Rabbi Peter Stein (graduate of the Pardes Advanced Scholars Program) is currently a Bible and Talmud teacher at the Rochelle Zell Jewish High School. From 2012-18 he taught at the Frankel Jewish Academy, held the position of Chair of Bible Department, created the popular Jewish Journeys course, and received the Grinspoon Award for Excellence in Jewish Education. Rabbi Stein has a BA in Urban Studies from Yale
Part I – Curriculum Overview and Theory
Jewish Journeys is a personal theology class dedicated to helping students explore more deeply what they believe about core Jewish ideas that they will encounter throughout their life. The goal of this exploration is to prepare students to make thoughtful choices about their own Jewish lives once they leave home for college by giving serious thought to what they believe and how their Jewish practice should be shaped by those beliefs.
To accomplish this vision, Jewish Journeys pursues four smaller goals that each represent a constituent skill or experience necessary for students to make informed choices. This class seeks to:
Jewish Journeys is built around five thematic units: God, Chosenness, Commandedness, Prayer and Israel. Each unit includes two or more thinkers chosen to expose students to a diverse range of beliefs about the unit’s topic. The goal of these readings is to serve as a jumping off point to explore what the students themselves actually believe. While it is important to understand the thinkers’ ideas, the goal is not mastery of the thinkers’ beliefs, but pushing the students to think deeply about what they themselves believe.
The first day of each unit is used to introduce students to the unit’s topic, define necessary terms and ideas, and begin thinking about the larger issues that will be explored. After studying all the thinkers, the unit ends with a synthesis day that provides students a chance to bring together the different ideas of the unit and do some final reflections on the ideas they discussed.
Personal Jewish Journeys
Engaging with diverse Jewish thinkers is an important tool for exposing students to a range of different beliefs and practices. It is also important for students to learn from the significant range of practice and belief among the members of their own community. Although each student grows up in unique Jewish circumstances, most students are not aware of the extent of the diversity of Jewish experiences among their peers.
Toward this end, students in Jewish Journeys all share their own personal Jewish stories with the class. Sharing their journeys accomplishes several goals. First, sharing their stories exposes their peers to their own Jewish beliefs and practices. Since these beliefs and practices are frequently much different from one’s own, hearing their peers gives students a broader sense of possibilities. Students are often surprised to hear what goes on in other students’ homes. Second, sharing their stories forces students to reflect on the forces that have shaped their lives to date in a way that they may never have done before. Doing this can help students reach a greater level of self-understanding that will be useful in thinking about their future. Finally, taking stock of their Jewish lives can help students better articulate their Jewish needs going forward.
When sharing their Jewish journey, a student is given up to ten minutes at the beginning of class to share their own personal Jewish story. There is no set formula for what a student need cover, but topics frequently include their Jewish education, family’s background, family practice, outside Jewish activities, personal beliefs and any other influences or experiences that have significantly shaped their Jewish lives. After the student has finished, the rest of the class has an opportunity to ask the student questions. It is important for the teacher to always ask a question of each student to show that the teacher is equally interested in every student.
Although an occasional student may be reluctant at first to share their journey, it is a required part of the class because it is so important for students’ learning to hear the unique and diverse stories of their peers. If there are particular details of their life a student does not wish to share, that’s fine. But they should share as much of their story as possible.
Teaching Jewish Journeys
Teaching Jewish Journeys is a unique experience. If done well, students will open up and share very personal parts of themselves that they do not usually share. The teacher will have the opportunity to help them examine and challenge their most fundamental beliefs about Judaism, which can put students in an extremely vulnerable place.
The success of this course is based upon creating an environment in which students feel safe and comfortable sharing and questioning their beliefs. The first rule of the class, which every student must agree to on the first day, is confidentiality: nothing said in the class can leave. This includes not sharing students’ final papers with other teachers or members of the administration, with the exception of brief anonymous excerpts from papers shared with the Head of School and Director of Jewish Studies to show them the impact of the class.
Teaching this class requires being totally open and non-judgmental no matter what the students may believe. The teacher’s job is to help the students grow into whatever type of Jew is most authentic to themself. The teacher must never tell students that one way of doing Judaism is more correct or authentic than another. This does not mean that the teacher cannot challenge students about their beliefs. There will often be times when students may articulate ideas that are not clear or are even contradictory, and it can be completely appropriate and helpful to point out these contradictions to the student and challenge them to think deeper and clarify what they believe.
The teacher of Jewish Journeys must also be a participant in the class. The teacher must model for students the type of personal sharing and questioning that the teaching is asking the students to engage in. This includes sharing one’s personal Jewish journey at the beginning of the semester as well as sharing beliefs, questions and doubts about each of the topics covered throughout the course. Do not fear that sharing your beliefs will be seen as imposing them on the students. Students are looking for compelling adult models of what Judaism can look like. As long as you don’t try to push your beliefs on the students, your willingness to be open and vulnerable can serve as an important example for the students.
Finally, be prepared to encounter a wide range of beliefs, some of which may be surprising and even shocking. At very least, there will likely be several atheists in the class. It is important that they feel just as included in the class as other students, especially during the God unit. It may be necessary at times to slightly alter questions you ask to make them accessible for the atheists. For example: The question: “In what place do you feel most connected to God?” should be supplemented with: “Alternatively: In what place do you feel most spiritual or most connected to something larger than yourself?” In the event that a student shares something that might appear to be beyond the bounds of Jewish belief, it is important to still remain non-judgmental. Asking sincere questions about the student’s beliefs and how they arrived at them will show respect for and interest in the student. It may also be necessary to help manage the rest of the class’s reaction to the student and make sure that they remain respectful while seeking to learn more from the student.
Unit 1 – God
What is God? (R. Abraham Joshua Heschel, R. Mordecai Kaplan)
How does our God language reflect and affect our experience of God? (Dr. Judith Plaskow)
How can God allow evil? (R. Emil Fackenheim)
Unit 2 – Chosenness
What does it mean to be chosen? (R. Deborah Waxman, R. Yitz Greenberg)
Unit 3 – Commandedness
In what way are we commanded to do mitzvot?
Unit 4 – Prayer
How do we create meaningful prayer experiences? (R. Zalman Schachter-Shalomi)
Is prayer effective? (R. Jonathan Sacks)
Unit 5 – Israel
What is the meaning of the modern state of Israel? (A.D. Gordon, R. David Hartman)