Rigor and relevancy: New Judaic curriculum replaces AGT classes

BP photo by Ashley Mashian

By Jenny Newman, Staff Columnist

“What is unique about Shalhevet students?”

That is the question Rabbi Ari Leubitz sat down to ponder  after becoming Judaic Studies Principal in May. It was related to a question he’d been pondering for a long time about Modern Orthodox education.

The answer became an overhaul of Shalhevet’s Judaic program, a series of changes that Rabbi Leubitz hopes will change the quality of Shalhevets Judaic courses, changes that were aided by Mr. Noam Weissman, and Mr. Jason Feld.

Gone will be the Advanced Gemara Track known as “AGT,” and in its place will be new courses designed to improve Judaic Studies for all students.

“We need to raise the rigor and relevancy and quality of the Judaic curriculum as a whole,” Rabbi Leubitz said. “We are now offering courses no other high school offers.”

The first step was an overhaul of already existing classes including ninth grade Honors Tanach and the Modern Middle East (MME) course for juniors.  MME, previously divided into two semesters, one for Holocaust Studies, will now be entirely about Israel and the surrounding countries, and taught by Mr. Jason Feld, who developed the course to begin with, Rabbi Leubitz said.

Newly added to the 12th-grade curriculum is a more intensive Holocaust class that will closely align with the seniors’ Poland-Israel trip. That class will be taught by Mr. Feld, though he intends to bring in a series of speakers as well.  Rabbi Leubitz said he hoped this would give Holocaust class more significance.

Also new for seniors will be a class on contemporary Modern Orthodoxy taught by Rabbi Yitzhak Etshalom, who also teaches at YULA. The course will explore the relevance of Modern Orthodoxy in daily life, (see story, same page), using contemporary scholars like Rav Kook and Rav Soleveichick.

Ninth-graders will also see the effects of the overhaul of their Judaic courses, with the inauguration of a new program called “Experiential Beit Midrash,” or “XBM.” The XBM program will focus on real-world applications of material inside the Talmud and Tanach, according to Rabbi Rodney Feinerman, who will be teaching the class.

Rabbi Leubitz also said that entirely new courses would be added, including another that will also be taught by Rabbi Feinerman on the psychology of Bible studies.  Rabbi Leubitz said it would be open to all upperclassmen.

“It’s going to teach a deeper understanding of Bible stories through the lens of psychology,” said Rabbi Feinerman. “We’re going to talk about Freud, and how his theories apply to the Bible and in real life, and in real relationships.”

A class that Shalhevet can look forward to seeing in a new light, while not directly a part of the Judaic department, is freshman Hebrew.  Ninth graders will now have the option of taking Hebrew Ivrit b’Ivrit — Hebrew in Hebrew — taught by Mrs. Anat Sabo, or a class taught online, straight from Israel, on contemporary Jewish topics. A casualty of the creation of all of these courses will be the AGT – Advanced Gemara Track – program at Shalhevet.

“The new honors track is bang-up,” Mr. Feld said. “It teaches Talmudic jurisprudence, but more than that, it teaches jurispridence. It’s not just about opening up a Gemara.”

With all that’s new this year, changes in the curriculum are far from over, Rabbi Leubitz said Shalhevet will continue to examine its Judaic classes in order to fully optimize what its students are getting out of them.

“Change is good,” Rabbi Leubitz said. “We have to keep changing, asking questions and tweaking courses, or the system becomes stagnant and trite.