Shortly following the passing of Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z”l in November of last year, The Idea School decided to anchor their spring semester’s learning in Rabbi Sacks’ book, “A Letter in the Scroll.” The Idea School is a Jewish project-based learning high school, located in Tenafly, which opened in 2018 and, briefly, strives to create meaningful, memorable and high-quality projects that display the learning that takes place within each discipline. In the weeks that followed Rabbi Sacks’ passing, two things became abundantly clear. First, the students were incredibly moved by the words and teachings of Rabbi Sacks. After hearing his TED Talk, reading some of his weekly divrei Torah and hearing his thoughts on modern challenges like COVID, the students developed a thirst for more of his beautiful Torah. Second, after listening to the moving hesped (eulogy) given by his daughter, Gila Sacks, students felt mobilized to share their new found appreciation for Rabbi Sacks’ Torah with others who may have similarly not had the opportunity to know him or his words previously. And so, a project-based unit emerged. Students set out to read, research and discuss one of Rabbi Sacks’ books and, along the way, would create a virtual exhibit, in the form of a dynamic website, that would share both the learning and the process with the community and world around them.
Very often in project-based learning, there is attention given to the project launch, as that will often serve to propel the students forward and pique their interest in the project to follow. The Idea School students were incredibly fortunate to have had the opportunity to Zoom with Gila Sacks who shared personal anecdotes and teachings of her father that had left an impression on her. Immediately following that memorable conversation, students were hooked. They embraced a deep sense that their learning this semester would matter, both because it would expose them to the writings of this brilliant man whom they had recently come to admire and also because the product of their work, this memorial website, would be a very public expression of their learning.
Each week, they would read selections from a chapter of the book and then engage in thoughtful discussions, pursue historical and/or textual references, and compose journal entries that were meant to connect the text with each student’s life and family. For example, after reading the first chapter, where Rabbi Sacks makes reference to the conversos, students paused their reading for several days in order to understand the historical context of the Spanish Inquisition and the writings of Maimonides from that time. After reading Rabbi Sacks describe in ch. 3, “I belonged to a people. And being part of a people, I belonged” students were asked to interview their parents or grandparents about a time in their lives when they felt a particular sense of Jewish belonging. Upon reading in ch. 11, the many beautiful values that are embedded within the concept of the beit knesset, students built physical and digital models of what a beit knesset might look like if it was designed through a prism of values, instead of mortar.