The last 10 years have witnessed an explosion in the number of Jewish day schools across the country. That's an important and wonderful development that will help make sure today's youngsters learn the timeless lessons of Judaism and understand the importance of the faith and values that bind us to each other and to our ancestors.
Approximately 800 Jewish day schools are operating across North America, up from about 600 just a decade ago. Enrollment has gone up correspondingly over that time — from nearly 170,000 to more than 210,000 today. These trends will undoubtedly continue; still more schools are under construction and will be open in the next two or three years.
But amid the new schools and the developing curricula, one thing is clearly missing: sustained attention to the place of Jewish women in our rich and varied history. Day schools encourage a far more intensive learning about the Jewish past. But if the texts children study in these schools and the stories they hear about ancient and modern Jews help to shape their identities, what are Jewish boys and girls learning in today's day schools? Most likely that Jewish life was dreamed and lived by men.
Jewish texts and textbooks focus overwhelmingly on the thoughts and contributions of men. And the visual images that surround Jewish students in their classrooms compound the problem of women's invisibility. The consequences of living with this incomplete and distorted record are enormous for individual girls and boys, and for the future of the Jewish community. When girls cannot find themselves in the pages of Jewish history, they learn that their experiences and contributions are not valued by their tradition. When boys are taught to appreciate only the contributions of their forefathers, their understanding of the Jewish past and their ability to imagine a Jewish future that honors the whole community are severely limited.
The teaching of history is a critical ingredient in nurturing the younger generation's sense of its own Jewish identity. But if Jewish history is to serve as a source of inspiration for young girls and boys today, we must retrieve and reclaim the stories of Jewish women. We must bring newly recovered information on the lives and accomplishments of Jewish women out of the academic halls of universities and into the curricula of Jewish day schools. Only by revealing the full scope and texture of Jewish experience can we create a more inclusive and equitable Jewish community in the 21st century — a community that will inspire engagement rather than alienation on the part of both girls and boys.
As educators go about constructing curricula for their emerging and innovative institutions, they have a rare opportunity to take a fresh look at the lessons they hope to convey to today's Jewish youth. In particular, it's time to make certain that both girls and boys are learning about a Jewish past shaped by their mothers and grandmothers as well as their fathers and grandfathers.
The Jewish Women's Archive is dedicated to giving educators the kind of material they need to offer their students a richer perspective on our people's historical experience. JWA has spent the last five years creating a variety of resources, including a poster series, Web exhibits and oral history projects all intended to uncover and transmit the history of North American Jewish women. The JWA Web site — www.jwa.org — offers an unmatched collection of primary sources that document the historical role and contributions of Jewish women in the United States and Canada.
If teachers take advantage of this rich documentation to incorporate the stories of Emma Lazarus, Molly Picon, Justine Wise Polier and Henrietta Szold into their classrooms, their students will emerge with a more textured and nuanced picture of Jewish and American Jewish experience. And schools that offer fuller more inclusive versions of Jewish experience will graduate young women who understand where they came from and who they can be, and young men who grasp that a truly vibrant community is one that honors all its members.
This moment of expansion and potential in Jewish education impels all of us to ensure that the past we teach reflects the fullness of who we truly are and who we may yet come to be.