By Gheña Glijanksy Korn P’22, ’24 and Debra Wasserman P’21, ’23
A hallmark of the RSS curriculum is the intentional way in which topics are taught, particularly in the area of Jewish Studies. With each passing grade, teachers introduce material in keeping with the emotional and intellectual growth students have made. To explore this evolution, we will look at the most recent holidays celebrated at RSS: Yom HaShoah, Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut, three holidays that are grouped near each other on the calendar and are similarly focused on the history of Israel and the Jewish people. Laurie Piette, RSS Director of Studies, shared four overarching themes that can serve as a framework for viewing the Jewish Holiday curriculum.
First, the Jewish holidays provide an opportunity for students to celebrate their Jewish identity. Celebrating and observing the holidays helps engender a sense of pride in being Jewish. The holidays also punctuate the year, giving students a sense of “Jewish Time.” Rabbi-in-Residence Ben Spratt reflects, “Our tradition calls upon us to feel the perpetual circle of change. With our eyes open to a world abloom, we may reflect on the rhythms of growth and decay, darkness, and light. The cycle of the Jewish year invites us to move heart and mind in step with the world around us.”
Though it falls third on the calendar, the first Yom (Hebrew for day or period of time) our children are introduced to in their schooling is Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day. A holiday of joy and celebration, it is one that even our youngest students are able to understand and experience. For children in Nursery through 1st Grade, the holiday is framed as a celebration of Israel’s birthday. The children learn about Israel in the classroom via books and imaginative play—such as taking a pretend plane ride to Israel, watching a performance by Israeli artists, (this year featured Play Me a Story) and enjoying special blue and white cookies. As students advance to Grades 2-4 they learn about Yom Ha’atzmaut in their Jewish Studies and Hebrew classes, partake in grade-wide Israeli dancing and enjoy Israeli foods in the cafeteria, learning and experiencing the culture of Israel during the school day. In Middle School, students hold an assembly where they perform songs and skits in Hebrew. The highlight of this celebration is the 8th Grade’s original play– written and performed by the students entirely in Hebrew– about the early pioneers who settled in Israel. These activities create a unique space and time for all students to celebrate and mark Yom Ha’atzmaut each year.
The day immediately preceding Yom Ha’atzmaut is Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day. Students in Grades 2-8 observe the holiday and study it in their Jewish Studies and Hebrew classes. In addition, a siren is sounded over the intercom system at 79th Street similar to the siren that sounds across Israel on this day. Students stand for a moment of silence and then a prayer to remember all those who have fought to make Israel a free state.
Second, study of the holidays spirals within the integrated Jewish Studies curriculum so that content becomes more complex and detailed through the grades. This can be seen in the different ways students celebrate Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, where, each year, students build upon their existing knowledge. Following guidelines established by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, teaching about the Holocaust is graduated appropriately for students’ age and emotional development.
While the most difficult aspects of the Holocaust are reserved for the 8th Grade year, students’ exposure to Yom Hashoah begins in elementary school. In Grades 2-4, they are introduced to the holiday as a day of remembrance, with information provided during morning tefillah (prayer). Bridging the Elementary and Middle School Divisions, fourth and fifth graders learn about Righteous Gentiles, the non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. By 6th Grade, students begin delving more deeply into the subject matter; they watch and discuss the documentary Paper Clips, which examines the question: “What is six million?” By 7th and 8th Grade, students are challenged and moved when they hear first-hand Holocaust survivor testimony in a special Yom HaShoah assembly. In addition to meeting with survivors of the Holocaust, eighth graders read Night by Elie Wiesel and study the Holocaust in depth in their history class. They then have the unforgettable experience of visiting Yad Vashem during their culminating trip to Israel in the Spring of their final year at RSS.
Another distinguishing characteristic that reinforces the Jewish Studies curriculum at RSS is our unique position as part of the larger Congregation Rodeph Sholom (CRS) community. This connection enables our students to benefit from the wisdom and guidance of our synagogue clergy. In fact, CRS Rabbis and Cantors often serve as an integral part of students’ holiday experiences, as when Rabbi Ben Spratt leads the lighting of yartzeit candles for Yom HaShoah during Grades 2-4 Kabbalat Shabbat.
Finally, the curriculum is designed to guide students to a rich and sophisticated level of understanding of the history, rituals, and customs of each holiday. As with so much of the curriculum, the idea of informed choice is ever-present. Our students come from families with varying levels of holiday observance. As they grow and mature, they will decide for themselves how they commemorate the various holidays. The knowledge base, understanding, and comfort that the Jewish Holiday curriculum provides ensures that they will be able to make thoughtful and confident choices—whether it means attending an event at CRS to honor Yom HaShoah or creating their own moment of silence for Yom Hazikaron.
RSS parent Laurie Ravetz, whose youngest child graduates this year, shared the following; “Each year, as our children learned about the holidays, some new, interesting fact was revealed. When the kids were young, we used to lead the discussion about the holidays and their significance. As the kids got older, and their knowledge exceeded ours, they began to lead the conversation. Our children became our teachers deepening our collective familial connection to our Jewish roots and community.”
Director of Studies, Laurie Piette, reflected that the four themes, Jewish identity, depth and developmentally appropriate study, our connection to one of the oldest synagogues in the United States, as well as a curriculum that guides students to a deep and sophisticated understanding of the holidays and their associated rituals, themes, and complexities, are what make our program robust and fulfilling for our students. This gradual and continual development over a student’s career at RSS demonstrates the purposeful way that Jewish holidays are taught, celebrated, and observed through the curriculum at Rodeph Sholom School.