“Connecting the Unconnected” is a collaborative learning experience that brings together sixth through eighth grade students at six Jewish day schools in small Jewish communities to connect Jewish history and values with social justice, civil rights, and American and Israeli heritage through classroom learning and real-world experiences.
“Justice, justice you shall pursue.” These words from Parashat Shoftim reflect a longstanding Jewish commitment to social justice. Jewish texts and traditions provide a lens for viewing historical and current events and a motivation to act. As educators, we seek to connect learners to a rich and diverse knowledge base, enabling them to interact confidently with a changing world. “Connecting the Unconnected” is a collaborative learning experience that brings together sixth, seventh, and eighth grade students at six Jewish day schools in small Jewish communities (the “Alliance”) to connect Jewish history and values with social justice, civil rights, and American and Israeli heritage through classroom learning and real-world experiences.
The Alliance began in 2016 to address the unique challenges faced by Jewish day schools in smaller Jewish communities. These challenges include isolation from like-minded schools, small school populations, and limited resources. This partnership has resulted in Connecting the Unconnected, a collaborative, three-year middle school curriculum that brings together students and faculty at all of the schools, both virtually throughout the school year and in person through a combined educational trip at the end of each school year. It integrates learning in the fields of social justice, civil rights, and American and Israeli heritage, viewed through the lens of Jewish values. Students explore the ways in which Jewish texts, ethics, and identity have encouraged Jews to work towards social justice, both in America and Israel. Shared trips at the end of each school year allow students to connect their classroom learning to real places and people, forming a more authentic understanding of the subject matter.
The Connecting the Unconnected curriculum was developed jointly by faculty teams at each school, each team led by a lead teacher. It is being implemented on a rolling basis at the different schools, based on the grades enrolled and other factors. Implementation began during the 2017–2018 school year with sixth grade students at Ezra Academy, B’nai Shalom, and Hillel School. Seventh grade students at Ezra Academy also traveled to Washington, D.C. in 2018. The seventh-grade curriculumwill launch this school year (2018–2019). During the 2018–2019 school year, five schools (B’nai Shalom, Ezra Academy, Friedel, Hillel, and N.E. Miles)are participating in the program with sixth and/or seventh grade students, depending on the grades enrolled at each school. The eighth-grade curriculum will launch during the 2019–2020 school year.
The sixth-grade curriculum is entitled “Social Justice, Segregation, and Systematic Oppression: The 20th and 21st Century Experiences of Americans, Israelis, and Diaspora Jews.” During this year, students explore topics such as the history of slavery in the United States, the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the Civil Rights Movement from a Jewish perspective. For example, the students learn about the Jewish moral imperative to be an upstander (as opposed to a bystander) through studying both classical texts such as the Torah and Talmud and first-person accounts of Jews who participated in the Freedom Summer. This year-long study culminates in a joint school trip to Montgomery, Selma, and Birmingham, Alabama. During the 2018 trip, students personally connected to the subject matter by meeting participants in the Civil Rights Movement and visiting important sites such as the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where the Bloody Sunday beatings of protestors during the first march for voting rights occurred; the Rosa Parks Museum; the Lynching Memorial; the Southern Poverty Law Center; and the Holocaust Museum. These experiences allowed the students to see, hear, and touch parts of history about which they had learned in the classroom. Doing so not only developed their intellectual understanding of these topics, but also deepened their emotional connection to them.
In seventh grade, students focus on advocating for change to bring about social justice. For example, seventh graders will start by examining historical case studies of activism—such as the roles of Jewish women in bringing about the garment industry labor movement in the early twentieth century and activism relating to Soviet Jewry—and by engaging in Jewish text study. After discussing how to determine the issues for which they want to advocate and how to advocate successfully, including the importance of civility and non-violence, the students then become involved in their own advocacy projects. They begin on a local level and by working with partners at the other participating schools. At the end of the year, the students travel as a group to Washington, D.C. There, they take their advocacy from the local level to the national level, meeting with their representatives in Congress and at related political action committees. The students visit political monuments and other important locations, such as the Smithsonian Museum, the National Holocaust Museum, Old Alexandria, various synagogues, and Arlington National Cemetery.
The eighth-grade curriculum expands upon the prior two years and forges additional connections with Jewish communities in Israel. The curriculum for this year is “Political Systems and People of Innovation: American and Israeli Governments and Technological/Social Innovations.” During this year, students learn about American and Israeli advances in technology, global thinking, political mechanisms, and social and technological innovations. For example, Israeli technological advances have created positive change around the world, from methods of water conservation, to wind power technology, to robotic limbs. The students from the participating schools then connect this learning to the real world by traveling to Israel as a group, where they will connect with schools in their Israeli Sister Cities and engage in rich historical, cultural, and social justice learning and experiences.
