Prompt: What should Jews know? (Is there a “core curriculum”? If so, what’s included?)

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Wordle - Holtz(1)Writer: Dr. Barry W. Holtz

To ask the question “what should Jews know” is to invite a simple answer; namely, “everything.” This may seem like a cheeky response, but it is meant to point out two problems that need to be considered before attempting an answer: the question of context and the question of goals. In my book on teaching the Bible, I posed the question of context in the following way:

… the teacher—at whatever level in the educational system—needs to be thinking about one important question for his or her students which I would express as: “what’s worth learning here?” In asking “What’s worth learning here?” I mean the following: For these students, in this setting, with these particular constraints of time and context—what should be taught? Not: what could be taught, not what is the sum total about this subject area that I the teacher know, but what should be taught?1

The “particular constraints” of supplementary school education are well-known. The most important are probably the following four: 1) limited amount of time for instruction; 2) teachers who are either untrained or lack Judaic knowledge (or both)2; 3) questions about the commitment of families to this form of Jewish education; 4) confusion about goals on the part of schools, teachers and parents. I will say something about point #4 later in this paper, but it is probably true that the first item—the limited amount of time available—is the most challenging of the four. One can imagine teachers being trained (it would take a great deal of effort, but it could be possible with the right expertise and commitment of the schools). One can imagine an effort to include family education to address the third point and other interventions to address the fourth. But time is not fungible. A school that has only two hours a week or four hours a week of instruction time is limited in what it can accomplish.

The diminution of hours of instruction is one of the fundamental facts of supplementary schooling since the end of the Second World War. I am not aware of research that has precisely tracked this (and there may well be), but the anecdotal evidence is easily found.3 Some schools have included Shabbat as a “school day”—attempting to integrate the experience of being in synagogue with the supplementary school schedule. In doing so, the disadvantage is the possible releasing more instruction time and replacing it with worship time. Admirable, but problematic as well. In fact, one of the unintended consequences of the growth of day schools in the non-Orthodox world has been the perception that if one wants a “really serious” education, one sends the children to day school. Supplementary school education is for the “rest of people.” This is an attitude, unfortunately, that has been expressed by some rabbis (who try to send their own children to day schools) and that adds further to the lowering of the standards and expectations for the supplementary school. Of course, Project ReFrame begins with a fundamental fact that is unlikely to change: outside of Orthodoxy the majority of children who get a Jewish education, get that education in some version of supplementary school. Given the economics of our time, one might surmise that this percentage is likely to increase over time.

So any consideration of the issue of “core curriculum” must be assessed within the context of what education scholars sometimes call “opportunities to learn,”4 that is the amount of time spent on actual curricular matters. It should be noted that even thirty years ago questions were raised about the lack of time available in Hebrew schools. Seymour Fox, for example, always pressed the idea that the “informal” aspects of Jewish education—camps, youth groups, junior congregations, vacation programs, etc.—were a necessary component of adding opportunities to learn for Jewish youth.5

Above I mentioned the question of confusion about goals as a fundamental problem of supplementary school education. This issue has specific and serious implications about the possibility of a “core curriculum” for these schools. Any curriculum is meant to be an expression of some larger vision or sense of purpose. Any culture’s conception of “the educated person” necessitates translation into the educational system that the culture creates. In 19th century England it was assumed that being an educated male of the ruling classes entailed knowing how to translate Latin into English and English into Latin. There was in this an expression of a classical ideal of the nature of leadership. In the Eastern European Yeshiva of the same time, it was assumed that being an educated male of the “ruling” classes meant being able to comprehend the intricacies of Talmudic argumentation and commentary. When Samson Benderly conceptualized the Hebrew school of the early 20th century, his vision was that of a cultural, Zionist-oriented Jewish identity, rooted in knowledge of modern, spoken Hebrew, Jewish customs and Jewish history.6

What, then, is the notion of the “educated Jew” that makes sense in contemporary America and how might a curriculum be constructed to express that? In a Jewish population so widely variegated how can we make such determinations? Benderly’s vision of the communal Talmud Torah eventually gave way to the congregational school and despite some interesting experiments in recent years, the overriding model—at least for pre-Bar Mitzvah Jewish education7—of supplementary school education is one based in an individual synagogue.

