09 Dec Jewish Text Study at Schechter Manhattan: Building 21st Century Skills

“Which interpretation do you think is right, Rashi or Radak?” Samuel looked out at the class, thought for a moment about the question that his classmate had asked, and responded, “I’m not sure,but Rashi’s idea makes more sense to me.” He proceeded to explain why Rashi, the 11th century French Rabbi’s understanding of the words “חלילה לך (Far be it from You)” in Genesis chapter 18, verse 25, seemed more plausible to him than Radak’s, another French commentator who lived in the 12th century. (The rabbis were trying to understand what Abraham meant when he said these words to God in an effort to convince God to spare any innocent lives when destroying the wicked cities of Sedom and Amorah. Rashi quotes the classical rabbinic text, Midrash Tanchuma, to explain that Avraham was arguing that by punishing the innocent with the wicked people in the world would get the wrong idea about God’s goodness, and think instead that God kills indiscriminately.)

Samuel had prepared a presentation about the commentaries on these words in the Biblical text and I was fortunate enough to walk into the Middle School Jewish Studies class just as he was sharing his learning with his classmates. Samuel was one of a number of students who had chosen to present the parshanut, rabbinic commentaries, they had studied with the class. And in so doing, the students were practicing a number of key skills for success in the 21st century.

The Jewish people have a long and proud tradition of studying texts and that tradition is not lost on our students. In addition to the timeless lessons and wisdom embedded in the sacred texts of the Jewish people, the type of study that Samuel and his classmates were engaged in nurtures the skills that serve them well beyond the walls of their Jewish Studies classroom. The Partnership For 21stCentury Learning, a coalition of the business community, education leaders, and policymakers has put forward a framework for 21st century learning that articulates the skills needed to succeed in the future. “A focus on creativity, critical thinking, communication and collaboration is essential to prepare students for the future.” The parshanut study and presentation in the Middle School Jewish Studies classroom requires practice of all these skills- creativity, critical thinking, communication, and collaboration. The students must engage and analyze texts critically and evaluate the merits of different interpretations. They collaborate, when studying in chevurta, study partnerships, building understandings of the texts. They communicate effectively, organizing and presenting their learning to others and asking pointed questions of each other. And they creatively present their work, using digital tools to create slide presentations to accompany their oral presentations.

I saw the development of these 21st century skills in another Jewish Studies lesson this week in the 4th grade. Students were working in chevruta, writing scripts of a fictional talk show, in which they would be interviewing the main characters of the section of text they had studied, Genesis chapters 27 and 28 (the story of how Yaakov tricks his father, Yitzchak, in order to steal the firstborn blessing from his brother, Esav). The students were thinking about how the different characters would respond to questions and how they might feel. They were focused on essential questions from their unit of study, related to how people communicate with each other, and so their talk show hosts would be asking questions about ways the characters talked to each other. The students were building their collaboration skills, sharing ideas and contributing together with partners. They were being creative, expressing ideas through creative writing and drama. They were practicing communication skills, finding the words and language that would express the ideas and feelings of characters in the text. And they were honing their critical thinking, by extrapolating ideas from the words in the text and seeing those ideas from multiple perspectives.

The study of Jewish texts enriches our students’ lives, offering life lessons, such as advocating for justice, as in Genesis 18, and managing complex relationships, as in Genesis 27-28. It also happens that the study required to access those lessons in our ancient texts nurtures the very skills that leaders of industry and education have identified as necessary for success in the future. The study of Jewish texts remains a powerful and impactful practice even in today’s digital world.

Benjamin Mann

Author’s Chair

Each week we will feature the written work of our students. We hope that you will stop by every week and see what they are writing and thinking about.


Kitah Gan

During our Writing Workshop, Gan students wrote about what they imagine.


“[I imagine] IMAKT” (I’m a cat)



“[I imagine] RBBSCDFLAI” (Robots could fly)



“[I imagine] DKS KD FLI” (Dogs could fly)



“[I imagine] A BDRFLI KN B A QeN” (A butterfly can be a queen)



“[I imagine] thAVvshvRPSORDtheVAMt” (to have a sharp sword that is metal)




Kitah Bet

After hearing What Does Peace Feel Like?, a compilation of quotes from children at the Ambrit International School in Rome, Kitah Bet students created their own responses to the questions: What does peace feel like? What does peace smell like? What does peace sound like? What does peace look like? What does peace feel like?

Click here to read what Tsofia wrote.

Click here to read what Pemberley wrote.

Click here to read what David wrote.

Click here to read what Ariel wrote.


Kitah Dalet

Kitah Dalet has begun working on their personal narratives. They generated seeds of ideas, picked a specific memory to develop, and charted out this moment on a story arc.

Click here to read what Talia wrote.

Click here to read what Ella wrote.

Click here to read what Rafi wrote.

Click here to read what  Maya wrote.

Click here to read what Abby wrote.


Kitah Vav

After reading various Greek myths and analyzing themes, structure, and purpose, students wrote their own Greek myths. Their stories had to either explain some type of phenomenon, or to resolve a dispute between gods and humans. They also needed to illustrate the climax of their story.

Click here and here to read what Samuel wrote.

Click herehere and here to read what Sammy wrote.