The fifth-grade students of the religious school at Beth Shalom Congregation in Columbia were transformed last Sunday into some of the most famous Jews in modern history as a part of what the Conservative congregation called its Jewzeum.
After six weeks of research and preparation, the students were able to embody Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, former Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders, actress Natalie Portman and singer-songwriter Adam Levine. The program was organized by educator Ellyn Becker Kaufman, who came to Columbia to follow her passion for teaching.
“I like to make history come to life,” she said. “I could’ve had them read about these people, but becoming those people is what it’s all about.”
The children’s enthusiasm for the project was evident in their presentations.
Sophie Saunders, who played Ginsburg, 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. “[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 embody Sanders “because he is a real hero to me and got me involved in politics.”
Kaufman said her 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 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.”
Parents were happy to see how involved 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 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 are learning Jewish pride as well.”
Daniel Nozick is a staff reporter for the Baltimore Jewish Times.