Curriculum for the Sholem School


for the

Sholem School


Sholem Sunday School is dedicated to helping American Jewish children ‑‑ and their families ‑‑ to achieve a positive understanding of their identity as Jews and as Americans. Through understanding, we believe, our children can become fully comfortable in their identity. We feel that this understanding is best obtained through the presentation of factual, historically accurate material in a free and relaxed atmosphere, conducive to open discussion, questioning and the children's own discovery of their heritage and those aspects of it that are personally valuable and meaningful.

At the same time, the School's cultural and festival activities ‑‑ including involvement of the entire family ‑‑ provide a joyous, emotionally satisfying experience of "being Jewish," enabling the children to savor the distinctive aspects of their identity, while seeing the underlying, universal values and aspirations which we share with our neighbors throughout the world. Jewish holidays, for instance, are celebrated both as historical festivals of a distinct people and for the living meaning they have for us today.

The School places great emphasis on family participation in festival celebrations, adult education classes, forums and workshops. In this way, the child's experiences are greatly enriched, while parents have an opportunity to broaden their own knowledge and deepen their own sense of "comfortable identity."

Religion is viewed historically, in an examination of its role in Jewish history and as one form of Jewish identity, past and present. The School does not attempt to indoctrinate any particular view of religion, while teaching respect for the beliefs and practices of all peoples. No prayers are taught nor religious rituals performed.

The State of Israel, its history and role in world and Jewish development is discussed in the context of modern history, Jewish geographical distribution and of the many possible forms of Jewish identity. We present as accurate and objective a picture as possible of Israeli life and the problems facing all its people: Jews, Arabs, Moslems and Christians.

While the limited class time precludes the teaching of languages ‑‑ Yiddish and/or Hebrew ‑‑ common phrases and expressions are introduced through usage wherever possible and, especially, in the music program. The emphasis is on cultivating a respect for Yiddish, in which the most significant values of modern Jewish life were created and expressed, and a positive feeling toward Hebrew as the most ancient and most modern of the many Jewish languages.

Sholem Sunday School teaches Jewish history and culture from a general secular point of view and does not reflect any political ideology. Our attempt is not only to provide self-knowledge and self-acceptance but, hopefully, a basis for selection of meaningful values in facing the challenges of life today and tomorrow. For this reason, the curriculum emphasizes the recent past more than ancient times; the Eastern European experience of our grandparents' generations and our American Jewish history more than the nomadic settlements of ancient Canaan; the teachings of the Prophets and the humanist content of the Yiddish classics more than the conquests of the Hebrew kings.




By Hershl Hartman

Educational Director, Sholem School

The name of the game is relevance. And the main rule of the game is involvement. If Jewish education isn't relevant to the problems of American Jews today and tomorrow, it's of little use to anyone. Not to the kids, certainly. Nor to their parents. Nor to the community.

Who needs irrelevant education. . .facts recited by teachers and promptly forgotten by children. . .repeated ritualistically because they're printed in text books. . .or because they've always been part of Jewish education? Kids have an annoying ‑‑ but penetrating ‑‑ habit of asking: "Why do we have to know this junk?" It may sound belligerent. . .but listen closely and you'll hear a plea for relevance. What does it mean? To me? Today?

Unless Jewish education answers those questions, constantly and repeatedly, it's not education; it's merely teaching about the Jewish people to a captive audience that is merely serving time until graduation or until parents' pressures ease up enough to permit early liberation by dropping out.

Involvement is more than the ideal method of assuring that what is taught is also learned. It is, in fact, the main aim of secular Jewish education. The main goal of secular schools is to develop a generation that will be involved. . .as Jews, drawing on the progressive strengths of Jewish tradition. . .in the great changes that are developing in society. Further: if secular Jewish education is successful, its graduates will become part of the Jewish community, exerting influences to counter the growing conservatism there.

But, for our purposes here, involvement refers mainly to an approach to teaching: methods and concepts that will grab hold of the child and make him or her a part of the learning process. . .that will make Jewish history and culture come alive. That will give it meaning and substance. That will make the pupil feel that it's something he has to know and understand in order to know himself.

What's needed, in short, is a "new history", geared to the needs of today's children as closely as the "new math." Secular Jewish education is uniquely equipped to begin developing this "new history" because it's relatively free from dogmas and sacred cows.

Some of the key features of the "new history" ‑‑ not all, by any means ‑‑ will include the following concepts:

1) Major emphasis on those aspects of a given historical period that have special relevance for the present and the future.

Choosing these special events will involve both the teachers' and the students' perceptions of what is relevant. Thus, teachers must become flexible enough to modify a planned curriculum when students become particularly involved in a subject.

