By Jon Ramsay
This blog post is part of a featured series by writer Jon Ramsay, friend of URJ Heller High. This series was written during a ten-day trip alongside the students of the Fall 2018 semester.
In Judaism, tombs are lessons and graves are meant to teach us about life. They are to be visited and reflected on. And that is exactly why parents and students traveled to Galil, the north of Israel, to visit an ancient Jewish necropolis from 200 CE, Beit She’Arim. This tiyul, or field trip, was aimed at continuing the classroom Jewish History study of Oral Law and the Mishnah that Evan and David had started with Heller High earlier in the week.
Experiential learning, escaping the physical confines of classrooms and actually venturing out into the world to contextualize a curriculum, is the major focus of a Heller High education. “We want the kids to see, touch, and walk through everything they’re learning,” Evan, their teacher, told me. “It helps events stick in the memory, it gives them a solid foundation.” As we passed through narrow limestone caves and examined the ornate sarcophagi of Rabbis who lived nearly 2000 years ago, it’s easy to feel like Indiana Jones – on an adventure through history.
But what looks like a small network of caves and ruins was once a thriving city and home to the Sanhedrin, a court of 71 Rabbis who served as the governing body of Judaism after the destruction of the Second Temple. We saw the architectural skeletons of an olive press, a synagogue, and the auditorium-like stairs situated above tombs to encourage study from the dead. With each site, Evan and David provoked questions and challenged the students to think critically about several key topics that called back to their classroom learning.
Why were many of the tombs decorated with lions, eagles, and bulls – when the Mishnah clearly states that images of God’s creation were too close to idolatry? Why did they seem so similar to Roman styles of art? And how could Rabbis, of all people, be guilty of such obvious contradiction against scripture? Evan and David played a clever teaching game here – they planted these questions, but left them to linger. No answers would come until later on in the day, with more exploration.
After departing the necropolis of Beit She’Arim, we traveled to Bet Alfa, an ancient synagogue and the archaeological site of a beautiful mosaic floor from the Byzantine era. This mosaic is noteworthy for one major reason – it features a massive, multicolored zodiac circle in its center, a classic pagan symbol. Again our teachers confronted us, asking us to think skeptically and outside the box – how could Rabbis, in such a traditional period of time, allow sacrilegious decorations like this in their place of worship?
When you put questions like these to students, and don’t just tell them what to think, they’re forced to digest all the evidence they’re given and come to their own conclusions. It puts the burden of learning and education on their shoulders, and in their realm of responsibility. It can feel empowering and memorable, and I believe it’s the best way to really learn a subject thoroughly.
At last, as students offered theories and played their ideas off each other, a conclusion was reached together. Judaism was changing after the destruction of the Second Temple. Old rules had to be altered, and the religion had to adapt to modern times, tragic as they were. One of these adaptations was in aesthetics. Why was a Zodiac symbol in a synagogue? Because it looked beautiful, and it was appearing everywhere in the culture of the time. The Jews of 2000 years ago just wanted to be in on the trend, simple as that. This marks the first time in Jewish history that aesthetics – pure beauty – was treated as valuable as the Oral Laws.
To watch this kind of education in practice is inspirational. But to be a part of it, to be involved in exploring a lesson physically like this, is truly special. David and Evan are a tag-team duo that know how to bring a curriculum alive, to defibrillate history and make it jump right into our contemporary world. It’s astounding that this isn’t even a rare occurence – the students of Heller High take Tiyulim like these just about twice a week. Hopefully they know how lucky they are to escape the classroom and experience authentic, hands-on education.
Jonathan Heller Ramsay has degrees from the University of St Andrews and University of Edinburgh in Scotland. He’s a writer with a passion for Judaism, pomegranates, and dogs.