We Need a Hero: Toward a New Technique for Teaching Heroes in the Jewish Supplementary School

by Josh-Mason Barkin

Old magazines can surprise you.

In 1994, CAJE published an edition of its Jewish Education News dedicated entirely to Jewish heroes. Fifteen years later, flipping through dusty papers on a bookshelf, that issue of JEN inspired us to publish our new book on heroes, Eizehu Gibor: Living Jewish Values.

None of the many articles in that issue explicitly mention it, but there’s a tension throughout the Spring 1994 edition’s pages. On one hand, esteemed thinkers of Jewish education argue that we need to introduce our students to the mythological characters of Jewish history like Samson and Herzl. On the other hand, equally esteemed thinkers argue that we need to teach our students about everyday heroes, normal people who can show us how to live mitzvah-filled Jewish lives.

We teach Jewish values not because we want our students to know the Hebrew names for a bunch of ethical principles. Rather, we teach Jewish values because we want our students to live moral lives informed by the Jewish tradition and their connection to God. Knowing that kavod means respect is useless if you’re not a respectful person.

Recently, educators have been telling us a lot about this struggle to have the Jewish values they teach in the classroom translate into the way students treat each other. Suffice it to say that we hear a lot of frustration in those educators’ voices. We think Eizehu Gibor can help.

How do heroes fit into the equation of values internalization? And why are we publishing a new heroes book this year? Perhaps the best way to explain is to explore the tension between the “big heroes” and the “everyday heroes.”

Two Kinds of Heroes

Big heroes are the historical characters who have come to represent special places in our collective memory. In the American psyche, these are people like Harriet Tubman and Abraham Lincoln, Benjamin Franklin, Susan B. Anthony, and Martin Luther King, Jr. These heroes are educationally important because their mythology is powerful. They represent values bigger than themselves, values that we can all emulate.

In Jewish education, these sorts of heroes serve two important purposes. First, like their American counterparts, these larger-than-life personalities represent specific values. Professor Carol Ingall at JTS has written extensively on this subject. She teaches that Abraham represents the value of hakhnasat orhim (welcoming guests), just as Paul Bunyon “embodies the physical courage of the American frontiersman.” Heroes “stir the moral imagination through the moral values they stand for.”

For Ingall, teaching heroes is a really important way to teach Jewish values. She argues that simply teaching the values themselves won’t “stick,” since values are abstract concepts that are difficult for elementary school-aged children to grasp. Stories and narrative make those values tangible. (That’s one reason we offer a set of instant lessons called “Stories We Live By.”) Heroes go a step further by putting a real face to the narrative, and by giving students an actual person whose behavior is worthy of emulation.

The second purpose big heroes serve in Jewish education is that they are tools of enculturation. Giving Jewish kids a Jewish hero to look up to instills pride and connection to Am Yisrael. Our students can be inspired by Jewish heroes who’ve fought against tyranny from Roman times to Colonial America to the forests of Nazi-occupied Europe. They can feel a connection to Jewish writers and rabbis, ballplayers and actors, scientists and politicians. Jewish heroes help engender cultural connection and a sense of peoplehood.

Another kind of Jewish hero is the “everyday hero,” the person who isn’t famous or at the crux of history, but a normal person who makes important (sometimes even extraordinary) choices to behave in a way worthy of emulation. Danny Siegel has taught us much about these types of people through his work of introducing the world to “mitzvah heroes.” Everyday heroes are educationally important because they are so real for our students. On a very tangible level, they can inspire us to do what’s right, and to make a difference in the world. As Siegel writes, “It is because of their Tikkun Olam work, they have a profound understanding of caring, power, the nature of people as human beings.”

“Big heroes” and “everyday heroes” are different in a lot of ways. Big heroes connect us to our shared collective memory and to the notion of Jewish peoplehood, but they’re “bigness” may make it hard to identify with them. Big, mythological heroes are more likely to let us down when we realize that they have human faults underneath their heroic exteriors. Conversely, “everyday heroes” may be personally inspiring, but we also need to be careful to draw a line between truly heroic actions and those actions that ought to be expected of all of us.

Despite these challenges of using heroes in Jewish education, one thing remains clear: If the goal of values education is to help our students internalize what it means to live ethically Jewish lives, both “big heroes” and “everyday heroes” are crucial. Both provide tangible examples of how to live lives informed and enriched by Jewish values. In doing so, they help students to internalize the message, to see themselves as ethically Jewish individuals.

Toward a New Technique for Teaching Heroes in the Jewish Supplementary School

Engaging ourselves in the debate over “big heroes” and “everyday heroes,” we found ourselves thinking a lot about what we might be able to do differently to improve the way we teach Jewish heroes. Over the course of conceiving of Eizehu Gibor, we developed three new principles to guide a new kind of heroes education:

1. A heroes curriculum should introduce students to the pantheon of Jewish heroes, but also introduce new characters into that pantheon. Any study of Jewish heroes would be incomplete if it didn’t include some of the biggies: Hannah Szenes, Theodor Herzl, David Ben-Gurion, Moses. If we’re going for cultural identification, our students need to be exposed to the characters who tell our people’s story.

But we also need to begin telling the stories of some new heroes. That’s why Eizehu Gibor includes people like Debbie Friedman, Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, and Lenny Krayzelberg.

They’re not quite “unsung” everyday heroes, but their inclusion sends the message that the hall of heroes isn’t closed to people born after 1950, and that ordinary people can do extraordinary things. Furthermore, we need to recognize that contemporary role models resonate with our students differently than historical heroes. And one more thing: Sometimes contemporary heroes give us a chance to show another side of someone famous for a different reason. Did you know that one of Hollywood’s foremost Jewish actresses is also a tzedakah hero, or that the owner of an American football team is also dedicated to the upkeep of the Jewish homeland?

2. A heroes curriculum needs to present personalities to truly bring Jewish values to life. For every Jewish value in Eizehu Gibor, we present multiple heroes. There are two reasons.

First, our students aren’t going to identify with every hero whose story we tell. But if heroes represent values, wouldn’t it be a problem if a student doesn’t connect to the value of justice just because Louis Brandeis doesn’t resonate with her? By telling students the stories of more than one personality, we provide more opportunities for connection and internalization.

Second, Jewish values are complex. By telling multiple stories, we can show that there are lots of ways to save a life, to be humble, or to repair the world.

3. A heroes curriculum needs to teach particularly Jewish values in a particularly Jewish way. Character education, citizenship education, and empathy education are all buzz words for the trend to teach values in secular schools. It’s a good thing anytime schools help their students to be better people. But if we were to do the same thing in our Jewish schools, our students could easily ask themselves, “What’s so special about living a Jewish life if Jewish values are just human values?”

While there are lots of occasions for overlap, our ethical tradition is also pretty different than the American mainstream. For example, Judaism teaches the importance of anavah, humility, something our students desperately need to hear in today’s world. Furthermore, living Jewish values is about more than just doing the right thing. Everyone can agree that taking care of the body is important. But shmirat ha-guf is also about our relationship with God, and how being created betzelem Elohim comes with the responsibility of taking care of our bodies. Making the world a better place is a great idea, but tikkun olam is also about being partners with God in creation, and about finding vessels where God’s spark can dwell in the world. Living Jewish values isn’t just about living by a set of values that happen to be Jewish. It’s also about living those values in a Jewish way.

Clearly, we’re excited about the contribution Eizehu Gibor makes to the field of Jewish values education. In future issues of TAPBB, we’ll talk a little more about what makes it a special book. In the meantime, you can pre-order your copy and check out sample chapters here.

Josh Mason-Barkin is director of school services at Torah Aura Productions.