For example: the study of Eastern European history should properly focus on the development of modern anti-Semitism as a branch of racism and on the varied responses of the oppressed Jewish minority, as well as the reasons for these responses. The key to involvement of the students is their perception that study of this historical epoch can provide insights into two major present-day areas of concern: the developing black revolution and its many different, often contradictory goals and methods; and the wide diversity of attitudes within the Jewish community on the major issues of our times. This concept of the goals of the course is based on an assessment of what is relevant in the sweep of current events and will most involve the students.

But what if the sweep of current events leads to a new outbreak of warfare in the Middle East? Or if, hopefully, the Israel-Arab issue comes into sharp focus for other, better reasons? The study of Eastern European Jewish history would continue. . .but the emphasis would be altered radically. The new goal of the class would be to gain insights and understanding of the development of Zionism and its many divergent philosophies, as well as other, non-Zionist approaches to the 'Jewish Question' that sprang from the Eastern European experience.

Note that, in neither case of the above example is the goal of the course defined as "teaching Eastern European Jewish history." Such a "goal" denies relevance and defeats involvement.

2) As far as possible, the insights and understandings must flow from the students' involvement, not from the teachers' lectures.

The "new math" calls it "discovery" and it works because a child ‑‑ or an adult ‑‑ will remember much more vividly something he or she has discovered and internalized, rather than merely memorized. Granted it's much easier with finite numbers than with historical and social concepts. But that mustn't stop us from trying to use this technique at every opportunity.

Here's an example: most youngsters will contend that their present and future social commitments and involvements stem from everything in the world except their Jewish identity. They are ‑‑ or will be ‑‑ on the side of right because their generation has a better moral sense. . .they're under 30. . .they're Aquarians in spirit if not in fact. . .etc. But Jewishness as a source of social commitment? Never!

What if the American history class explored the reasons that Congregation Shearith Israel, in New York during the Revolutionary War, chose self-exile as a means of expressing support for the Revolution? Why this method by this particular ethnic group? What might they have done if they were "only" patriots. . .not Jewish revolutionaries? How did their Jewishness effect their revolutionary commitment?

3) The methods of teaching need to be as involving and as exciting as possible.

There are no teaching tools geared to this concept of secular Jewish history-teaching. This can be an advantage as well as a hardship. Why not involve the children in the creation of the necessary tools? How about a monthly "underground newspaper" that reports and editorializes and cartoons and advertises about the historical period under study? Or several filmstrips (or slide presentations) during the year? Photographic skills may be found among both children and parents (it really doesn't take that much know-how). The children can select visual materials from books or do their own art-work, or set up costumed scenes. They can write and record their own narrative on cassettes. They might add a Jewish music background. . .from records or with their own voices and instruments.

Or what about celebrating holidays in the manner of the period under study? Purim during the time of the Khmelnitsky revolt. . .Passover in the pre-Civil War South. . .or during desert wanderings. . .Chanukah in New York in 1775. . .or in Russia in 1905. Explore the why, of course, as well as the way.

4) Literature is often the most effective way of learning history.

How many Americans know about the Civil War era only what they "learned" from "Gone With The Wind?" Most of Yiddish literature, on the other hand, (in English translation, of course) is historically accurate. Sholem Aleichem, Peretz, Mendele and their contemporaries could not romanticize or distort the life their readers were living at the time. (I.B. Singer doesn't have that problem: but we do, thanks to him.)

The prepared curricula list literary material. Much more needs to be found. But literature doesn't end with books, nor do books end with reading. Folk songs do more to describe life and ideas than whole libraries. And dramatizations ‑‑ on stage, in slides, even in movies ‑‑ can involve the students more powerfully than anything else.

5) The "new history" in secular Jewish schools will reach its pinnacle of achievement when it regularly involves parents as well as children, along with teachers.

Perhaps it can start with a few parents becoming involved with a particular project that requires certain technical skills (putting out a good-looking newspaper. . .making a film, etc.). In some cases, it might start "at the ground floor" by throwing classes open to parent participation: as equals, not dominating discussions or pulling rank on the youngsters' right to challenge or disagree. Perhaps it will require monthly parent get-togethers to review and discuss the next month's classroom activities, so that they can provide back‑up at home. . .or assist the teacher in finding resource material.

Obviously, we're not ready to spell out the forms of such a total educational program and the organization it will require. But it must be the ultimate goal for any form of Jewish education that aspires to be relevant and that seeks to proceed through involvement to commitment.


