The fifth-grade class of Beth Shalom Congregation’s religious school was replaced on Sunday, May 21 by some of the most famous Jews in modern history as a part the first annual Jewzeum.
After approximately six weeks of research and work, the students embodied a variety of Jewish personalities, from Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Bernie Sanders to Natalie Portman and Adam Levine. The program was organized by Jewish educator Ellyn Becker Kaufman, who has been in the field for 41 years. Kaufman came to Columbia this year to take a step back from being a director, opting to follow her passion for teaching instead.
“As a teacher, I like to make history come to life for the children,” she said, noting an earlier program she did on life-cycle events for which a class acted out its own wedding. The student participants filled every role, from photographer to chuppah-holders.
“I feel like kids get so much more out of a program if they’re actively involved,” Kaufman said. “I could’ve had them read about these people or just test about them, but becoming those people, as they’ve done today, this is what it’s all about. I gave them some guidance, but it was up to the students to do the research themselves.”
Parents and students from kindergarten through seventh grade were invited to participate in the event. Kaufman’s goal was to encourage the students to be proud of other Jewish people and their accomplishments.
“I don’t want these kids to ever be afraid of or shy back from being Jewish,” she said. “When these children grow up and go off to college, I want them to go away with a good sense of who they are as a Jew. The best way to teach is by the students experiencing it themselves.”
The children’s enthusiasm for the project was evident in their presentations.
Sophie Saunders, who played the part of Ruth Bader Ginsburg at the event, said she enjoyed learning about all these famous Jews.
“I didn’t know that some of them were Jews and some I didn’t know at all, so it was really cool,” she said. “[Ruth Bader Ginsburg] is really cool, and she is on the Supreme Court. I want to be on the Supreme Court too. That’s why I chose her.”
Eli Stettner chose to impersonate Bernie Sanders “because he is a real hero to me and got me involved in politics myself.”
“I think this is a really great program for this community and this shul because I think it really educates us about people that we didn’t know are Jewish,” he added.
Parents in attendance were happy to see how engaged their children were. Jodi Grossblatt Saunders, Sophie’s mother, recalled her daughter’s enthusiasm about the project the night before.
“We were out to dinner and [Sophie] said, ‘The Jewzeum is tomorrow! I’m so excited!’ How often do you hear that in relation to Hebrew school?”
Another parent, Susan Cohn Klein, said, “I think sometimes it is difficult for kids who are getting a secular education all day to come after school to get their Jewish education. I think that [experiential learning] provides a different kind of outlet and learning forum for them, and it makes it enjoyable while they’re learning at the same time.”
Rabbi Susan Grossman explained that the temple’s religious school operates on a two-day week, with students attending classes on Wednesday evenings and Sunday mornings. A core element of the program is that Wednesday classes are dubbed JEW: Jewish Experiential Wednesdays, which are all based around experiential learning.
“We learn in the Jewish tradition that you learn best by learning in order to teach,” said Grossman. “Our fifth-graders learned in order to teach the younger kids. The younger students are going around this learning lab and not only learning about how to research and present, but [about] Jewish pride as well. They are learning how Jews can be pride-filled and committed and identify as Jews while living in the larger world and making contributions to a larger society. It is a very powerful lesson for our young people to learn, and everyone that the students have picked are all good role models.”