring 1974, pp. 84-89.

8 Lewis, Justin, “Item from Popularly Used High School Textbook,” HaMenahel, Spring 1975, pp. 56-60.

9 Grayzel, Solomon, A History of the Jews (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1968).

10 Laqueur, Walter, A History of Zionism (New York: Schocken Books, 1978).

11 Feitman, p. 85.

12 Lewis, p. 57.

13 Cohen, Gerson, “Translating Jewish History into Curriculum,” Seymour Fox and Geraldine Rosenfield, eds., From the Scholar to the Classroom: Translating Jewish Tradition into Curriculum (New York: Melton Research Center for Jewish Education at the Jewish Theological Seminary, 1977), p. 33.

14 Chazan, Barry, The Language of Jewish Education (New York: Hartmore House, 1978), p. 56.

15 Rosenblatt, Howard B., “The Social Purposes of Jewish Education in the U.S.” (Ph.D. dissertation, Case Western Reserve University, 1977), p. 226.

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