“You are leading the Crime Scene Investigation Team to investigate the first murder in the history of humanity,” the students are told.
A class for trainee detectives, perhaps? Not quite. It’s the opening of a pilot programme about Cain and Abel for secondary schools — part of a project intended to transform Jewish studies teaching in the UK.
The United Jewish Israel Appeal and the United Synagogue’s Agency for Jewish Education are hoping to create a national Jewish studies curriculum in mainstream Orthodox schools for children from five to 18.
The Jewish Curriculum Project is a work in progress that originated with a small group of day school heads of Jewish studies 10 years ago and could take another decade to complete. Expert help is coming from one of the world’s leading Jewish educational institutions, Israel’s Bar-Ilan University.
“It’s one of the most creative things that Anglo-Jewish education has done in recent years,” said Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks, at a reception at his home last week.
Seven Jewish secondary and 20 primary schools across the country are testing and implementing the material which is designed eventually to cover five strands: Jewish living, Jewish texts, Hebrew, Israel and Jews in the world today, and Jewish history.
The Cain and Abel programme, for example, aims to promote critical thinking among students through a close reading of the biblical text. It introduces rabbinic debates on how far Cain was actually responsible for his brother’s death, what commentators such as Rashi and Maimonides have to say on the matter, and how important ideas are derived from the biblical text.
“We are told that when Cain killed his brother that the ‘bloods of your brother are screaming,’” the Mishnah says. From the plural “bloods”, rather than “blood”, students learn the derivation of the rabbinic principle that “whoever destroys another person is considered as if they destroyed the whole world”.
For Rabbi Dr Eli Kohn, the project’s education director, who visits monthly from Bar-Ilan, “the most important thing is the collaborative partnership between schools. For the first time, schools that didn’t have a close connection are working together. We’ve got here the possibility of developing a network of Orthodox schools — which is easier than in the United States.”
One of the advantages of the curriculum will be to provide continuity in Jewish studies between primary and secondary schools. Additionally, teachers moving jobs will be familiar with what is taught in different schools.
So far, £600,000 has been invested in the project, with another £400,000 required for the next three years.
“We have built the buildings,” said the Chief Rabbi, but teachers were “the builders. It is the quality of teaching that takes place in our schools that really matters. All the rest is gift wrapping."