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New Ways to Learn

Whole worlds are opening up to students in innovative non-sexist curricula for both sexes. Here are two examples:

Gesher L’Kesher, literally,”Bridge to a Connection,” is a youth leadership program with the goal of helping Jewish adolescents connect with their heritage and the Jewish community by actively involving young people in their own Jewish education.

Gesher L’Kesher uses a “peer mentoring” model as its framework. Older learners participate in the religious education of the younger students. Through interactive learning activities, the older students help younger ones define their positions on contemporary issues using the beliefs of Judaism. Both groups learn the value of applying Jewish traditions and values to their daily adolescent life and in making important life choices. The students seem to enjoy the opportunity to learn with their peers, and to teach them. As one student explains, “I was allowed to spend more time in a group situation with other Jews. There was an automatic closeness, even if other parts of our personalities were totally different. It’s a good feeling to have a common thread of comfort.”

The impetus for the program came from the rabbi and principal of Temple Emanu-El in Westfield, New Jersey who learned from a congregant about a successful high-school peer group program. The two-year curriculum was then designed by Jewish educators for post-Bar/Bat Mitzvah and post-Confirmation ages.

Victoria Sackser, project director for Gesher L’Kesher, says that she was attracted to the program’s “team mentoring” ideology because of her own positive experience as a peer leader in college.

Many of the lessons deal explicitly with gender relations. Some of the topics include “Men, Women and Sexuality,” “Men, Women and Responsibility” and “The Role of Women in Modern-Day Judaism.” In addition to lessons specifically about women, the whole curriculum takes into account the different experiences and perspectives of boys and girls. For example, in one lesson, says Sackser, girls are taught about steroids in sports and boys learn about eating disorders.

Sharon Gallo, coordinator of Gesher L’Kesher at Temple Emanu-El in Westfield says, “This is an ongoing journey of discovery of ourselves and others, and how our attitudes, values and behavior affect the world around us.” Girls especially may feel empowered by Gesher L’Kesher as they develop leadership skills. Students at the pilot schools where this program has been in effect for the past two years facilitate group discussions, foster group cohesion, think critically, solve problems and serve as Jewish role models. “I feel more ‘Jewish’ because I participated in educating people about Judaism,” one mentor explains. Another reports that what she has learned “has made me more comfortable with myself as a Jew.”

For more information, contact Gesher L’Kesher, 997 Lenox Drive, Suite 304, Lawrenceville NJ 08648. (609) 844-1040.

I’ve never learned so much that I never heard about before,” says Mitch Furlett, 16, who is learning about the different roles of women and men in Judaism in the course “The Matriarchs and Patriarchs” taught by Paula Michele Chaiken. “We compared the well-known story of Abraham and his son Isaac to a story we had never learned before about Jepthah, who fulfilled his promise to God and sacrificed his only child, his daughter, when he returned victorious from war [Judges 10:6-12:7].”

“When I was in religious school, no one bothered to tell me about the positive female role models throughout our history. I hope to change that,” says Paula Michele Chaiken, who developed a curriculum on gender and Judaism while majoring in English at Duke University. Her own struggles with Judaism and feminism (“I just couldn’t deal with sitting upstairs”) led her to develop a course for post-Bar/Bat Mitzvah students. “Matriarchs and Patriarchs” was received very well, she says, when she first taught it at Temple Judea Reform in Durham, N.C. before graduating from Duke in 1993. She now teaches it to high school students at Temple Shalom in Chicago.

Her students respond very positively both to the subjects and the teacher. Rachel Pomerantz, 17, says that because “my teacher is a feminist, I can relate to her better and I feel more connected to what we are learning about.” Natalie Furlett, 15, said she began the class thinking that women were ignored in Judaism, “but now I realize that women are included but we are not always taught those passages. These women have become role models to me.”

Chaiken says that the male students tended to be disruptive when the classes began, but that the crowning moment of her still-new teaching career occurred during a feminist seder. One of the boys asked her, “What difference does it make if there are four daughters or four sons?” She explained how   it is to feel yourself excluded from such an important text, after which the boy nodded and said, “Oh. I get it!”

Mitch, one of the only boys in the class. says, “I was really nervous at first. My sister had taken the course and she was always coming home talking about women’s stuff so I didn’t know what to expect. The class has been really interesting and it’s more apparent to me now that I should ask about women’s roles in my other classes.”

The twelve-week course includes a wide range of topics, from biblical stories to present-day issues, all interpreted from the perspective of gender. The last four weeks of the course help students connect what they have learned about their heritage to their own lives. They examine different generational stereotypes and experiences by interviewing their parents and grandparents and by writing about themselves.

The students are taking the ideas and topics they’ve learned outside of the classroom as well. Rachel says that “now when I pray I add the names of the Matriarchs when we say the names of the Patriarchs even though my synagogue doesn’t.” Natalie is now noticing the inequalities in her other classes.”! ask more questions in my other classes about how women are treated, and I just did a high school report on women in religion.”

Chaiken’s goal is to make the curriculum available to organizations throughout the country. She can be reached at 450 West St. James Place #2, Chicago IL 60614. (312) 665-8184.