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Teacher honored for going ‘beyond the text’
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Teacher honored for going ‘beyond the text’

Drawing on women’s archive, local educator offers lessons for today

Natalia Twersky Educator Award winner Judith Sandman said her students brought their “passion and sense of justice” to study of Jews and the labor movement.
Natalia Twersky Educator Award winner Judith Sandman said her students brought their “passion and sense of justice” to study of Jews and the labor movement.

When it comes to making lessons come alive, Judith Sandman likes to go beyond the books. Most text books, she said, ignore many of the people she wants her students to learn about — Jewish women. So the Springfield resident — who teaches at Temple Emanu-El, the Reform synagogue in Westfield, and Temple Beth Ahm Yisrael, the Conservative synagogue in Springfield — turned to the national nonprofit Jewish Women’s Archive.

Sandman’s work has won her JWA’s Natalia Twersky Educator Award. Presented now for the second time, the award is named for the champion of Jewish education and women’s leadership. Twersky was also the mother of Gail Twersky Reimer, who founded JWA in 1995 and serves as its executive director. The archive has offices in Brookline, Mass., and a multi-faceted website, JWA.org.

The award is given to those who use its resources, and, according to Reimer, it “allows JWA to formally recognize and honor the work of dedicated and deserving educators, as well as the schools that support their efforts to teach the whole story of Jewish life, not just the men’s story.”

According to JWA, all educators in North America can apply for the award, whether they teach in supplementary or day schools, movement-related or community schools, religious or secular institutions. The winner receives $2,500, and his or her school gets $500.

Sandman’s winning lesson plan drew on JWA’s “Living the Legacy” resources, to give her seventh-grade students at the two temples a feel for what it was like to live in a Lower East Side tenement, work in a garment factory, and picket for workers’ rights. Her inspiration, she told NJ Jewish News, came initially from a JWA seminar she attended in 2011 on Jews and the Civil Rights Movement, and then from the material she found in the archive.

She said, “Students imagined themselves living in a crowded apartment the size of our classroom and wrote letters to imaginary relatives and friends in Europe, either encouraging them to come to the Unites States or encouraging them to remain in Europe.

“Next, we studied working conditions in the sweatshops,” said Sandman. “We ‘re-created’ and filmed the strike of 1909. Also known as the ‘Uprising of the 20,000,’ it was the largest strike of women workers in American history. Students made protest signs and gave short speeches in costume about why they were striking.”

To make them aware that such struggles are not just a matter of history, she also highlighted connections between the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911 and recent garment factory fires and building collapses in Bangladesh and Pakistan. To conclude the unit, Sandman had her students draw up a set of rights and responsibilities for employers and workers across the globe.

Sandman said the theme was in tune with her students’ current concerns. “In addition to learning how to lead services and read the Torah and haftara for their bar and bat mitzvas, I know that all of my students have undertaken mitzva projects,” she said. “They’re very passionate about helping others, and they brought their passion and their sense of right and wrong — of tzedek, justice — to our study of Jews and the labor movement. I think they had a great time staging the strike of 1909, but I also think they could seriously imagine themselves as young factory workers.”

In her submission letter to the JWA, she wrote that she always tries to convey to her students “that Judaism is an organic religion, upon whose traditions we draw and expand to meet the challenges of our own world.”

Sandman, who grew up in Lawrenceville, said, “My mother, a teacher, has always been an inspiration for me because of the way she makes history come alive for her students. I was lucky enough to experience this firsthand at a Hebrew day school so small that I had her for a teacher.”

Now, as a teacher herself, she said she has found the JWA material invaluable. “It’s of the highest quality, and it’s all there so that any educator or anybody interested in these subjects can access it,” she said. “JWA’s respect for educators, their ability to create forums in which we can share ideas, and the guidance and support they offer are extraordinary.

“I can’t speak highly enough of JWA. I know that I am a better teacher because of them.”

Two educators at Orthodox day schools, Ariel Horn Levenson of Livingston and Rabbi Reuven Travis of Atlanta were chosen as finalists by JWA.

Horn Levenson, a history teacher at Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy in Livingston, said she turned to JWA.org at the suggestion of the school’s dean of instruction, Rosemary Steinbaum. Horn Levenson wrote in her submission that she was excited by the ways in which the materials she found there could engage her students with “a marginalized group of people who shaped America in astounding ways that are often unrecognized in traditional text books.”

Her students, she said, came to know intriguing individuals through their own words — through letters, diary entries, and speeches she found on the JWA website. Horn Levenson, the author of a novel titled Help Wanted, Desperately, told NJJN, “It’s so fascinating to realize how certain people become well known while others we hear nothing about. After seeing the material that JWA had, I started looking at more primary sources — like the pioneer diary our librarian pointed out to me — and I began incorporating more Jewish American women’s voices into the landscape we were studying.”

Like Sandman, Travis, a teacher at Yeshiva Atlanta, attended one of JWA’s Institutes for Educators and returned from his experience with new inspiration. “Traditional history textbooks make mention of women only in the sidebars,” he said. “I felt that someone needed to stand up for the women.”

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