In the past two decades the Jewish secular school has shared in the great upsurge of interest in Jewish education among parents of school-age children. This interest, in itself, however, is no guarantee of clarity concerning the aims and objectives of secular Jewish education. On the contrary, these young parents seem to share with all young parents the problem of defining Jewish identity in general, and the aims of Jewish education in particular.

A preface to a curriculum should formulate a credo, a set of guiding principles for parents and teachers. Yet it is equally important to know that these principles have been undergoing change, that the parent groups have been constantly changing, that any unanimity achieved will be from the starting point of great diversity, a diversity that, in many respects, will continue to assert itself.


As things now stand, the following principles would perhaps gain the approval of the majority of those who now support the Sholem School.

1) The secular school bases itself upon the human and social values in Jewish history.

2) Chief among these values are the ideals of social justice, freedom and peace.

3) The secular school is oriented to the problems of the modern Jew; the fight against anti-Semitism; the problems of our people in Israel.

4) The problems and aspirations of the Jewish people cannot be defined in exclusively Jewish terms. Our fate is linked with that of other minority groups, with the trade union movement, and with all the forward-moving forces in history that make for democracy, economic security and peace.

5) Values and inspiration come from the whole of the Jewish past, from the prophetic tradition, from the recurrent struggles for freedom and the high moments of cultural achievement in many lands and times; but an especial inspiration comes from the Yiddish-speaking generations. In the Yiddish language, in the past hundred years, there blossomed forth a cultural renaissance whose significance for us lies in many things; its reflection of the life of the folk, of the masses of plain Jewish people; of their sufferings and struggles against oppression in the old country and the building of the trade union movement and of people's institutions in the new country; its abundant treasury of story, song, dance and ceremonial, which have given emotional content and warmth to the body of Jewish teachings.

6) In line with these values, the definition of the Jews is broadly conceived in terms of peoplehood. The Jews are a people whose present identity has been shaped by their common past. Out of this past arise those values which may serve as a meaningful basis for a secular Jewish approach to life and education.

7) We separate history and mythology. We indicate whether we are dealing with actual events, probable events, legend (based on events), or fiction and mythology. We clarify the differences between an event on which a holiday may be based, and the legends which were created or became attached to it later.

8) We validate the students' own expression of Jewishness. We encourage discussion of how the students and their families express their Jewishness, how they observe the holidays and life cycle events. We are non-judgmental about each family's choice.

9) We encourage students to express their attitudes about their Jewish identity. Apathy, loss of identity, and confusion, as well as joy and commitment to Jewishness are real experiences. We can overcome the challenges only if we first recognize them and try to understand them.

10) We encourage inquiry and debate about moral dilemmas and contradictions. Violence, chauvinism (national and sexist), tolerance and irrelevance are as much present in the Jewish experience as the prophetic tradition and tzedakah. Jewishness is multi-dimensional and real, and relevant when presented as such.

11) We appeal to the whole child. We use teaching techniques and strategies that address a variety of learning styles, and we are responsive to both group and individual learning needs.



History is a social science that studies the record of human events, their causes and consequences. A secular approach does not explain events through the intervention of supernatural forces in history. By contrast, a theist approach assumes the role of a supernatural power (i.e., God) and therefore has a very different interpretation of events, causes and effects.

Secularists endeavor to interpret the history of all peoples with equal objectivity. Jewish history is not sacred. It can be questioned and criticized. What is "sacred" is the responsibility to learn, to be objective, to understand and to remember.

The study of history tries to understand events in the context of the social, economic, political and intellectual realities of the time of the events, and, where dealing with texts, the time of the writer's life. The writers of history may have lived at a different time from the events they write about. Information is filtered through the bias of the writer. We do not seek, necessarily, to hide or eliminate that bias, rather to understand it and so gain a different understanding of the events described.

We teach that some events did occur with indisputable evidence, and that some events were "likely to have happened" or "might have been possible". Miracles are not events. They are stories or fantasies created by people, often for specific religious, political or communal purposes.

Generalizations about history need to be used cautiously and critically. They may come from a primarily theistic point of view that does not recognize the importance of the vast realm of secular Jewish life. E.g., "The Jews survived because of Torah", or "The greatest contribution of the Jews to humanity is monotheism." Generalizations may be chauvinistic. E.G. "The Jews were the first to, or the only people to..." They may not recognize the contribution of all societies or both sexes within the Jewish people.

Some generalizations project modern concerns onto past events without historical consideration. E.g., "The purpose of the dietary laws was hygiene."

We endeavor to provide equally both male and female role models and literary main characters. it may be necessary to point out that women's deeds were often not recorded or made the main subject of stories.

