Tuesday, 11 November 2014

How could the teaching of Judaism be improved in schools?

I think what we need is a more rigorous response to Judaism. It sometimes feels that Judaism is typified by teaching about the Shabbat meal in the primary school and then by looking at suffering and the Holocaust once pupils get to the secondary school. Even teaching on Shabbat can be too closely linked with a Friday night family meal – the peace of Shabbat is something that all can participate in, even if you are on your own. 

All RE departments seem to have dreidels but to be honest, I never had one as a child and don’t really see them as central to the meaning of Chanukah. Chanukah for me is about keeping your identity, values and strength in difficult times and is a continuing theme for the Jewish people. 

Teaching about kosher/treif food can just involve lists of what is acceptable and what isn’t. It could be linked more closely with the challenges of being religious in a secular society. Schools could explore the diversity of Jewish communities around the world and use images of black Jews and Sephardi Torah scrolls. They could show differences in seder meals, for example, from the Indian community. Links between Jews and other faith groups (such as the planned House of One place of worship in Berlin, for Jews, Christians and Muslims) could be explored: http://house-of-one.org/en

The consultation for GCSE and A’level RE (https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/gcse-and-a-level-reform-religious-studies) is heading in the right direction in terms of ethical teachings. Many Jewish people would see ‘gemilut chasadim’ (acts of loving kindness) and ‘tzedekah’ (charity) very central to their religion and culture. The concept of ‘pikuach nefesh’ (preservation of life) is a powerful idea. 

Young people particularly have an affinity with the concept of tikkun olam - ‘repair of the damaged world’. Our RE should actively work to build good relationships between Judaism and other faiths and help fight stereotypes, racism and anti-semitism.

Anne Krisman 

Anne Krisman is head of RE in a London Borough of Redbridge special school and is a member of the Expert Advisory Group for RE


  1. Your ideas are a welcome start . When I have visited non Jewish schools I like starting with and rebuffing the stereotypes and myths also many people only know about Jews through tragedy or the violence in the Middle East. So many great comedians and actors actresses are Jews. Use humour to introduce a topic or alternatively get in touch with me. Twitter @rabbirickman

  2. Starting with the premise that (a) you do not need a French-born teacher in order to teach French and (b) you do not need a Jewish teacher to teach Judaism here is a proviso: Pupils benefit and attainment= improved when taught by subject-trained teacher [obvious? not everywhere!].
    Having visited schools, colleges, youth-groups and other non-Jewish faith groups to teach and speak about Judaism for over 30 years, and having taught as a Head of RE for a decade in secular schools I can categorically say: "I don't know the answer". But.. I have some suggestions.
    "Textual Context"
    Help pupils to get to grips with the importance of the religious text(s) - That's what I like about the Consultation on GCSE and GCE reform - Text is high on the expectation. However, text alone is not key, which is why "con [within] text" IS. For example when you look at Shabbat, review the idea of 7th day of Creation, of the need for Rest, of Community, of the 2 lit Friday night candlesticks which might give you away as Jewish in times of persecution, using literacy –pupils might see religious text (in Judaism whether Torah or Tenach or Talmud)as a kind of religious newspaper articles, book excerpts, blogs etc. Re-imagine specific verses as “tweets”.
    "Diversity within Judaism" – aka: “Round up the [un]usual suspects”
    Don’t forget the good old WHO, WHAT WHEN WHERE WHY HOW &c can be a great opener for a Festival, a specific event within the Torah, or in modern Jewish history.
    Whether Orthodox, Marxist, Vegan, bacon-eating, Sephardi, North-London, Russian, Ashkenazi, atheist, The Chief Rabbi, Harrison Ford [check it out, yes, .] or your granny. (or Arab, Gazan, Japanese or ...) Let's try and help pupils over the issue of stereotyping. Yes, @rabbirickman, you're right.. knowledge of Jewish people through tragedy or M/East violence is NOT the best way, though of course truth isn't a bad idea. So.. because I wear a kippah pupils identify me as Jewish. However, I point out, not all Jewish men wear one, but they're just "as Jewish" as me - and if you find a Judaismeter to measure that please let me know. We should be explaining that as the saying goes .. "a Jew is a Jew is a Jew".
    “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” (Frank Sinatra)
    What I have found in the RE departments I’ve worked in is the central place of empathic learning. Years ago in my PGCE I read this; “Empathy stands at the heart of phenomenological RE, and without it RE is reduced to mere rote learning” (Anne-Marie Brandom ‘Learning to teach RE in the secondary School’ p99.)
    Improve the teaching of Judaism in schools?
    Challenge pupils to make as many cross-curricular links with Judaism as possible eg:
    Geography: Immigration, Aliyah, Borders through the years
    Science: “Irrigation of Swamps” Famous Jewish Inventors/ inventions
    English Literature: “Famous Jewish Writers”
    Drama РKindertransport, Merchant of Venice (question is Shakespeare sympathetic Р[Doth not a Jew bleed?] or anti-Semitic? [accurs̩d Jew])
    And so on..
    Let's not forget the challenge to help pupils "Learn ABOUT and LEARN FROM", which Anne Krisman's comments above remind us of. I often use the image of the Channukiah - 8 branched lampstand but with an extra place for the Shamash or Servant candle) - teachers bring knowledge (enlightenment if you like) but it's in order to pass it to all the rest. Some respond to video, drama or pictures, others prefer food, and still others like music (yes, The Kosher Crooner is available for Weddings and Bar-Mitzvahs).
    Improve the teaching of Judaism?
    Teachers: share great ideas, keep learning, look at the Jewish Chronicle and the Jewish News papers both available online.
    HoD: be encouraging, enthusiastic and fight for your subject and for the subject knowledge of your team (even if it's only 1 other - and a non-specialist, but maybe many more).

