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The Passover Haggadah tells us to think of the Exodus story “as if we all came out of Egypt.” The bitter herbs and the parsley dipped in salt water are supposed to be reminders of the tears of slavery.
It’s “We,” and “Us,” not “They” and “Them.”
Encouraging our children to forge an emotional connection to the Jewish past and the Jewish future is one of our primary goals as teachers and parents. That’s why I’ve found the Moses press conference to be one of the most engaging Hebrew School exercises over the years.
Look at the kids’ beaming faces in the group photo above. They were some of my fifth graders at Boston’s Temple Israel, where I taught for six years in the 1990s. These kids — who incidentally are now having their own kids — acted like a movie star had walked into the room. They all wanted their photos taken with Moses and asked him ethical and theological questions that made me proud to be their teacher.
The Moses press conference is actually a lesson that is spread over several classes and involves a home study component. First, students are told that they are about to become Biblical-era journalists and that they need to know as much as possible about the Book of Exodus. They form their own media organizations — such as the Canaan Register-Times, the Sinai Enquirer or in a nod to modern times, GoldenCalf.com — and research the background of the Ten Commandments and why it took so long to get to the Promised Land.
Feeding their curiosity is a press release teasing the upcoming appearance of the one and only Moses!
HOLY MOSES: 5TH GRADERS
TO MEET TEN COMMANDMENTS SCRIBE
“In an unprecedented example of Biblical time travel, Moses is scheduled to meet with young reporters at Temple Israel for an informal press conference on Sunday, November 3.
Moses, a bearded prophet best known for leading the Jewish people out of Egypt after 400 un-fun years of slavery, will be in Boston on vacation. Besides Temple Israel, he has planned to take trips to Faneuil Hall, Bunker Hill Monument and the Swan Boats.
Among the questions he will be happy to discuss are:
• How did you do that trick with the Red Sea?
• Did it take long to write down everything in the Five Books of Moses?
• Why don’t you have a last name?
Of course, Moses also will be delighted to talk about the Ten Plagues, the Passover Seder, the fight he had with the Egyptian taskmaster, what it was like to look at the Promised Land but never get there, and any other incident in the Book of Exodus.”
Moses can be anyone from the community willing to put in the effort and kavanah. I’ve hosted seven press conferences over the years and have had college professors, parents and even my husband (pictured here) play the role. Of course, I advise that you politely ask your Moses to brush up on his Bible, too. It gets embarrassing when the students have to correct the Prophet.
Also make sure that Moses talks in the first person plural, mentioning how “we” were freed after 400 years of slavery and how “our” feet got muddy walking on the Red Sea floor. This is definitely not meant to be a lecture, but an interactive exercise reinforcing our collectively shared experience with each other!
Students will take notes during the press conference and write up their reports in their respective media publications. As a trickle-down bonus, this lesson also incorporates creative writing, geography, anthropology, public speaking skills and critical thinking in addition to sparking meaningful discussions about Jewish values, spirituality, culture and identity.
You can adapt this exercise to include additional Biblical characters to the mix. Perhaps inviting Miriam for a woman’s perspective about desert hikes or Pharaoh’s psychologist to analyze why he felt compelled to enslave others.
But it is important to note that this is NOT a Passover play. The costumes are cute and the role-playing is fun, but there is a serious exchange of ideas. If you pick your Moses well, he should push the kids to explore deeper issues.
I don’t claim authorship of this idea — I know numerous educators who have implemented variations of the same theme. Personally, I’ve mostly tried this lesson with fourth and fifth graders, but it certainly can be adapted for older students, who could tackle it at a more sophisticated level.
And the beauty of inviting Moses to the classroom is that you can keep inviting him back. Naturally, he’s very central to many of our sacred texts and cuts across many curricula. It would make sense to have Moses drop in on classes focused on Jewish history, Torah, Jewish Holidays, Prophets and Israel.
You could hold your press conference especially for Shavuot, our celebration of receiving the 10 Commandments on Mt. Sinai.
One last thing: You also don’t need to limit your pool of potential prophets to men. Via the magic of Photoshop, here is my best effort at channeling my inner Moses!
This is how you can tell who is the Jewish educator’s kid… Dump a crate of blocks on the playroom rug and see what the children come up with.
This Star of David tower was built by my 7-year-old son, Ari. He likes to take pictures of his creations because he hates to put the blocks back in the box and “ruin” his artistic vision. Perhaps the Louvre will call when they set up a religious symbol exhibit.
Or, maybe Ari will eventually pursue Jewish themes with his LEGOs, in the same spirit as this guy who is recreating the Bible in plastic bricks.
These images are from the wickedly clever web site, The Brick Testament:
Artist Brendan Powell Smith, who is not Jewish, also builds scenes from the Christian Bible. Most fascinating to me are the warning labels he slaps on the books of the Bible like the motion picture ratings. There’s N for nudity, V for violence, S for sexual content and C for cursing.
You don’t realize how child unfriendly the Bible actually is until Smith smacks you over the head with it. After all, there is always someone “smiting” someone or sleeping around in those stories.
Although I classify myself as a non-violent person, I love the word “smite” for some reason.
Anyone have any Jewish or Bible-themed block creations in their playroom? Any thoughts on the LEGO version of the Bible — even though the toy company obviously has nothing to do with it?