Why I Love Teaching Jewish History at URJ Heller High

July 1, 2021David Alon

“David, you should really teach this stuff. Seriously, this should be your job somehow… to teach people about Israel.”

Those were the words of my good friend Ora back in 2004, not long after we had made aliyah and were studying together in a Hebrew ulpan. She was right. I’ve always had a passion for learning about Israel and going on tiyulim (field trips) around the country. And it seemed to make sense to me that everything I had learned about Jewish history could surely be applied to the modern Jewish state. Indeed, every time I would bring up another parallel lesson from history, she would recite the same line again, “David, you should teach this stuff!”

I should be so lucky, I thought, to find a way to teach others my love for Eretz Yisrael and Am Yisrael.

Now in my second decade as a Jewish history teacher at URJ Heller High, I can honestly say that those words have come true. Heller High is as much a part of me as I am part of the school. I feel extremely grateful that I have found something so rewarding that I look forward to everyday. Reflecting on the goals and challenges during my time at our school, I’ve come up with 5 good reasons why I love my job so much:

1. The Students

The best advice I ever got as an educator was: "You don't teach the material, you teach the students."  Nothing could be more true about the teacher-student relationship at Heller High.  We always strive to build a personal relationship with our students, both in and out of the classroom.  In fact, I make a point of having lunch with each student during the first week, so I get to know them as individuals and not just as pupils in a classroom. 

Their maturity and inquisitiveness  about Israel and Jewish identity challenge me to come up with the most creative lesson plan possible.  I often find myself talking about these topics on our bus rides or while on a hike. Our students also know that we are here for them as mentors, and that they can come by our office anytime to chat.  Because of this relationship, I know that I will never give up on a student no matter what kind of challenges they have. When students come back to Israel on subsequent visits, they always try to meet up with me.

2. Kibbutz Tzuba

Our campus at Kibbutz Tzuba, overlooking the Judean hills is like an academic paradise. Tzuba itself is an archaeological wonder and teaching opportunity. Instead of reading about the Cave of the Patriarchs in class, we hike, Bible in hand, to a burial cave from the First Temple period.

3. Hebrew

One of my students recently remarked to me that learning Hebrew at Heller High is “not like sitting in my Spanish class back at home.” Heller is committed to teaching Hebrew as an essential component of one’s Jewish identity. Sima Miller, our Hebrew Ulpan Coordinator, continues to stress that the Hebrew program is “Ivrit academit v’kef” עברית אקדמית וכיף, meaning there’s a focus on correct grammar and usage, but at the same time the lessons are infused with fun activities and interactions. For example, the Hebrew teachers take the students during class time to a cafe to teach how to order in Hebrew. Heller students ultimately come to realize that Hebrew is indeed essential to one’s Jewish identity, as well as a key factor in their interaction with Israel and Israeli society.

4. Masa To Poland

I have guided 24 trips to Poland as a member of the Heller faculty, and it never gets old. In my discussions with students at the end of the semester, I often hear that the Masa מסע (journey) to Poland was the most impactful experience that they had during the semester. education. On our Heller Masa to Poland, there is an equal emphasis on the Holocaust and on the thriving Jewish life that existed in Poland for centuries. My favorite part of the trip is the day we spend in the Jewish quarter of Krakow exploring the amazing synagogues that have been restored and are a testament to the outstanding achievements of this once great community.

6. The Jewish History Curriculum

I emphasize from day one that the goal of the Jewish History class is not to teach history for its own sake, but rather to build and strengthen Jewish identity. In fact, all three academic components at Heller (Hebrew, Jewish History, and General Studies) have the same end-goal: strengthening Jewish identity. When it comes to teaching, I am reminded of a quote that my 10th grade history teacher used to recite: “Tell me and I’ll forget. Show me and I’ll remember. Involve me and I’ll understand.”

I judge the success of a lesson not on how much material I cover, but rather on how engaged the students are. Clearly though, the most inspiring aspect of Heller High’s Jewish History class is that a great deal of it is taught not in the classroom, but on field trips in Eretz Yisrael.

I see my job as a Jewish History teacher as Avodat Kodesh עבודת קודש (holy work). There’s nothing more important and meaningful than educating the next generation of Jewish leaders. I know that imparting knowledge about Israel and Jewish peoplehood to these pupils is giving them the necessary tools to perpetuate Jewish life. Nothing makes me feel more alive. Seriously.


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