“Sacred Texts, Modern Questions”: New Resource from Facing History's Jewish Education Program
This month, Facing History and Ourselves releases its latest resource, Sacred Texts, Modern Questions: Connecting Ethics and History Through a Jewish Lens. Designed specifically for educators in a Jewish setting, this collection of lessons explores sacred texts of the past and the questions that shape our present. It makes connections between instances of moral courage in Pharaoh's Egypt, struggles of conscience and faith in Hitler's Europe, and readings from today's influential thinkers. This is the organization’s first publication to integrate original Facing History resources with biblical, rabbinic, and contemporary Jewish sources. With more than 30 readings, pages of full-color artwork, and a variety of classroom strategies, activities, and questions, Sacred Texts provides opportunities for teachers of both Judaic and general studies to integrate learning and encourages interdisciplinary conversations. We sat down with Jan Darsa, director of Facing History’s Jewish Education Program, to discuss the new resource and talk about how it can inspire students, teachers, and school communities to combat prejudice with compassion, and indifference with participation.
Facing History and Ourselves: Congratulations on the new resource, Jan!
Jan Darsa: Thank you. The Jewish Education Program has existed since 1990 and we published our first resource book, The Jews of Poland, in 1997. We’re very excited to introduce this new resource, which draws on Facing History’s nearly 40 years of experience working with teachers, schools, and communities on issues related to the Holocaust and other difficult histories the world over.
Facing History: This book integrates biblical passages and stories with Facing History themes and teaching strategies. Where did that idea come from?
Darsa: We were leading the very first Facing History seminar that was just for educators teaching in Jewish settings. Up until that point, we welcomed Jewish educators as a group at one of our regular seminars and we would conduct break-out sessions that might be relevant. We would talk about The Jews of Poland, about Jewish life before World War II, about Jewish resistance during the war, but here we had an entire seminar devoted to working with teachers that taught in Jewish settings. There were 37 of them, I still remember. We were doing a session on the choices people make today and throughout history and we thought, “What if we did something on the biblical figure of Avraham and the choices that he made?” The people in our group were very intrigued by that. We had a really rich discussion and we thought, “We’d like to do this type of thing again. What other stories could we use?”
Facing History: How, out of all the biblical texts, did you find the 30 included here?
Darsa: We knew we wanted to focus on themes of identity, membership, justice, and participation. We worked to come up with biblical and rabbinic sources that aligned with those themes. Initially we came up with 67 pages of text and we compiled them as a suggested list for teachers to use. This book grew out of that initial suggested list and writing it was an effort in which we were fortunate to work with so many talented minds – rabbis from around the world, religious teachers, and other scholars including Phyllis Goldstein, who wrote Facing History’s book A Convenient Hatred: The History of Antisemitism. Sacred Texts includes units on identity, membership, conscience and courage in the face of authority, dilemmas faced by Jews during the Holocaust, and a chapter that is called Zachor and Tikkun, or memory and repair. How do you remember this history and how do you repair it, how do you mend the world?
Facing History: How do you begin to answer that question?
Darsa: The book starts with the theme of identity, with the story of Moses, who asks God, “Who am I?” At one time or another, we have all been asked to introduce ourselves, to define, in essence, our identity. After reading this text, we suggest that teachers ask students how they might introduce themselves to a stranger. We ask students to consider their own identities and how, at times, various parts of their identities might seem to clash. There’s a great activity that can be paired with this discussion in which students create identity charts. It’s an exercise that helps students consider the many factors that shape who we are as individuals and as communities.
Facing History: This is the first time Facing History has explored biblical texts in its resources. How do these ancient, religious works fit in with Facing History’s themes and teaching approaches?
Darsa: To me, the bottom line of Judaism is “How do we create a just society?” And the bottom line of Facing History is the same – “How do we create a just society by educating kids and empowering them with the tools they will need to work toward that?” What are we, through Facing History, teaching our kids? We’re teaching them to be good citizens, to live in the world in a just manner, to have good civic dialogue, to think about the reality that when one person isn’t free, then ultimately nobody is free.
Facing History: How do you hope teachers use this book?
Darsa: This book provides an opportunity to bring everyone – history teachers, English teachers, psychology teachers, Judaic studies teachers, advisors – into conversation together for the first time. A Judaic studies teacher might use a biblical passage from this book to explore issues of membership and identity within communities, while at the same time the history teacher in the next classroom over may use examples from the book that cover the Holocaust to explore these same things. In this way, teachers can build a whole school environment that connects history to the lives of adolescents today. So the Jewish studies teacher might introduce the quote from Hillel, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” And the history teacher might build on this conversation by showing a video like Pigeon which is about a Jewish man taking the train in Nazi-occupied France and the stranger who makes a kind and important gesture toward him. Together, these pieces can create a dialogue that will spill out of the classroom about why we take risks, why we stand up for other people. The readings and art, the activities and questions in this book are really just a creative jumping off point for teachers to work together and to expand the work that is already going on in their own classroom and in their own schools.
Facing History: Sacred Texts comes out this month, but already teachers and administrators have been exploring its lessons and activities during Facing History seminars and workshops. How are educators and schools using these resources?
Darsa: It’s been so exciting to listen to the rich conversations taking place around these resources. There’s a lot springing out of this. At Gann Academy in Waltham, Massachusetts, for example, they did a unit where they introduced Maya Angelou’s poem “The Mask” while studying the story of Purim. And we’re hearing from so many teachers who are using a story from Sacred Texts – about Marion Pritchard, who helped to hide a Jewish family during the Holocaust – to open up a classroom discussion about the choices upstanders make today and throughout history.
Facing History: How can educators learn more about this book and dive deeper into its content and teaching strategies?
Darsa: The book comes out in mid-October and we are hosting an introductory online course for educators in Jewish settings on the Holocaust and Human Behavior from October 11 to December 5. There are scholarships available for that course. And then on February 11, 2013, we will offer a Sacred Texts webinar that will guide teachers and administrators through using the book in the classroom.
Facing History: What do you hope students take away from using Sacred Texts in the classroom?
Darsa: I think very often students see texts like these as ancient. Whether it’s biblical or it’s the Holocaust, it can all feel ancient to our students. One of the primary goals of Facing History is making history relevant to our lives today. How do we get adolescents to see that what happened in a different time has something to do with them, now, today? These lessons help students understand why these stories – from the bible, from history – are connected to our lives. This resource also provides something unique for students – it allows them to really consider both their intellectual selves and their spiritual selves. It allows students to really see themselves as a united whole. The book opens up a conversation about deep theological and spiritual questions while connecting these questions to issues of good citizenry and Jewish identity today. So what this book does is capture the whole child.
This article was written by Facing History’s Julia Rappaport. For questions or tips on what Facing History is doing in your community, email her at Julia_Rappaport@facing.org.