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Monday, August 31, 2009

What Judaic Knowledge Should Be Taught in our Supplemental and Day Schools?

According to *Wiggins and McTighe (1998) in order to decide what (Judaic) knowledge should be taught in school, the following three categories or priorities of knowledge should be determined.

First priority: Knowledge that is enduring. essential information that students must know.

Second priority: Knowledge that is important, but not essential for students to know.

Third priority: Knowledge with which students should be familiar.

A graphic organizer of the three different types of knowledge appears at the top of this post.

In our opinion it is the responsibility of the Jewish Professional Learning Communityincluding the rabbi, the school director, the teaching staff, the parents, in conjunction with the Central Jewish Educational Agency or Board of Jewish Education, and with the input of other Jewish educational institutions of the various Jewish movements ( e.g. the Association of Modern Orthodox Day Schools, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the Union of Reform Judaism, and the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation) who should determine what is enduring Jewish knowledge, important Jewish knowledge, and knowledge with which an educated Jewish person should be familiar.

Now here are a few questions for you to ponder.

1. What is enduring Jewish knowledge from your perspective?

2. Where specifically can a mentor or a teacher find enduring Jewish knowledge?

3. Is all Jewish knowledge enduring?

4. What is not enduring Jewish knowledge?

I welcome your answers to any and all of these questions.

* Wiggins, G. & McTighe, J. (1998). Understanding by Design. Alexandria, VA. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

In our next post we will begin to describe what constitutes enduring Jewish knowledge from the perspective of several different Jewish educational institutions.


  1. I received the following email response from Jeremiah Unterman who gave me permission to share his thoughts with you on this question:

    "What is enduring Jewish knowledge from your perspective?"

    Given that in the contemporary world, for all of us, Judaism is a free-will decision, I suggest that one's answer should be found as a response to the question, "Why be Jewish?" For me, the answer is found in those enduring aspects of the Jewish ethical contribution which have brought positive change wherever they were implemented: that human beings were created of equal value; that human life is sacred; that God is ethical, and cares about the world and all life in it; that human beings have free-will to choose good over evil; that murder and other heinous crimes are absolute evil; the individual is responsible for the community and vice versa; the work ethic, and weekly rest from work; the hierarchy of ethics over ritual; human rights, even for the socially subservient; the rights of women in marriage; the obligation upon the individual and the community to care for the widowed, the orphaned, the poor, and the stranger; the limitation of governmental power; judgment based solely on merit; the efficacy of repentance; the obligation of doing good to others; the hope of redemption and of constantly trying to improve the world for the benefit of all; etc. 
Ketiva vechatima tova lekulam,
Jeremiah Unterman

    If you wish to contact Jerry, he can be reached at this email address:

  2. What I find particularly compelling about the question is the whole issue of essential knowledge in an age of information overload. As in the general educational world, there is a real tension between accumulation of information on the one hand and ability to engage in educational process on the other.
    In today's Boston Globe, Diane Ravitch suggests that we have gone too far in the direction of teaching skills like critical thinking and have forgotten that there is a basic foundation of knowledge that one needs as a core.

    "But skill-centered, knowledge-free education has never worked." she writes.

    While she quotes educators from the past who have suggested otherwise, she goes on to say...

    "We have neglected to teach them that one cannot think critically without quite a lot of knowledge to think about. Thinking critically involves comparing and contrasting and synthesizing what one has learned. And a great deal of knowledge is necessary before one can begin to reflect on its meaning and look for alternative explanations."

    This certainly supports Wiggins and McTighe in that it mandates a core of essential knowledge. What that knowledge is...? I would imagine that depends on the community one is being educated in. If I am part of a halakhicly observant community my core knowledge would certainly have to include appropriate permitted and forbidden actions. If my community were not bound by halakhah then I would suggest that the core knowledge would need to be that which empowers me to make decisions about the life I live using Jewish wisdom as the lens through which I view my behavior.

    I strongly believe, therefore, that the community in which the education takes place is the one to make the decision as to content.

  3. Rabbi Shalom Berger in his Lookjed list serve offers this suggestions: "Lookjed readers may be interested in the recently published
    Meorot journal, whose focus is on Modern Orthodox Education.
    Among the articles is a paper entitled "What Should a Yeshiva High
    School Graduate Know, Value and Be Able to Do?" By Moshe Sokolow with responses from Jack Bieler, Yaakov Blau, Erica Brown, Aaron Frank, and Mark Gottlieb.
    The full text of the journal is available online at

  4. On the Lookjed List serve, Lillian Howard responded to the these questions regarding enduring Jewish knowledge. With Lillian Howard’s permission, here is her thoughtful response:

    Enduring Jewish knowledge is knowledge in the broadest sense
(understanding, skills, and experiences) which connect the learner to
 his/her Judaism. It is, in this sense, essential to the individual
 learner as well as, perhaps, to the Jewish community in which that individual connects to his/her identity as a Jew.

 Certainly, for many, Jewish texts, traditions, and history are
 considered essential and knowledge of these materials, ideas, and
 facts necessary to becoming Jewishly knowledgeable. For others, it
 might be synagogue skills or an understanding of the vital importance 
of Israel to the Jewish people. Yet, I am hard pressed to agree to an
 objective set of skills or knowledge that "should be" defined as
 central in terms of Wiggins and McTighe's diagram and a first priority 
for Jewish educators. I have seen too many Jewish educators get caught 
up in defining essential Jewish knowledge as well as too many Jewish
 youth lose vital years in their identity formation as engaged Jews 
because of the rigidity of the system and expectations of Jewish
 education. Given the plurality of the modern Jewish people this is
even more challenging, and I think perhaps even outmoded.

 Our first task as Jewish educators is to respect and validate the legitimacy of multiple ways of being Jewish and to instill in our 
students a passion and connection for being and learning Jewish. This
 is the central task. Although we accomplish this through teaching our
 texts, heritage, culture and traditions, this knowledge is not
 enduring or central. It is secondary to the enduring connection of the 
learner to his/her identity as a Jew. Lillian Howard is Head of School at Kehillah Jewish High School in
 Palo Alto, CA.


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