So we can begin with the starting point for most Jewish education in the past 50 years in America: what is the curriculum that will prepare young people for active synagogue membership? At one level this is a skills-based model and it is flexible depending on the particular orientation of each synagogue. If synagogue participation has been understood to be attendance at communal prayer services, particularly on Shabbat and festivals, then the curriculum needs to include inculcating the skills necessary to participate. For a long time that has translated first and foremost into a rudimentary Hebrew knowledge. I say “rudimentary” because by and large the focus in synagogue schools has been on the “decoding” of Hebrew—to put it more bluntly, being able to pronounce Hebrew outloud more or less correctly. (In no other language that I know of, do people use the phrase “do you read X language?” to mean, can you pronounce the words?! Even in languages written in non-Roman characters like Greek or Russian and even in languages where pronunciation has its own complexities, viz. French) Congregations that use more Hebrew in their prayer services may tend to put more emphasis on this. The acquisition of this skill culminates in the bar or bat mitzvah public performance, once limited to the recitation of the blessings for an aliya and singing the Haftorah and nowadays often adding the more challenging task of chanting from the Torah scroll itself.

In my view this is unlikely to change, whether we like it or not. Synagogues hang on to the bar/bat mitzvah as a mode of keeping membership, and the ritual of this life cycle event has the potential for such power for families and the individual child, that it would be impossible—and undesirable—to try to undermine it. That being said, the question remains why acquiring decoding skills takes so many years and occupies so much of the curricular time in the school. Some hope has been raised about technology helping solve this problem and there are computer programs, games, etc. both available online and from commercial publishers that claim to be effective.8 The efficacy of these products merits further examination.

But what aside from Hebrew? Participation in synagogue services demands more than being able to pronounce the Hebrew. I would argue that as long as the synagogue remains the primary institution of American Jewish religious life, young people will need to learn at the very least three specific content areas. First, they will need to study the content of the prayer services in ways that are engaging and inspiring. This of course includes certain skills (when to stand; when to sit; how to bow), but mostly should be viewed as a meaning-oriented approach to prayer and the prayerbook.9

Second, because synagogue life on Shabbat and Jewish holidays always includes a Torah reading, students will need to study the core biblical passages of the year’s cycle. How that should be studied is something I will address below.

Finally, going hand in hand with synagogue-based curriculum of prayer and Torah readings is the study of the Jewish calendar and core home rituals (the Passover seder; Shabbat rituals, etc.) and mitzvot. Benderly recognized in the early part of the 20th century that certain aspects of Jewish life that in the past children learned by observing and participating at home could no longer be assumed. He introduced “customs and ceremonies” as a response to this cultural change and the situation is even more dramatically true today given the rates of intermarriage and the lessening of the kind of sentimental (if not faith-based) connection of Jewish practice in our times.

Once we have added these elements, we can ask, “is there time for anything else”? It’s a fair question and one step toward an answer has to do with how these matters are taught. I would argue that the way we teach prayer, Bible and the Jewish calendar and rituals needs to be driven primarily by a focus on Jewish ideas and values. That everything we teach—even so-called skills—needs to be rooted in three principles:

First, it must be interesting. That is, the way we teach Bible and the way we teach the prayerbook and Jewish holidays has to be as intellectually stimulating, engaging and challenging as anything that students encounter in the best of their secular school education. We need to show that Judaism is engaging and fascinating. It deals with the very biggest of ideas and values. What biblical passages we choose to teach need to be taught along the lines of this principle. The same is true about our interpretations of rituals and holidays. If we teach the skill of putting on tefillin but don’t address why we wear tefillin and what ideas and values are expressed by this practice, we will have failed.