Jewish Identity

Since the birth of the Jewish people, Jewish literature, art and philosophy have addressed both secular life and theology. Theistic religion is only one way to express Jewish identity, Zionism, political activism, and secularism are other modes in which to express one's Jewishness. The different branches of Judaism represent different approaches and ideologies, not different degrees of commitment to Jewishness.

Individual human identity is multifaceted. In our society individuals generally belong to more than one community that contributes to their sense of identity.

Chosen People

The Jewish People are a people like other peoples, with a history, a rich culture, and hopes for the future. We affirm the right of all Jews and all peoples to maintain their national identity and to do so in their own way as long as it does not infringe upon the rights of others to their own expression of identity.

The writers of the Bible and subsequent rabbinic writers believed the Jews were chosen by their god to be a light unto the nations. There are parallel beliefs in other cultures and religions. We do not believe in choseness or that we are a light unto the nations. Recent events, as well as history, shows that the Jews are a people like any other, sometimes guided by a narrow definition of self-interest, sometimes rising above it. Jews have created a set of ethical laws and guidelines, as have all societies. There have been times in history when Jewish thinking has advanced the development of ethics, as have the great thinkers of other cultures. Furthermore, Jewish sages have both influenced and been influenced by philosophers from other cultures.


We do not believe that there is a supernatural judge or an absolute moral authority. We recognize the right of each individual to choose their actions and judge themselves. We strive to help our students to recognize and choose behaviors which are socially responsible as well as individually satisfying, and which will foster social justice, freedom and peace for all peoples.

We teach our students that a mitzvah is a responsibility to choose the best course of action in every circumstance, to balance individual needs with the greater social good in the search of the best actions.


Bible is literature and mythology and written by human beings, like all literature. Good literature speaks to us about the human condition. Bible has shaped the lives of our ancestors and the development of Judaism. Our aim is to make the stories and their characters an integral part of the students' consciousness, and to encourage students to question and interpret them. We emphasize the universality of the stories and concerns reflected in the Bible. We strive to help the students separate the elements of myth and history, recognizing the influence each strand has had upon the universality of these stories.

God is the main character in most of the stories, poetry and chronicles. The characteristics attributed to God change throughout the Bible. Writers attribute to their gods the traits they desire or which their own historical times prize. We can learn a lot about the needs and wishes of a people by studying their gods.

We choose stories that deal with human relationships, societal and group identification and development, and the development of the concepts of social justice. Stories about listening to God or obeying strict religious guidelines are irrelevant for us, except as they illuminate the beliefs that motivated our ancestors. We strive to have the students analyze the actions of the characters, the consequences of those actions and how the students themselves would have acted in similar circumstances.

It is a challenge to find materials that we can use in teaching our students Biblical stories. Most materials are not only theist in orientation, but do not foster literary, anthropological or historical analysis of these stories. Accordingly, we ourselves must be the interpreters of the source materials for the students in most instances.

Jews Around the World

All Jewish communities in the world are of equal importance to Jewish peoplehood. North America, Israel and the republics of the former Soviet Union are home to the largest Jewish communities. There are many other smaller communities, each important. Each has its own unique and distinct characteristics. Important secular humanistic Jewish organizations are found in the large countries mentioned above, as well as in Latin America, Europe and Australia.

We recognize Israel's unique place in the history of the Jewish people, through actual experience in Biblical times and its prime mythological role during the Diaspora. There is, however, no agreement in our community regarding the importance of Israel to modern Jews or on the solutions to Israel's security problems.

We teach that Israel became a Jewish state because it was conquered, built and developed by Jews, or the group of people who later became Jews in the process of building their nation, not that it became a Jewish state because it was promised to the children of Israel by their god. We do not refrain from assessment of the government of Israel and its internal and international policies any more than we refrain from such analysis of any other government. We do not expect that the government of Israel, or its people, will be more perfect or "high-minded" than any other nation. Maps of present day Israel which we use show the occupied territories as such and not as part of Israel.


Within Judaism and within the Secular Jewish Movement there is a wide variety of practices. As Jews have done through the ages we choose practices from Jewish traditions and adapt them if we need to in order to make them consistent with our ideology, seeking always to maintain the social and communal bonds with our heritage.

The practice of rituals is not an indicator of one's morality or of one's commitment to the Jewish people. Many members of our community do not feel a need for ritual to express their Jewishness and prefer to do so in their intellectual or political or social behavior. We each practice in accordance with our own values, our conscience and our needs, not as halacha prescribes. The need for roots and a community of like-minded families and individuals with whom to share significant events is a need that we recognize and seek to serve in our holiday and community celebrations. Our communal activities are planned to foster the feeling of community and Jewish identity that our members seek in banding together.

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