Curriculum to focus on Pittsburgh’s Jewish past

Curriculum to focus on Pittsburgh’s Jewish past

A new curriculum, designed to teach Jewish Pittsburgh history to students from grade school to high school, is in the final stages of development.

The three-level curriculum — one each for upper elementary, middle and high schoolers — has been in the development stage for about a year and is being financed by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh and the Heinz History Center.

The $20,000 curriculum was financed with a $15,000 grant from the federation with the balance coming from an IMLS (Institute of Museum and Library Services) grant to the Heinz History Center to work with teachers to create online educational materials.

The Agency for Jewish Learning and the Rauh Jewish Archives at the Heinz are working jointly on the project, which is now ready for testing in a classroom setting.

“It’s something I’ve always wanted to do for years,” Susan Melnick, curator of the Rauh, said of the project.

For now, the curriculum, titled “Connecting Pittsburgh Jewish Youth with their Local Jewish Heritage,” is intended for use by Jewish Pittsburgh’s three day schools, the J-Site supplemental school for Jewish teens, and religious schools. With some modifications, though, Rauh and AJL officials say it could also be used in the public schools.

“There’s been talk with the Heinz History Center about the different ethnic communities in the city,” AJL Executive Director Edward Frim said. “If there’s a class doing work on the ethnic experience in Pittsburgh, this may be appropriate.”

The new curriculum, which combines archival material from the Rauh and lesson plans developed by the AJL, breaks down like this:

• Upper elementary school pupils will be introduced to leading personalities in Jewish Pittsburgh history — Annie Jacob Davis, Henry Ellenbogen and Bertha Rauh for examples. The unit will include photos of the subjects, discussions of their lives and archival items related to their accomplishments. There also will be a genealogy component.

• Middle school students will study the “assimilation” of Jewish Pittsburgh. Archival photos from the Irene Kaufmann Settlement will address activities through which Jewish youth and adults were Americanized, such as dances and baseball games. Students will be asked what is American about the activities they see and what, if anything, remains Jewish. “The kids are challenged to see what the changes are,” Melnick said, adding, “how they became Americans.”

• High school students will do a series of interviews with senior citizens. They will select topics then interview seniors about their experiences related to those subjects.

The high school students will use archival websites of the University of Pittsburgh, National Council of Jewish Women Pittsburgh Section, Pittsburgh Jewish Newspaper Project and the Rauh for their research. The Rauh website, which will be launched in January, will also host the curriculum.

“There will be an education page on it [the Rauh website] and those packages will be there,” Melnick said. “We hope it will be used in the Jewish schools and possibly used more generally to teach kids about our history.”

None of the three units is excessively long, she added. “It’s very limited in time, so it wouldn’t take a semester. It would take a few lessons, and we’re very excited about that.”

Barak Naveh and Melissa Werbow developed the curriculum, which is part of the centennial celebration of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.

Naveh and Werbow were given wide discretion, Naveh said, though they understood the subjects of the lesson plan couldn’t be obscure figures in Jewish history.

“It had to be [about] people for whom they had a lot of pictures and documents, which makes sense,” Naveh said. “You want the kids to access that, and you want the Heinz History Center to be involved with this.”

He hopes teachers and students continue to develop and enhance the curriculum once it’s made available online.

“We want this curriculum to be a living, breathing thing that both teachers and students love — and teachers don’t love a script,” Naveh said. “I think creative teachers love an outline and good ideas, and direction to good resources, and that’s what I hope we provided.”

He also hopes the students find parallels between the history they study and their own lives.

For example, he emphasized the importance of dealing with the assimilation of Jews in the middle school unit.

“When you’re in middle school, fitting in versus being your own person is a huge issue,” Naveh said. “So we felt that was really important and really relevant. … They could ask questions [about historical subjects] they’re probably asking of themselves.”


(Lee Chottiner can be reached at

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