  3. Yes, I know it was a long post.
    Here's a shorter version.
    Try to teach Judaism WITHOUT referring to
    (a) the Holocaust / Shoah at all.
    (b) suffering / guilt (and Woody Allen)
    (c) food / festivals
    (d) famous Jews
    (e) traditions
    (f) persecutions

    Try to teach Judaism WITHOUT a pupil asking:

    (a) Have you ever had a bacon sandwich?
    (b) Do you sleep with / shower with / your kippah on?
    (c) Do all Jews have beards?
    (fyi: the answer is .. "No, Women and children don't, neither do all Jewish men)
    (d) Are all Jews rich?
    (e) Are all Jews ..... (fill in the gap as seems appropriate)
    (f) How come the Church used to be Jewish?

  4. I'm currently teaching Judaism to year 8 for the first time in many years and with more detail than I ever have. It seems I've broken your rules as we've linked it to tradition. We are currently looking at Matchmaking and the differences in how Jews meet and marry across the denominations. It's very difficult to teach without mentioning some of the things you've said as the resources I've used refer to them.
    I've been in touch with a Rabbi for her advice and I'm hoping to do a live link with a Masorti Jew RE teacher who has very kindly offered to link up with us so my students can apply their learning by talking with her.
    I have really enjoyed teaching it. I just hope I've done it justice.

  5. It sounds to me that you have reflected the diversity of the Jewish community in your teaching, which is very important. Also meeting real Jewish people, whether it is through visits or through link-ups, is key to understanding the range of beliefs within the community. We are an old religion in a modern world and how different people respond to religious traditions in their everyday lives (I just used the 't' word too) is one of the interesting elements of Judaism, I think. Thanks, Miss Cox.

  6. Miss Cox, and AnneK-G,

    Thank you for proving to me that we NEED to teach using those things I challenged us NOT to use (yer what??).

    I would hope that we DO use traditions,food, the Shoah, famous jewish people and more besides.. I'm so pleased that you mentioned the importance of meeting with REAL JEWISH PEOPLE. After all, that diversity helps us reflect so many facets of our faith.

    Surely it is because a religion exists for all,as well as every individual that there is not one single way of teaching it. The challenge is (in my view) to get through the stereotype, the prejudice, the preconceptions, and help our students to discover just as the Chanukiah has a light-bringing Servant (Shamash) candle for the other 8 lights to be lit from, so Judaism has a diverse number of practitioners from Ultra-Orthodox to secular. Each one adds something of the enlightenment .. understanding to all.

  7. What a privilege to be part of the London Hub and share some ideas together. Once again we come to an end of term with Passover about to commence. So much to help pupils learn ABOUT and FROM Judaism with this festival.. things like the cups of wine... the dietary change (no leaven etc), the family gathering, the wine ... the matzah, the four questions, the wine, the different foods on the Seder Plate, the singing, matzah, the wine, the sensation of freedom..

    So how to teach?
    re-enactment? sounds good to me!
    film clips? oh yes!
    focus on freedom, through trust.
    More to follow