by Jane Golub, Alan Rowe, and Joel Lurie Grishaver
Torah Aura was founded with a basic vision. We knew what we wanted to do. We had an idea of what constituted “a good Jewish education,” and we knew the role we believed a publisher should play. Over the next several months we will be sharing those conceptions with you, not to so much for the purpose of selling books, but to facilitate a national dialogue on core issues. We want to hear from you. We want you to demand that other purveyors of educational Judaica make their assumptions and design philosophies equally clear. And, as we work week by week, topic by topic, we want you to think about the way you articulate your school curriculum.
The first thing we need to state is that the purpose of our curricular materials is to save the Jewish people.
That may sound like a truism. But, for us it is not. It means we believe that students need enough Judaica—and the right Judaica—to build a Jewish future. We know from experience and from research that many to most Jews are not taught enough Judaism and to survive as Jews. For a supplemental school to succeed, it needs to offer a real Jewish foundation. Facts are not a foundation—concepts are. Feelings are important—they are necessary but not sufficient. Being able to name the objects used on Sukkot doesn’t lead to the building of a personal Sukkah. The ability to perform prayers from the Siddur is an enabling skill, but not one that alone will lead students as they grow to use services as moments of personal connection with the divine. We spend a lot of time on Bible stories, but no where near enough on developing the skills of extracting meaning from the biblical text. To survive as a Jew, to care to survive as a Jew, one needs a web of understandings and conceptual tools. Torah Aura was created to produce tools that make the “meanings” of Judaism accessible.
The second thing that leads to Jewish survival is connection to community. The simple truth is that Jews who need other Jews are more likely to seek out Jewish connections than those who have just enjoyed some Jewish activities. This is why anyone in the Jewish schooling business pushes camps and youth groups as companion experiences. And, it is why anyone who understands the simplest secret looks to make their classrooms into communities with interdependent learning as a major modality. Equally true, the relationship between teacher and student is critical. It has redemptive possibilities. Because of our belief in community, most of our material (and all of our teacher’s guides) recommend work in hevrutot (or other small groups) and set up situations where students and teachers share in significant conversations.
Most of all, we believe that no matter what kind of instruction we envision, its reality will be in the hands of teacher and class as they interact. Real curriculum isn’t planned, it is actualized. No good lesson should ever happen exactly the same way twice. It is an amalgam of teacher, students, and the moment. For that reason, we see ourselves as creating educational tools, resources out of which good teaching moments and good teaching sequences can be built. We strive to empower the teacher with challenging resources that lead them towards creating good Jewish educational experiences.
This is the way we work. First we map out “the structure of the discipline.” This is a list or chart of the things that we believe an adult Jew needs in order to “choose Jewish life.” For example, when we teach values, we look at the resources needed to encourage adults to turn to Jewish resources when then face a real life ethical dilemma. We then take this map of the discipline and look at the scope and range of instructional opportunities in the course of a Jewish education. Will this fit into pre-school? Can we expect it to be included in high school or as part of adult education? Does it fit into a family context? Etc. We then match up the instructional opportunities with the developmental realities. We look to see which part of our map of the discipline can be introduced at each age opportunity.
We consider our work experimental and always define it as “work-in-progress.” We have been known to redo a work two or three times, using the laboratory of the market place as a source of feedback. We have always believed that we create tools for Jewish education, that teachers are the ones who turn them into educational experiences. Our work has always been a dialogue between experimental designs and practical applications. We are constantly envisioning new techniques and models and then testing them by the reaction of classroom masters.
Over the course the next installments of this piece, we will look at our understandings of a series of disciplines. We will share the ways we create models of the “field” of tools that are needed to achieve a viable future—and look at the way we fit these models into a model of a congregational school.
Jane Golub, Alan Rowe, and Joel Grishaver are the co-owners of Torah Aura Productions.