Educating for a Lifetime:
Basics of Jewish Knowledge in the Modern Orthodox High School Curriculum

Tamar Hordes

This work describes a vision of educating students of the Modern Orthodox school system to be equipped with a strong and broad knowledge base of basic information about Judaism and Jewish topics. As viewed by teachers in the post-high school seminaries in Israel, graduates of the Modern Orthodox high schools exhibit a lack of basic Jewish knowledge that is assumed they would learn in high school. The aim of this project is to determine areas of weakness in basic knowledge of Jewish topics, among graduates of Modern Orthodox high schools in America. This paper attempts to determine where (in what areas) and why this knowledge is often found lacking, and to propose a solution to fill in the void.

It has been observed that even among those recently graduated from Modern Orthodox high schools, those who have been through greater than twelve years of day school education, yeda clali does not seem to be part of their knowledge base. The yeda clali discussed here consists of basic facts and information about Judaism. It includes the building blocks that future learning is based upon, and the skills needed to continue learning. To give a more defined picture of what is intended by yeda clali of Jewish topics, included in the paper is an outline of topics and examples demonstrating what might fit in to those topics.

Some of this information may actually be taught as part of the elementary or high school curriculum. Unfortunately, the students do not retain a good part of it. When one stops to think about how much information one does recall (much of it unimportant) it becomes apparent how little of it consists of basic knowledge about Judaism. Yeda clali must not only be taught, it must also be made relevant to the life of the student. In this way, the student will learn the information and internalize it and the material will be better retained.

A question is raised concerning the necessity to know basic Jewish facts and chronology, or personalities in Jewish history. Perhaps it is sufficient, and even preferable, to equip students with bottom-line, practical halakha. There are actually a number of advantages to having a knowledge base of yeda clali. It is not merely for the sake of knowing, as an intellectual pursuit. Increased knowledge of Torah and Judaism also affects the consciousness of the knower. The broad knowledge base will give him an appreciation of where he stands in the greater span of Jewish history as well as the foundation to enable him to further his knowledge and awareness. It will enable him to think and to speak about these topics and will, hopefully affect his actions, as well.

Interviews of educators at post-high school seminaries in Israel were conducted to more precisely determine specific areas of basic Jewish knowledge that Modern Orthodox high school graduates don't know. The post-high school seminaries are a gathering point for a high percentage of graduates from various Modern Orthodox high schools in America. Teachers in these institutions are most aware of the information and skills, which with their students are not equipped. The purpose of these interviews was to find out from those 'in the field' what, if anything, is lacking from the high school education of their students.

Educators from six different seminaries were approached. They concluded that students are arriving at the post-high school programs without a lot of basic, background information that it is assumed they would have. There was a general consensus among the teachers regarding the subject areas found to be the most problematic, and these areas are described in detail in the paper. The comments of the educators surveyed revealed that the deficit lies not only in the actual information that is missing from the knowledge base. There is also a lack of learning skills and training in critical analysis, as well as a problem in the general attitude towards learning. Differences in preparedness were noted among students from different schools, but overall the Beit-Yaakov schools seem to successfully instill their students with both, a lot of Jewish knowledge, as well as love of Torah. The common feeling amongst the educators interviewed is that the Modern Orthodox high schools do not sufficiently promote a positive attitude towards Torah learning, and do not stress to the students the importance of remembering the yeda clali that they are taught.

Following the analysis of the interviews, there is a description of factors contributing to this situation. (1) There is a lack of time. The high school administration and curriculum planners have a lot that they would like to accomplish in a limited amount of school years. (2) The high school teachers have not necessarily set out to teach skills and a knowledge base. The agenda is often only the assigned curriculum. (3) The basic Jewish knowledge is being ineffectively transmitted to the students, and it is, therefore, not being retained.

The author then discusses the issue of vision as it relates to the inclusion of yeda clali in the high school curriculum. The following questions are posed: Do the schools each have a vision? Does it include imparting basic Jewish knowledge to the student? Do they periodically re-evaluate to determine if they are successfully achieving the vision? The assessment of the post-high school teachers revealed in the interviews indicates that the concept of yeda clali of Jewish topics has not been included in the vision of the schools. In the case where it is included in the vision, it is not being successfully achieved. Because of this many graduates of the schools are not well equipped in basic Jewish knowledge.

Included in this work is a proposal consisting of an adaptation of the current high school curriculum to include yeda clali. The four general rules underlying the proposal are : (1) that information be taught in an interesting manner; (2) that it must be taught in its proper context; (3) that it should be repeated and reviewed, both in class and on exams and; (4) that its importance and relevance must be stressed. Using these guidelines it will be possible to include in the existing high school curriculum much of the basic Jewish knowledge that should be taught. In this way, the material is taught in context and incorporated into existing subjects, and it becomes more relevant to the student. The relevance of the information increases the likelihood of the student remembering and internalizing the material. After a number of repetitions the student will remember the material and it will become incorporated into his knowledge base.

Potential obstacles in implementing the vision are also discussed. The main obstacle is the attitude of the high school. Only if the schools are willing to assess what they have achieved and honestly evaluate what is still yet to accomplish, can they successfully implement a vision of education. Most schools are reluctant to evaluate the current success rate in obtaining their educational goals, if they have set these goals at all. Furthermore, they are unwilling to adapt the existing curriculum when change is recommended. The teaching staff must be willing to change methods of thinking and teaching to adapt their respective syllabi to include 'yeda clali' data into class material. Needless to say, the teachers themselves must be adequately knowledgeable in these areas.

Another factor working against successful implementation of a vision such as this is human nature people tend to forget. Often, even with excellent teaching methods and interesting material students will forget what they have been taught.

Suggested areas of follow-up, including discussions with students, and high school teachers to determine their opinion of the situation, are also mentioned in the paper.

The study concludes with a discussion of the underlying cause of the lack of yeda clali and how it is actually a symptom of a problem facing Modern Orthodoxy at large. The reason that the students do not know and retain this information, and that it is not necessarily a priority agenda for the schools, is because its importance and impact on daily life is not realized.

It was reported that graduates from Beit Yaakov schools have learned and retained significantly more yeda clali of Jewish topics than their Modern Orthodox counterparts. In the Beit Yaakov school system there exists an atmosphere of ahavat Torah that does not seem to be present in the Modern Orthodox schools. The basic Jewish facts are part of the knowledge base of the students, the language they speak and the way they behave.

The pivotal item that needs to be addressed is how to transfer this positive attitude towards Torah and Judaism into the Modern Orthodox community. The most important step towards increased yeda clali of Jewish topics among the Modern Orthodox would be to decrease the apathy and cynicism in the community and to increase excitement and love for Torah. With this change in attitude, students will want to remember these facts. They will find relevance in what they learn as it relates to everyday activities and thoughts.

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