JOFA curriculum ‘personalizes’ biblical figures

JOFA curriculum ‘personalizes’ biblical figures

Fifth-grade girls at Yeshivat Noam in Paramus will soon study the Exodus account of Miriam’s joyful Song at the Sea. Instead of just reading the text and commentaries, the girls will listen to several types of music and discuss how they affect and express various moods.

This approach – designed for Goth girls and boys – is part of a new supplementary Bible curriculum developed by the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance. The girls’ teacher, Ilana Rauzman, was one of two educators to “test-drive” the curriculum, and is the first to implement it in North Jersey.

The JOFA lesson plans aim to create “a gender-aware classroom” using multi-sensory activities, including pupil dialogue, with the goal of imparting a deeper understanding of the text and of the biblical characters as real people.

Ilana Rauzman is “test-driving” a new supplementary Bible curriculum at Yeshivat Noam.

Rauzman shared her impressions with 20 other Bible teachers at a recent JOFA Educators Workshop organized by the curriculum’s co-writers, Teaneck residents Tammy Jacobowitz and Judith Talesnick. Participants also got tips on how to implement upcoming units.

“What makes it so special is that it makes learning come alive and the characters come alive, which is one of my goals as a teacher and also one of the goals of Noam,” said Rauzman. “There are so many ways to learn, and many different types of intelligences and strengths come out from this approach.”

Jacobowitz, who is earning her doctorate in midrash at the University of Pennsylvania, said the units are designed to engage all kinds of students to study the Chumash (Five Books of Moses) “in ways that stretch what teachers traditionally do. The centerpiece is student dialogue.”

The focus on gender awareness, Talesnick explained, “is not ‘rah-rah women’ but looking at where the women are in the text and how it approaches female characters and issues of power, family, and relationships.”

In the book of Shemot (Exodus), the spotlight is on “unexpected leaders” such as the midwives, Yocheved, Miriam, and the daughter of Pharaoh.

Rauzman said this outlook is unique in the Orthodox world. When she has read similarly themed materials developed at non-Orthodox institutions, “it feels like they don’t transfer well to an Orthodox setting.”

However, she added, “The gender issue does not stick out. The learning is so genuine, and grounded in the text, that it doesn’t seem like we’re focusing on women versus men. It’s just learning more deeply about a character.”

It is the element of self-discovery that Rauzman likes best about the curriculum. “I love that approach of finding things and figuring things out for themselves,” she said. Talesnick, a Judaic studies and Hebrew language educator, calls this “a constructivist approach, where the teacher is the expert learner, and the students come with their own opinions and experiences.”

Teachers open to the challenge of structuring their classroom in this way will “see different things happening in the classroom than usual. They’ll see a new side of their students,” said Talesnick.

Because the JOFA curriculum is meant to be taught at a slower pace, Jacobowitz realizes that many teachers won’t have the time to use it in its entirety.

“Its groundbreaking quality will be limited until teachers find ways to use it more fully,” she said, “but in time it could transform the way kids gain access to Chumash and personalize it.”

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