Wednesday, April 23, 2014

When lesson plans get personal

היום שמונה ימים  שהם שבוע אחד ויום אחד בעמר
Today is eight days, which is one week and one day of the omer
חסד שבגבורה
A day of loving kindness in a week of strength

I'm in the midst of an 8 session course I'm teaching to 7th & 8th graders on the Jewish experience in America. Most of the students are interested in the subject--a nice plus that's not always the case when teaching in a supplementary synagogue environment. And those that are there just to mark time have been, for the most part, engaged--another check mark in the plus column. I can think of two aspects that may have piqued their interest.

One is that they are learning something new--a part of American and Jewish history they have not been exposed to before. It was great to hear a collective "that's cool" when I showed them a prayer written in Hebrew to honor the ratification of the Constitution that included an acrostic of "Washington" in Hebrew. They had also never considered that there would be Jews who were slave owners, as we considered what seders would have been like for southern Jews, speaking of their ancestors' liberation from slavery while being served by their own African-American slaves.

I think, and I certainly hope, that this subject is also making them think about their own relationship to being a Jew in America. I set the stage in the first class as we talked about the whether they thought of themselves as Jewish-Americans or American-Jews, and what the difference between the two would be.

The lesson I will teach this evening was actually one catalyst to me developing this course. We will be looking at the time period of the great wave of immigration to America from 1880 - 1920, when approximately 23 million immigrants entered the country, mostly from European countries. Around 2 million of those immigrants were Jews, mostly from Eastern Europe. Many of those Jews crowded into New York City's Lower East Side, creating a new world for Jews in American where, for the first time, they are a majority, albeit in a small corner of the country. Since most of my students are California natives, the immigrant experience as it applies to Jews is new territory for them, and something I think it's important for them to know. It's not just about teaching them about their heritage, which is important, but my hope is that it will give them a closer lens from which to look at all the immigration issues facing us in America today.

In planning this lesson, I realized I could also make it personal for me. I will be sharing photos of my family--photos taken in both the old and new worlds. I will show them my grandmother's family. I will show them a photo of my great-grandfather in his klezmer band in Poland, and my grandfather when he played with Paul Whiteman's band in New York.  I'll show them the ship manifests from the Ellis Island website, with the records entry for my grandmother, my aunt, and my great-grandmother Malkah--for whom I'm named.

I'm hoping bringing in my family's story will help make this time period come alive for them. Maybe I can get another "that's cool" reaction. It is pretty cool for me to be able use these mementos from my family's past to teach those who are the future of our people. It not only brings to life the phrase, "L'dor v'dor" - from generation to generation, but it lets me honor the memories of those who were dear to me, truly making them a blessing.

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