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For Jewish Educators in Europe Building Positive Identity is the Thing

March 2, 2005
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In a cafe in Paris, an elementary school teacher from Germany is talking shop with a school principal from Spain. “What kind of material are you using to teach the Shoah to the really young students? I just found a great book, it’s English, but in German it’s called When Your Grandparents Were Young.”

“Oh really? I use a poem called ‘Here We Don’t Have Butterflies.'”

“Does anyone use ‘Maus?’ ” the German teacher asks, referring to Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novels, looking around the table at the other educators gathered for a quick coffee break between events. “I only use it with a group that already knows something about the Shoah,” the Spanish principal explained.

At the Arachim Conference for European Jewish Educators, held Feb. 20-22 in Paris, delegates from across Europe were having similar conversations about teaching values, the English translation of “arachim.”

The most pressing issue on the agenda was not how to teach specific issues, but how to build strong Jewish identities.

“How,” Helise Lieberman, principal of the Lauder School in Warsaw asked in her presentation, “do you provide authentic role models and authentic experiences?”

The answers varied from country to country. One hotly debated issue was whether to combine religious instruction with secular instruction.

In France, the separation of religion and state is reinforced even in Jewish schools, and it is not uncommon to find history textbooks omitting the fact that Alfred Dreyfus, a captain in the French army who was falsely convicted of treason in 1894 and wrongly imprisoned, was Jewish.

Renee Dray Bensoussan, a history professor at the University of Aix-Marseille and the Institut Andre Neher, explained that this is because the secular French curriculum must reflect the secular educational values of the state.

“To that we add the values of the Jewish people. We make a clear distinction between the national program and our own program,” Bensoussan said.

Jiri Kvetak, an instructor of Hebrew at the Lauder School in Prague, said one important problem is that “it’s not clear who should be teaching — a rabbi, a conservative, a liberal — and whether or not we should be integrating religion into other subjects, into sociology, into psychology. We’re trying to do both,” he said.

As the Lauder School is the only Jewish school in the Czech Republic, this choice has implications on the future of the Czech Jewish community.

Some educators believe that progressive Jewish education affords the most growth opportunities to their students.

Sue de Botton, head teacher of the Keever School in London, advocates the benefits of interaction with students of other faiths. Learning about other religions, she argued, “makes yours stronger, not weaker.”

For example, she said, “We took a topic on candles, and we invited the Catholic school [to come and talk about] how we use and how they use them. The children learned a lot from that. It’s not going to make us want to go to a cathedral and light a candle, but it helps them learn about different religions.”

Jewish schools throughout Europe are frequently ranked among the best in their respective countries, which attracts even non-Jewish students.

In the United Kingdom, the government has been modifying school admissions policies to allow access to anyone in the community.

“This makes it more difficult to teach Jewish education when the students are no longer entirely Jewish,” said Simon Goulden, chief executive of the United Synagogue Agency for Jewish Education.

Tribe, the youth branch of the United Synagogue, has joined together with Yad Vashem to produce a project called “Sixty Days for Sixty Years.”

The project encourages participants to learn the name of someone who died in the Holocaust.

Each participant gets a copy of a book with 60 short essays by such notable Jewish thinkers as Elie Wiesel and Britain’s Orthodox chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks. At the bottom of each page is a reference to a psalm and a mishnah.

“The idea,” Goulden said, “is both to do a little bit of a personal journey and learning, and a little bit of Jewish learning, tihilim, mishnah, and to link their memories with the memories of someone who died in the Holocaust.” More information on the program can be found at

Programs like “Sixty for Sixty” reinforce a positive Jewish identity for European Jewish youth, placing the emphasis on Jewish learning rather than the victimhood aspect of the Holocaust, “which is a primary challenge facing teachers of the Shoah,” said David Metzler of the International School for Holocaust Studies at Yad Vashem.

The conference made it clear that the future for Jewish education in Europe will rely heavily on cross-cultural exchange among Jewish communities.

“Twinning” programs are very important in Europe, said Lea Waismann, principal of the Ibn Gabirol school in Madrid: “In Spain, for example, because we’re such a small community, the kids need to be reminded that there are other Jewish teenagers out there.”

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