Our Jewish Studies program at Rochelle Zell provides a welcoming environment for students of every Jewish walk of life. We focus on meaningful learning, exposure to core Jewish texts and subjects through careful, close reading, and the cultivation of student understanding and self-understanding in relation to Jewish text and community. Our exploration is open ended—questioning and reflection are stressed. Students are encouraged to be open to the ideas and perspectives of others whether they encounter them in text or in discussion. Rochelle Zell takes into account that texts have a history and are understood differently in time and over time by different approaches and philosophies. Faculty break down the borders between academic subjects allowing students to make connections between what they learn in Jewish studies and in their other classes. Jewish studies is also integrated into Tefillah, where students present work produced in the classroom and experiment with ideas within the vibrant and rich context of our prayer community.
Three primary objectives drive Jewish studies curricula and teaching: subject knowledge acquisition, identity formation and personal meaning-making, and text-decoding skills to become independent students of ancient texts. The Jewish Studies Department includes the study of Talmud, Bible, and Jewish thought. Students take 3 ½ years of Bible and Talmud, and 1½ years of Jewish thought. The department has two separate programs—a Hebrew-based program designed for students coming in with day school background or the equivalent, with the ability to study primary texts in Hebrew, and an English-based program, designed for students coming in with little Judaic studies background and/or low-level Hebrew language skills
Students taking Bible courses gain a wide range of knowledge about the literary nature of the Bible, the ideological aspects of biblical texts, the normative ideas of Judaism that emerge from the Bible and their subsequent development, as well as numerous approaches to reading the Bible. Students gain an understanding of the Bible as a sophisticated anthology of diverse genres, a multivocal text and a source for great ideas of Western civilization, and a source for their own artistic inspiration and religious thinking. Within the Talmud courses, students understand rabbinic values, ideals, logic, assumptions about earlier sources, the construction of a Talmudic Sugya, and the development of rabbinic argumentation and law over time. Specific topics are selected to build Jewish literacy and to connect to key areas of Jewish life within the school and beyond.
The year-long Jewish thought course for seniors is called The Religious Quest for Meaning in Modern and Contemporary Jewish Thought. Jewish thought is leveled into honors and college preparatory based on analytical capabilities, not Hebrew language facility.
Jewish Studies reflects the heart of the school, for we deliver many of the core components of the RZJHS mission. As our mission statement articulates, we are devoted to creating a “culture of academic excellence that fosters critical thinking.” In addition to analytic questions, we “inspire a reverence for and critical understanding of Torah” by asking students to find their own voice within the tradition, read the text generously and sympathetically, and look at these sources to form their own Jewish identities. We encourage hard questions and respectful challenges to “empower students to find their own voices in a respectful community where every individual counts.” Students work in Chevrutot, partnered learning, to discover the text independently in dialogue with a peer rather than through the guidance of a teacher, and in doing so they also build relationships of respectful debate and dialogue around learning. We “integrate the wisdom of our heritage and values with the sciences,” when we read articles by contemporary scholars and link the big ideas of Jewish studies to conversations taking place in English and history classes.
Lastly, we “cultivate a commitment to living Judaism in the modern world.” Authentic assessments focus attention on real life situations and challenges students face as modern Jewish teenagers. By discussing these challenges, students grapple with real tensions and learn to make conscious choices as they go out into the world beyond RZJHS with a strong commitment to Jewish living and an active participation in the greater society.