Between Universalism and Particularism: Rethinking the Teaching of Jewish History

Spring, 2016

Source: Hayidion Spring 2016


Applying a backwards design model to the teaching of Jewish history, one is immediately struck by the need for curricular reform. Day schools today should be preparing graduates to thrive in an American milieu. The enduring understandings that students come away with should relate to their lived reality. An obvious approach to this challenge would be for students to study and make meaning of the American Jewish experience. Yet a recent survey of twenty representative day schools in the United States revealed that American Jewish history is rarely taught as a stand-alone course in grades 6-12, and typically given little or no attention in standard modern Jewish or US history courses.

The work of helping students prepare for Jewish life journeys that strike a healthy balance between universalism and particularism should be near the top of day school educators’ agenda. An inquiry-based approach to American Jewish history—or other countries of the Diaspora where day schools are located—that identifies underlying themes and patterns, while also exploring enduring tensions, would encourage students to think about the challenge of inhabiting multiple identities. Moreover, an American Jewish narrative that explores the predicament and blessings of cultural pluralism would help day school students appreciate how the cultural and religious Jewish immersion they experienced in school can be channeled in ways that nourish American pluralism and expand its perimeter even as it also serves to enrich and fortify American Jewish life on both the individual and communal levels.

Fortunately, there are already a few excellent readily available educational resources that facilitate the kind of learning that needs to be going on in day school Jewish history classrooms. Among the best are the lessons on Jews in the Labor Movement and Jews in the Civil Rights Movement created by the Jewish Women’s Archive. Both can be found in the Living the Legacy section of the JWA website, which also includes primary sources and related Jewish texts. Another stand-out example is “Religious Freedom and Democracy: Teaching George Washington’s Letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island,” a joint project of Facing History and Ourselves and the George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom. A recently launched educational initiative at the National Museum of American Jewish History promises to expand on the available repertoire. Hopefully, it will also provide schools and teachers with a needed push to disrupt the Eurocentric Jewish historical paradigm and elevate the American Jewish experience to a more prominent place in the curriculum.

Read the entire article in Hayidion.

Updated: Mar. 16, 2016