Second, it must be personally meaningful. “Interesting” takes us only so far. We need to find modes of instruction that help relate our content to the core questions and concerns of our students. We have to be able to show why Judaism matters. To them and to the world. Why should I care about putting on tefillin? Why should Shabbat matter to me? This is what we must address in our pedagogy and curriculum.

Finally, we need to communicate the idea that whatever we have learned together, there is still a great deal left to learn. In other words, the education of students should point them forward toward more learning. One of the most exciting developments in American Jewish life in the past 30 years has been the number of opportunities for serious Jewish studies in university courses. In our minds as educators we need to keep in mind that down the road there will be more opportunities for these students to continue their learning—in college and in the various adult Jewish learning programs that have come into existence during this time period. Teaching with an eye to the future is an important element.

What have I left out? Any attempt at creating a core curriculum by necessity leaves out certain subjects. This is particularly exacerbated when the time constraints are so profound, as they are in the case of the contemporary supplementary school. The three elements that are most obviously missing in the portrait that I have laid out are: Israel, Jewish history, Jewish commitments to social justice. The last of the three is the least problematic because any curriculum built around Jewish values and mitzvot would by necessity need to include units around the Jewish value of tzedakah. Translated into our contemporary value of social justice, an exploration of the tradition’s concern with helping those in need would fit well here. In recent years the term tikkun olam (repairing the world) has become popular in Jewish educational and community contexts. Although far removed its early Kabbalistic meaning, tikkun olam has come to stand for the larger sense of social justice as a Jewish value. It is not a mitzvah per se in the classic formulation, but it has become a kind of mitzvah for our times. It includes, of course, not only concern for the poor and disadvantaged (tzedakah and gemilut hasadim are the traditional terms), but in particular a concern for the environment and protecting nature.

Jewish history presents a different problem. I think it is unlikely that an academically rigorous study of Jewish history is possible at all within the supplementary school. There are simply not enough hours. And it can be argued that if the motivating value—the vision—behind this entire curricular approach is participation in synagogue/religious life, Jewish history in the true sense of the word is less relevant than the other subjects mentioned above.

Israel presents other challenges. As long ago as 1973 Fox, in the article referenced earlier, was pointing out “There seems to be a good deal of evidence that the State of Israel plays an important part in the lives of American Jews, yet the subject of Israel has been virtually ignored by the American Jewish religious schools.”10 Today, Israel—thanks to efforts by a variety of sources such as the Jewish Agency and the ICenter—has come more fully onto the scene. Yet the topic is complicated for other reasons, particularly because the goals of Israel education are extremely confused.11 There is no doubt that individual institutions will have to address this question and find ways it wants to approach it.

One of the most interesting phenomena in recent American Jewish education has been the emergence of “delivery” systems for Jewish education that differ from the traditional congregational school model. These include alternative institutions such as the Kesher Community Hebrew School After School in Newton, Massachusetts and the Jewish Journeys Project at the JCC in Manhattan. Other new models involve online Hebrew “schools” and the resurrection of an old model (one that was often used for the education of girls)—private tutoring. Do such emergent alternatives change the content focus of the curriculum that I’ve discussed above? My sense is that they do not. Primarily because most of those programs are at heart preparing students for engagement with contemporary Jewish religious life. In the backdrop of these alternatives is the still the very mainstream aspiration—preparation of the child for the bar or bat mitzvah, either held in a synagogue or in an alternative space. Fundamentally the motivating force remains the same.

