My son Daniel starts his freshman year of high school in a few days. The history classes he will take are organized by topic rather than just a linear telling of European or American history. For the first semester, all freshmen take a class on the basics of thinking and writing like a historian. The textbook they will use is “World Religions: A Voyage of Discovery.”
I’m always curious to see what my kids will be learning so I skimmed the table of contents: indigenous religions, East Asian religions, South Asian religions, and Ancient Western religions. So far, so good. I skipped to the chapter on Judaism because (obviously) that’s the one I know best.
At first I skimmed the chapter quickly, and it didn’t seem right. There were factual errors such as the percentage of Jews that identify as Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox (it quoted 50% of Jews are Conservative, though according a 2013 Pew study, it’s only 18%). There were several references to the “Revelation of God’s will” and the Torah as “Revelation,” which is not necessarily wrong, but definitely a weird, uncommon way of talking about Torah. The chapter goes on to say that some Reform Jews celebrate Shabbat on Sunday—something that was historically true but I have not heard of this being practiced in the past 50 years.
I was also really bothered by the chapter that said a Reform rabbi “functions much like a Christian preacher, rather than as a traditional scholar or teacher of Torah.” Not only was this wrong, it was personally offensive to me because one of the most knowledgeable rabbis I know and the one who brings alive mitzvot for me is a Reform rabbi.
What was I going to do? My older daughter Hannah, newly home from six weeks of Jewish summer camp, reviewed my notes and added her thoughts. We knew that Daniel, starting his freshman year, would not want to point out all the inaccuracies as he likes to fly beneath the radar. So Hannah emailed his history teacher and a few days leader met with several of the freshmen teachers and the head of the history department to point out the errors in the book.
Fortunately, they were very receptive to what she had to say. They were already aware of some of the inaccuracies in the book and were planning to supplement with primary sources and writings by Jewish authors. She told me it was a respectful conversation and she was glad she spoke with them.
The high school principal’s favorite saying to the kids is to “own your learning.” When Hannah met with the history teachers, she owned her Jewish learning and was able to take it to the next step by sharing it with adults. And I couldn’t be more proud.