Kol Isha: Giving Voice to Jewish American Women is a primary document based inquiry project for advanced level American history students that encourages analytical interpretation of historical documents in tandem with creative writing and personal reflection.
Kol Isha: Giving Voice to Jewish American Women
Summary: Kol Isha: Giving Voice to Jewish American Women is a primary document based inquiry project for advanced level American history students that encourages interpretation of historical documents in tandem with creative writing and personal reflection. Students explored several primary documents detailing the experiences of Jewish American women, analyzing each in class jigsaw format for language, content and meaning. The students’ analyses of these primary documents culminated in the creation of their own primary documents, letters directed at the historic personas who authored the original primary documents, in which students explained their own personal experiences as Jewish Americans in the year 2017. The letters were then preserved in a time capsule buried on campus grounds to serve as primary documents for students of the future about the experience of being Jewish in America.
Rationale for Kol Isha’s Creation
As a teacher for the past fifteen years, I have always sought to nurture among my students not only a concrete and literal understanding of historical events, but more significantly, a sense of empathy for the experiences of others. What is history if it exists in a vacuum? What is history, if all it boils down to is statistics, dates, and terms to be memorized?
The underlying theme of my teaching practice surfaces in each lesson I teach: we study history to make sense of an exciting and sometimes troubling world that is larger than the microcosm we each know personally; we study history to vicariously experience and empathize with the the challenges faced by others in order to learn how we can better support one another as we face both known and unfamiliar obstacles; we study history to make connections– to understand that the fabric of humanity is comprised of millions of interwoven threads, and each one of us is one of those threads.
History, unfortunately, is selectively told, and the story told is often limited. As I taught my students about colonial America and the formation of the thirteen colonies, I felt a daily and lingering sense of frustration building inside of me. Yes, I was teaching the material, yes, my students would “know” early American history. But the “early American history” I was teaching largely only referred to the white, male Christian experience. In a co-educational modern Orthodox school– one in which I seek to show my students how they are the threads in the fabric of history– where were they in this history I was teaching? Equally disturbing was another question: where were the women?
Our textbook’s message was clear: here was the narrative of early American history, and Jews– more specifically, Jewish women– had no part in it. So marginalized and insignificant, they did not even warrant appearing in a fairly liberal textbook’s margin. Not even worth a margin, actually.
I continued to teach my students the history, as I always had, but the question loomed portentously in the air of my classroom each day, unspoken, nagging, constant: Where were these women?
When a student actually vocalized to me the same question that had been bothering me internally, I could remain uncomfortably silent no longer.
“I don’t know.”
Thankfully, my students were unsatisfied with this answer– and so was I. My desire in designing this initiative, Kol Isha: Giving Voice to Jewish American Women, was to de-marginalize Jewish American women of the colonial era. I wanted my students to see that history is selectively told, and it is each student’s responsibility to ask “Where were they?”
But first, I’d have to find them.
While primary sources are abundant in American history, primary sources uniquely about women are significantly harder to find, and primary sources about Jewish women even more challenging to locate. It was with relief that I found the Jewish Women’s Archive: a treasure trove of primary documents about Jewish women’s experiences. Independent of this archive, I was able to find books that detail the entire correspondence of the prominent Jewish Franks families. I also became interested in learning about Jewish women beyond the colonial era. I was fascinated by Rebecca Samuels’ resistance to assimilation in her letter to her family, and I was similarly intrigued by the “woman rabbi of the west,” whose sermon I also used in this initiative. Researching for this project also led me to discover a fascinating autobiography of a Jewish pioneer woman named Rachel Calof, whose work I also incorporated. These women give voice to a marginalized group of people who shaped America in astounding ways that are often unrecognized and ignored in traditional history textbooks.
Through this initiative, I of course wanted my students to see life as it was for marginalized Jewish American women, but I also wanted them to see how they too might, unfortunately, be relegated to marginalization themselves.
And I did not want to let that happen.
The seedling of my Kol Isha initiative meant that through this project, my students would ultimately:
- Understand history through the lens of the Jewish American woman’s experience;
- Understand their own essentiality as voices in history that provide necessary texture to the fabric of history;
- Create their own personal histories as Jewish Americans to be archived for generations to come
Ideally, this project showcased for my students the diverse experiences faced by Jewish American women struggling with their identities and responsibilities at different moments in colonial American history. In creating this initiative, I deeply hoped that my students would develop empathy for these brave women, and, ideally, over the course of their review, analysis, and responses to these documents, that they would understand that the fabric of history is much more textured than they originally thought.
Part 1: Kol Isha Project Summary and Rationale (above)
Part 2: Kol Isha Project Overview and Implementation
Part 3: Primary Document Analysis Packet
Part 4: Jewish American Women Biographies
Part 5: Primary Source Documents A, B, C, D for Analysis
(Please see PDF for students’ work.)
Teacher-in-Role as Rachel Calof: https://youtu.be/48kK9T9zW-I
Teacher-in-Role as Ray Frank: https://youtu.be/WLdjkUKUiqM
Teacher-in-Role as Abigail Franks: https://youtu.be/ByQMls4dmqE
Teacher-in-Role as Rebecca Samuel: https://youtu.be/b3JAvwsP24U
Part 6: Rubric for Group Work
Part 7: Time Capsule Letter Assignment
(Please see PDF with students’ work.)
Part 8: Students’ Exit Card Reflections
Part 9: Personal Reflection on the Development of Critical and Creative Thinking
Part 10: Personal Reflection on Evaluation of Risk and Failure
Part 11: Students’ Work
(Please see both PDFs.)
As a middle and high school teacher for the past fifteen years, teaching middle school students brings me tremendous joy and satisfaction. I've taught students in the classroom from grades 6 through 12, and I've taught in a diverse range of schools, religious and secular: Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy, The Dalton School, Hunter College High School for Gifted Students, and The Young Women's Leadership School in East Harlem.