The capstone trips are not a vacation; they are intense educational experiences that forge authentic connectionsbetween the classroom and lived experiences. Nikol, a student who participated in the 2018 trip to Alabama,discussed meeting a woman named Gwen Webb, who marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. Nikol recounts that she looked into Ms. Webb’s eyes while she was telling her story and saw “the whole story in my head.” The students and Ms. Webb later held hands, standing in a circle and singing freedom songs, an experience Nikol describes as “amazing.” This experience culminated Nikol’s year of learning and left her with the conviction that “[n]o matter what color you are, you will always be a family.”
Connecting the Unconnected creates a framework for other schools that are seeking connections: between classroom learning and real-world experiences; between Jewish traditions, history and contemporary issues; and between schools. Both the curriculum and the collaborative, multi-school model can be adapted for schools of different sizes and for communities with different topics of interest.
Connecting the Unconnected allows for in depth learning about social justice, civil rights, and American and Israeli heritage. During the course of the school year, students form connections between these subjects—viewing them through the lens of Jewish texts, traditions, and ethics—and with students in the other participating schools. During the trip that culminates each year of study, the students deepen these connections, break down barriers between classroom learning and the real world, and internalize the pursuit of tzedek, justice, a theme that winds through Jewish text and tradition and through American and Israeli history. This drives them to become forces for justice in their own communities, both now and in the future.
Denise Bennett teaches fifth and sixth grade General Studies at Friedel Jewish Academy in Omaha, Nebraska. She grew up on a farm outside of Madison, Nebraska, and graduated from Hastings College with a double major in elementary education and art. Bennett began her teaching career at Friedel in 1988 and has been there ever since. Bennett brought to Friedel the Modern Woodmen of America speech contest in 1989 and was part of the coaching team for the National Winner, Danny Denenberg, in 2015. She also traveled to Washington DC in 2012 to be recognized with Lily Phillips, a high school senior and Friedel graduate whose Presidential Scholar award winning essay was about her most influential teacher, Denise Bennett.
Rabbi Amanda Brodie
Rabbi Amanda Brodie is a Senior Teacher at Ezra Academy in Woodbridge, Connecticut. She attended University College London and Institute of Education, London, both in London, England, where she obtained degrees in Jewish History and Hebrew and Elementary–Middle Education. She obtained a master’s degree in Jewish Education and rabbinic ordination from Jewish Theological Seminary. She has taught at Ezra Academy since 2000, where she has designed and implemented curricula relating to Jewish history, Bible, rabbinics, comparative religion, the history of Zionism, language arts, integration of technology, “makerspace,” art, and music.
Liora Chessin is a fifth through eighth grade English and history teacher at the N.E. Miles Jewish Day School in Birmingham, Alabama. Liora created and runs her school’s Leadership Through Library initiative. She previously served as Director of Admissions and Communications at the NEMJDS. After graduating from Ohio State with an English major and Jewish Studies minor, Liora taught high school in North Carolina through Teach For America. Liora is part of the Brandeis Teacher Leader Fellowship and Ed.M. program.
Carolyn Hawks is the Kindergarten through Eighth Grade Director and Fifth through Eighth Grade Science Specialist at B’nai Shalom Day School in Greensboro, North Carolina. She received her teaching degree from the University of North Carolina-Greensboro in Middle School Science. She taught in public school for three years before joining the staff at B’nai Shalom Day School in Greensboro, North Carolina. In 2018, Ms. Hawks completed a master’s degree in Teacher Leadership at Brandeis University. Carolyn became Upper School Director in 2016 and transitioned to the Kindergarten through Eighth Grade Director in the fall of 2017. In this position, Carolyn continues to teach Science to fifth through eighth grade students. She has joined the students on many trips, including as a chaperone for the sixth graders’ trip to Alabama.
David Prevositi is the middle school Humanities teacher at Hillel Community Day School in Rochester, New York. Prevositi holds an undergraduate degree from Roberts Wesleyan College and a master’s degree in Physical Education, Athletic Administration at from SUNY Geneseo. After working as the Track and Field Coach/Adjunct Professor at SUNY Geneseo, he returned to Roberts Wesleyan College, where he obtained an Elementary and Special Education certification through the Pathways to Teaching program. He is in his third year of teaching at Hillel.
Matt Russ has served as Curriculum Director and Middle School Humanities teacher at the Lippman School, in Akron, Ohio, since 2011. Prior to his role at The Lippman School, he was a Language Arts and Social Studies teacher at Canton Country Day School in Canton, Ohio for nine years. Russ is the educational program director for The Lippman School’s cross-cultural partnership with the Northern Cheyenne Nation and Chief Dull Knife College. He holds a B.S. in Journalism from Appalachian State University and a M.A. in Religious Studies from John Carroll University. Developing curricula that intersects literature and writing with cultural studies through experiential learning opportunities is an area of professional focus and interest.