By Miriam Bader, Director of Education at the Eldridge St. Museum
A central goal of the Jewish day school movement is to instill students with a strong Jewish identity. Students need to be able to answer the questions of “Who am I” and “Where do I come from.” The study of Jewish history helps students shape their understanding of the Jewish people and their role within it. Most Jewish history classes focus primarily on ancient Jewish history, the Holocaust and Israel. American Jewish history often does not make the cut even though the topic is most relevant to students’ lives.
At the Museum at Eldridge Street, I take thousands of students through the Landmark 1887 Eldridge Street Synagogue, the first great house of worship built by Eastern European Jews in America. As they explore the magnificently restored sanctuary, they step into history and grapple with the challenges faced by what was once the largest Jewish community in the world.
Out of all the student groups that come from both public and private schools, only a small percentage visit from Jewish day schools. As the Director of Education, this continues to surprise me. As a PresenTense fellow, I have been working to solve this mystery.
Four fifths of American Jews descend from the 19th century immigrant experience, yet how many Jewish day school students learn about this period? When I teach about this historical era, I am struck by the similarities between the Jewish immigrants 100 years ago and contemporary Jewish life. Just as Jewish immigrants debated which synagogue to attend, who to elect as community leaders and what role gender plays in ritual life 100 years ago, Jewish day school students are similarly confronted with these issues. Exploring these issues gives students insight into the development of American Judaism and new perspectives on their role as members of the Jewish community.
With over 5,000 years of Jewish history, figuring out which periods to study in the classroom can be daunting. What place do you think the 19th century Jewish immigrant experience should have within the day school curriculum? Is it extraneous or relevant?
By David Winitsky, Founder of the Jewish Plays Project
I’ve spent my entire adult life making theater. And theater doesn’t make any sense.
Here’s how it works: Group A, (let’s call them the audience) sits in a dark room and stares at Group B (let’s call them the actors), all of whom are working very hard to pretend to be people they are not. That’s weird, right?
But here’s the really crazy part: in the theater, Group A actively chooses to believe Group B. The audience, enlightened adult members of modern society, makes a conscious choice to believe that the actors are who they say they are.
The technical name for this bizarre phenomenon is “willing suspension of disbelief”, and it’s one of the most important things in the world.
When we suspend our disbelief, we take a break from our fact-laden world. We loosen our grip on the need to be right, to be correct, to be shown proof. When we suspend our disbelief, we make a leap that is – dare I say – religious. For what is faith but the active choice to believe things for which there is no objective proof?
When we gather in the theater and suspend our disbelief, we open ourselves to the possibility that there might be a world that we don’t know, a world that is different, and perhaps better, than the world we are in right now. And we do it together, as a group, as a people.
That’s crazy. And it’s beautiful.
It’s easy not to believe. It’s simpler to give in to the hard, hard world and disbelieve anyone who tries to change it. At PresenTense, we are so fortunate to find an entire community –Mentors, Coaches, Staff and supporters – that so willingly suspends that disbelief. Their faith in our ventures is inspiring and awesome and intensely Jewish in ways that make the daily trials of the entrepreneur’s life a joy to bear.
This process of making the Jewish world better is crazy. With PresenTense on our side, it’s beautiful, too.
By: Sarah Sokolic, Founder of Arts By Day
an Artist-In-Residency Program for Jewish Day Schools
It’s in there. It is. The vision, the concept, what the final product will look like. It’s all there in your head, your heart – in the gut of your belly. Marinating, curating, gestating. For weeks, months, sometimes years.
Where it isn’t is on paper, in a clear, articulated plan for the entire world to see and applaud you for your ingenuity and brilliance. You wish someone had invented that perfect brain dump. A digital download that would magically compose and sort all of your thoughts and ideas into a compelling, articulate business plan or proposal. Yeah, that would be nice. One day there will be an app for that.
In the meantime, there’s PresenTense. And the thoughtful planning and preparation process they take their Fellows though in helping to bring our ideas from concept to paper to fruition. The ongoing workshops, case studies, coaching and mentorship all serve as infusions of pitocin, stimulating ideas and accelerating the process, ultimately enabling us to “give birth” to our ideas.
But then there’s the labor. It’s the toughest part, really. No one really tell you about that part at the beginning. It’s where we are right at this moment. Our ideas are out there but we need to continue honing, editing, refining. It’s painful and sometimes we wish we had never gotten ourselves into this situation to begin with. “YOU did this to me!” we yell at ourselves as we stare at our weary reflection in the mirror. But our mentors and coaches are right there with us. They are the doulas of innovation. Partners standing by our sides, offering care and support and pushing us to push harder when necessary.
We could use an epidural at this point. Something to cut some of the pain of the process. Maybe we’ll throw back some drinks at the mentor dinner. Maybe more than a few afterwards. But after that we must only forge forward, push through the hard parts and try to enjoy the process along the way. In the beginning we didn’t know exactly what our ideas would but we knew they would be amazing and would change the lives of hundreds if not thousands of people. In the end we will be able to look back with pride at the relationships we developed, the lessons we gleaned and at the process that transformed us from visionary to full-fledged entrepreneur. So until there’s an app that can magically grow a seed of an idea into the birth of a new endeavor, we can be thankful for organizations like PresenTense.
PresenTense NYC Fellowship
Igniting social change in the NYC Jewish community.