But more radical reconceptions might be possible. There are, quite legitimately, other models of a core curriculum based on different motivating visions. With the rise of the category “just Jewish” in surveys of Jews, we might wonder if a “peoplehood” or “community” or even “secular” educational model may emerge. Once upon a time there were such models—in particular the Yiddish folkshule on the one hand and the Zionist-Haskalah orientation of Benderly and a number of his younger followers on the other. Benderly’s notion of an Ahad Haam oriented cultural Zionism was deeply connected to a curriculum based around Jewish history. Benderly and Israel Goldberg set out to write the textbook that encompassed that curriculum, a multi-volume work with an extraordinary title: Outline of Jewish knowledge: being a history of the Jewish people and an anthology of Jewish literature from the earliest times to the present: including a brief account of the history and civilization of the nations with whom the Jews have come into contact, and an exposition of the present-day status and problems of the Jewries of the world. We can see echoes of Benderly in a massive project funded in our times by the Posen Foundation, The Posen Library of Jewish Culture and Civilization. This multi-volume work (aimed at an adult audience) will try to give “a panoramic view of Jewish culture, both religious and secular, through the ages.”12 Its orientation is that of the foundation that supports the Library—“The Posen Foundation works internationally as a service provider to support secular Jewish education and educational initiatives on Jewish culture in the modern period and the process of Jewish secularization over the past three centuries. At a time when the majority of world Jewry defines itself as secular and is not well educated in Jewish culture, the Foundation offers this growing community the opportunity to deepen and enrich the study of its cultural and historic heritage – from a secular, scholarly perspective.”13 A supplementary school curriculum based on the Posen Library would look considerably different from the one that I have described above.

I have not addressed issues related to the preparation and professional development of teachers working with the curriculum that I have outlined. Clearly, this is a major factor in successfully developing and enacting the curriculum concept here. In addition, this is only the beginning of a process of refining (e.g. what biblical passages would we teach? What rituals and values?) the real content of the curriculum. What I have suggested here is the beginning of a larger task, but perhaps it will serve such a start.


Dr. Barry HoltzBarry W. Holtz is dean of the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education and the Theodore and Florence Baumritter Professor of Jewish Education at The Jewish Theological Seminary. He leads courses in teaching classical texts, professional development for teachers, philosophy of Jewish education, and current issues confronting Jewish education.




1Barry W. Holtz, Textual Knowledge (New York: JTS Press, 2004), 158-9.

2 Adam Gamoran, Ellen B. Goldring and Bill Robinson, “Towards Building a Profession: Characteristics 0f Contemporary Educators In American Jewish Schools,” in Rich and Rosenak, Abiding Challenges: Research Perspectives on Jewish Education (Tel Aviv: Freund Publishing, 1999). Findings confirmed by later studies as well.

3 At the risk of dating myself, I can simply point out that when I attended “Hebrew School” in the 1950s (my bar mitzvah was in 1960 and I continued on to Hebrew high school), my school met four afternoons a week for 2 hours each session and three hours on Sunday morning, that is, 11 hours. When I came to the Melton Research Center at JTS to supervise the curriculum project for congregational schools in 1978, we were designing materials assuming a six-hour a week school that met three times a week. Today my impression is that there are few schools that meet six hours a week in the Conservative movement.

4See, for example, Robert C. Pianta, Jay Belsky, Renate Houts, and Fred Morrison, “Opportunities to Learn in America’s Elementary Classrooms,” Science (March 30, 2007).

5 Seymour Fox, “Toward A General Theory of Jewish Education,” in David Sidorsky, The Future of the American Jewish Community (New York: Basic Books, 1973), 260-270

6 Jonathan Krasner, The Benderly Boys and American Jewish Education (Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2011).

7 There are some models for communal Jewish high schools in the spirit of the old Talmud Torah ideal.

9 I have written about this and what it might entail. See Barry W. Holtz, ““Prayer and Praying: Teaching the Inner Life,” The Melton Journal, #27, Autumn, 1993

10 Fox, 262

11 See for example, Alex Sinclair, “Beyond Black and White: Teaching Israel in Light of the Matzav,” Conservative Judaism 55/3 (2003), 69-80 and Bethamie Horowitz, “Defining Israel Education,” Icenter (March 1, 2012), Berman Jewish Policy Archive,

13 The Posen Foundation


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