Learning to Read in Jewish Education

May 7-8, 2017
Brandeis University

Chair: Ziva R. Hassenfeld

Learning how to engage with the Jewish textual tradition is central to Jewish education. How educators teach students to read Jewish texts, and how those students learn to read, shapes the kinds of Jews students will become. The Mandel Center’s spring 2017 conference “Learning to Read in Jewish Education” brought together practitioners and scholars from Jewish education and general education to discuss the teaching and learning of classical Jewish texts in Jewish elementary schools.

Some teachers see the reading of texts as an opportunity to transmit religious knowledge. This idea finds expression when Rabbi Eliezer is praised for reporting that he “never said anything he did not hear from his teacher” (b. Sukkah 28a). Others hope to help students make sense of these texts on their own whatever that means for their particular community. As R. Ishmael taught, “One biblical verse can convey many teachings” (b. Sanhedrin 34a). Others navigate between these two objectives. Teachers’ choices about how to teach classical Jewish texts stem from their conception of the purposes of religious education as well as their own pedagogical inclinations.

We grappled with two central questions:

  • What does successful reading of classical Jewish texts look like for elementary school children?
  • How do we help our students develop those capacities?

We brought together a diverse group of people to consider these questions. The 10th cohort of schools is completing the Jewish Day School Standards and Benchmarks project in Tanakh, and work is proceeding with Standards and Benchmarks in Rabbinics. A variety of new Tanakh and Talmud curricula are now available, along with innovative professional development programs. Educators in general have become much more reflective about their goals and their pedagogies. But we have not created opportunities for Jewish Studies teachers to talk together, across settings and institutions, about what we’ve learned.

Through turning outward to the scholarship on reading in general education and inward to examine a plurality of definitions that Jewish educators work with in their teaching, we developed new shared language for how we teach students to read classical Jewish texts. We mapped definitions of successful reading onto corresponding text pedagogies and articulated together our spectrum of positions on what successful reading of these texts can look like in Jewish education.