“Dear Mr. Herzl”

Middle school students explore Jewish history by playing characters from across time and space in an innovative online class called “The Jewish Court of All Time”

by Meredith Katz

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118524_imagnoStudents play historical Jewish characters in an innovative online class

Dear Mr. Herzl,

Father of Zionism! I entered the world only a few years after your passage from it, and over the course of my long life I witnessed your worst nightmares of anti-Semitism in Europe and your highest dreams for the land of Israel as a modern nation all come true. How much we have to talk about! You and I know what it is to bang on the doors of princes and presidents and popes in the pursuit of justice! I myself always found the power to move forward knowing I was the partner of the Divine in the ongoing work of healing creation—but I know you did not consider yourself a godly man . . . tell me, where did you find the strength to set out to change the world?

Abraham Joshua Heschel

What is going on here? How can Abraham Joshua Heschel be talking to Theodor Herzl, who died three years before Heschel was born?

This speech was part of a virtual trial that took place during an online Jewish history simulation game. The Jewish Court of All Time, or JCAT, is the brainchild of the Interactive Communications and Simulations group at the University of Michigan School of Education and is run as a partnership with RAVSAK: The Jewish Community Day School Network, the University of Cincinnati’s Center for Studies in Jewish Education and Culture, and this year for the first time, with the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education at the Jewish Theological Seminary. JCAT is funded by a grant from the Covenant Foundation.

In this speech, Heschel, played by a Seattle-based graduate student in my online “Teaching Jewish History” course introduces himself to Herzl, played by a middle school student from El Paso, Texas. Heschel was matched as a buddy with Herzl and checked in throughout the simulation by responding publicly to statements Herzl made and through private emails. This year the JCAT case revolved around the Eissas a Darfuri refugee family seeking political asylum in Israel. Characters from across time and space came together at Masada to debate the situation through the lenses of identity, leadership and responsibility. Ultimately Herzl was named a justice in the case and he articulated a legal philosophy based on the issues it raised and ruled in favor of the Eissa family’s right to stay in Israel.

JCAT is a complex endeavor that connects middle school students, day school teachers, undergraduate and graduate students, and professors, all participating in character. The online simulation provides two important opportunities for learning. First, middle school students explore Jewish history and its application to contemporary issues through the online game and corresponding lessons with their teachers. Second, education students explore an exciting method for teaching Jewish history. From my headquarters at Davidson, I played the role of the great Jewish historian Yosef Yerushalmi. I participated with my distance learning students, mostly fulltime professionals working in various educational settings throughout the U.S., and held weekly discussions about teaching Jewish history and the possibilities for using simulations.

We all benefited enormously. The role-playing offers all participants, young and older, a chance to experiment with history. Representing a character requires students to transfer the information they read about a historical figure to a first person narrative, an important step in “thinking like they did back then.” Characters interact with others from their own time or different times, in both rehearsed and impromptu dialogue. Simulations like JCAT provide a safe space in which students try out historical thinking. They take a break from historical content. For example, they can change a historical ending. They can apply historical evidence in ways that it usually isn’t used. An adult reading the student’s words might cringe, but the correction will come from the adult character challenging the thinking of the student character, not from telling him he’s “wrong.” Playing characters, education students push the middle school students to consider evidence and to expand their ideas, as demonstrated by Heschel’s interaction with Herzl.

Like the middle school students, my education graduate students learned about the perspective of a historical figure in order to apply historical content in a meaningful way. History educators call this developing “historical empathy.” One student, a JTS-ordained cantor based in Wisconsin who played the prominent Reform rabbi, Isaac Mayer Wise, wrote,

Developing historical empathy has been a fun challenge for me. As a Conservative Jewish leader, I am naturally opposed to many of Isaac Mayer Wise’s views on Judaism. In my research, I learned about the historical context in which he developed his reforms, his rationale behind them, and how they made sense . While I do not agree with him on many issues, I had a lot of fun playing the part of someone whose views of Judaism were so different than my own.”

A day school teacher in Missouri who played Natan Sharansky, observed, “I have a somewhat unique situation of playing one of the very few characters in JCAT who is still alive. On one hand, Natan Sharansky can actually weigh in with all the same modern biases as my own on the same issues that I contemplate nowadays. On the other hand, his personal history is drastically different from my own,-with some interesting crossovers (both of us moved to Israel from foreign countries) and his personal and political views are certainly not the same as mine …It makes me want to know more about his actual views. I almost wish I could show him everything I’ve written so he could edit it and tell me where I’ve nailed his personality and where I missed the mark.”

By participating in character the education students experienced the same learning process they are being trained to facilitate. They were able to appreciate the power of considering multiple perspectives.

I’ve also noticed that my students learned a great deal from their extended contact with middle school students. Through mentoring their middle school counterparts, they saw the wide-ranging ways this age group thinks and communicates. Some middle-school students will take the ball and run with it, creating their own twists and turns to the case, while others need more help in terms of where, when and what to post. The lesson learned by my students was that educators need to define the rules of the game to allow enough space for student initiative and flexible historical interpretations.

My students used our online classroom to reflect on their experiences in JCAT and to consider simulations as one of several teaching techniques Using a simulation does not answer all of the challenges of teaching Jewish history, but now my students have a powerful touchstone to consider as they design their own approaches to teaching Jewish history. As “Sharansky” commented, “This type of thinking makes you a part of the experience, and when you’re a part of the experience, the history learned and experienced will stick with you forever.”

Meredith Katz, Ed.D, is the Senior Research Scholar at the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education at the Jewish Theological Seminary and the coordinator of its online MA program. To learn more about JCAT, go to http://jcat.icsmich.org/ and use the login, visitor@mosaic-f12, and the password, visitor.