by Julia Vilensky

When we look at the state of Jewish education in Germany today, we must not forget its history in the years following the end of World War II. Jewish life had been severely diminished in comparison to the pre-1933 era, and many Jews in Germany preferred for their children to receive a Jewish education anywhere but in the land of the perpetrators of the Shoah.

That all changed, of course, with the advent of the immigration following the collapse of the Soviet Union. In today’s German society, we experience a renaissance of Jewish life. Jews in Germany today openly express pride of being Jewish and maintaining a Jewish identity – in whatever form – is commonly acknowledged as a legitimate goal on both the individual and societal levels. However, no such identity can be formed without a valid Jewish education at its base and the teachers who provide it.

In today’s German, teachers of formal Jewish education for schoolchildren address students with a host of differing family backgrounds, with the bulk of children stemming from post-Soviet backgrounds while others were born in Germany, in Israel, or all over Europe. In addition to that, the number of formal Jewish schools in German-speaking countries continues to be small. Only the biggest Jewish communities like Berlin, Frankfurt am Main, Munich, or Vienna can afford to run their own schools. As a result, most Jewish children in Germany visit public schools and attend Jewish religion and/or Hebrew classes only in the afternoon or on Sundays – and even that only if such classes are available which is not always the case. On the whole, teachers of Jewish formal education are facing huge challenges today.

didakIt is against this backdrop that the project “Didaktis – Development of Formal Jewish Education for Schoolchildren in Germany” was founded in 2012. Since then, Didaktis has undergone an amazing growth and was consequently granted renewed support by the Pincus Fund, the Jewish Agency for Israel, the European Janusz Korczak Academy, and other supporters in 2015. More than 50 German-speaking Jewish educators from more than 20 Jewish institutions are currently participating in the program.

The project includes two main components:

  1. Two international teachers’ seminars during the school year 2015/16

The kick-off seminar in Munich, entitled “Pedagogy of Janusz Korczak: Education towards respect against education towards hate”, focused on the issue of respect as a necessary prerequisite of a considerate and amicable social conduct, and consequently a society based on mutual respect. Over the course of the first teachers’ seminar, we provided our participants with the necessary tools and techniques, inspiration and support for doing so. The main pedagogical approach was Korczak’s own pedagogy of respect (German: “Paedagogik der Achtung”) which laid the foundation for any meaningful “Education towards respect against education towards hate”. All lectures and workshops presented the topics from a decidedly Jewish perspective. A well-arranged group made for an individual approach and good networking.

During the three and a half days, our participants not only received a total of lectures and workshops, but were also given the chance to network amongst each other. The teachers came from all over Germany and did not usually have the opportunity to get in touch with other teachers of the same subjects. Often, there is only one teacher for the whole Jewish community, especially in smaller ones. Those teachers find themselves in need of new impulses, ideas and didactical methods for their work.

The second teachers’ seminar focused on new educational technologies in Israel and how the Diaspora can benefit from them. The sessions were held in cooperation with the Israeli “Center for Educational Technology” (CET). New possibilities of learning and teaching that employed modern media and diversified teaching methods took the center stage. While the first seminar introduced more general pedagogical concepts, the second seminar concentrated on didactical instruments for teaching. We were very honored to welcome as a special guest Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) and former Israeli Minister of Interior and Education, Gideon Sa’ar, who then shared his experiences on the current challenges of the Israeli school education. Furthermore, Mr. Sa’ar informed us about the current political and social developments in Israel and gave us some hints how to explain them in school classes.

After the first seminar, the DidaktIS project gathered some momentum, resulting in an increasing number of applications from Germany and Austria. Teachers became more and more interested in the educational and networking program.

We are currently in the final phase of preparing our third seminar that will take place in July in Venice under the title “From the Ghetto to Eretz Israel – Jewish Realities and Their Role in Education“. The seminar will connect to the commemorative events around the 500th anniversary of the establishment of the Venetian Ghetto. One of the main aspects will be the various types of Jewish cultural environments and their resulting impact on education.

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  1. The second main part of the project is the virtual internet platform “DidaktIS”.

We have developed a virtual platform that will facilitate on-line communication among local Jewish Studies teachers. A database for pedagogic materials used in teaching is going to be established as well.

On the one hand, we want to provide the teachers with new education materials, on the other hand we want them to participate and to share their own learning materials. Our aim is that after the start, teachers will work with the content of the platform by themselves; eventually, we will provide only the framework, technical support, and administration, leaving the content all to them.

Currently, we are collecting materials from experts for each of the following subjects: Hebrew language, Religion, History, Israel Studies, Culture and Arts, Jewish Pedagogy, and Others. We are planning to divide these subjects into different types of data such as audio, texts, pictures, documents and videos. Furthermore, there will be a separation by grades and students’ age.

The network established during the seminars will serve as a strong foundation for the continued work.

Julia Vilensky was born in St. Petersburg, Russia. She grew up in Germany and studied pedagogy, educational science, and sociology at the Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich. Julia is coordinator of the project “DidaktIS: Development of Formal Jewish Education for Schoolchildren in Germany”. She is also an active member of the Jewish Community and participates in Youth and Children’s Work.