Brichto Dreams of Building Jewish Identity Curriculum with P2G

Here in Louisville, there is a place to dream of things that could be, and sometimes take those dreams and turn them into reality. For fifth grade Louisville Beit Sefer Yachad (LBSY) teacher Katey Brichto, the dream begins in her classroom and the opportunity to bring it to reality begins with Partnership 2Gether.

The idea began simply enough. Partnership 2Gether is a Jewish Agency for Israel program that pairs communities in Israel with communities in the United States and other countries. Since its inception in 1997, Louisville has been part of the Central Area Consortium, a group of U.S. cities that includes Louisville and communities in Ohio, Indiana, Iowa, Nebraska and Texas, working in partnership with Israel’s Western Galilee region and the city of Akko.

Through the years, there have been a number of exchanges in the arts, medicine, culture, business and education. In the area of education, there have been several twinning projects that pair students in Israel with their counterparts in the U.S. This year, Brichto and her fellow fifth grade teacher, David Goldman, and their classes are participating in the program, and are paired with Israeli fifth graders. Brichto is the project coordinator in Louisville, and she works with Israeli project coordinator and teacher Anna Zvagelsky, who will be visiting Louisville in April.

“We began with exchanges of letters introducing ourselves,” Brichto explained, but she wanted the program to “go way beyond a pen pal relationship to become something that’s really going to be an educational experience.”

So Brichto challenged her students to do more than just provide their names, the names of their schools and their favorite colors. “I asked them to think about what they might say and what questions they might have.” Her students rose to the challenge, asking questions like “does it make you nervous to live so close to Lebanon?”

For the second project, the students exchanged Purim masks. Once again Brichto challenged her class to go further. “I had my kids write identity cards,” she explained. “Who am I behind the mask?” In other words, the students had to research their Jewish ancestry and tell their Israeli friends where their ancestors came from.

As the project unfolded, for Katey Brichto, it just kept getting bigger. This program is not just about making connections with Israeli students, it’s about exploring Jewish identity. And the twinning is just the first step.

Keeping in mind the results of last year’s Pew survey of U.S. Jews that estimated that there are 6.8 million Jews in the U.S., that a growing proportion are unlikely to raise their children Jewish or connect to Jewish institutions and many identify as Jewish only on the basis of ancestry, ethnicity or culture, Brichto believes strengthening Jewish identity is of prime importance.

“So my idea was, let’s up the ante on this a little,” Brichto said. “Instead of just doing a project now and then between classes, let’s try to expand to a thematic approach in which our curriculum centers around all aspects of Jewish identity, both here and in Israel.

“There is ample opportunity to have our kids begin to get hooked on exploring who they are as Jews by learning about Ethiopian and Russian Jewish immigrants in Israel, the differences between Askenazi and Sephardic Jews, Chasidic, Conservative, secular Jews, etc.,” she added, “including those who feel culturally Jewish but not religiously.

“Jewish identity is also a challenge for Israeli youth,” she added, “many of whom identify themselves first as Israelis and only Jewish by default. Add to that the fact that half the population of the Western Galilee is Arab, so the more our kids can learn about the diversity in Israel, the richer the opportunity to begin figuring out who they are as Jews.

“The Partnership has such potential to serve as a vehicle for the kind of comparisons and contrasts that help us figure out who we are,” she noted.

Since the twinning project is part of the Partnership program, and the Partnership programs are administered by a regional council and a series of taskforces, Brichto’s ideas, energy and enthusiasm caught the attention of Megn Maurer, Partnership’s regional Education Task Force Chair, who recruited her to serve on the Education Task Force.

Eliad Eliyahu, Maurer’s Israeli counterpart, likes the idea of applying the Jewish Identity theme to some of P2G’s future projects and plans to present them to the Israeli teachers at the Steering Committee meeting to be held in Omaha in April. He wants to connect it with Efrat Srebo’s Musical Kindergarten program and propose it as an umbrella theme for the next school year.

As Brichto continued to talk, energy and ideas kept coming. For her, these steps lead to a concept for overhauling the entire Jewish supplemental school curriculum. She envisions building one in which the various elements of Jewish study, including both liturgical and modern Hebrew, Tanach (Bible), Jewish history, holidays and life cycle events would be integrated in a holistic way to engage students and enable them to develop a sense of their ownership about who they are as Jews.

Conceding that her ideas are big and would obviously require a great deal of careful thought, strategizing and development, she nonetheless believes that there is no reason not to incorporate companion elements to a new curriculum such as teacher training and cross over into a dynamic web site and social media for educational sharing and outreach for unaffiliated Jews.

“Twinning is great,” she observed, “but it is a very small part of the picture. I care about it passionately.”

Brichto is speaking from experience. She founded and directed a school in Guatemala for 10 years and created its integrative global curriculum. “Partnership is the perfect contextual vehicle for this to take off,” she observed.

Many Partnership projects develop from seed ideas like these. Individuals come up with ideas. Task Forces buy into them and move them forward. A full plan, including the funding to make it happen, is developed and presented to the Regional Council. From all the plans presented, the Council decides which ones the Partnership will pursue and fund. Partnership funds are contributed by each participating community.

Brichto is continuing to build her Partnership connections. In early March, she traveled to the Western Galilee to see our Partnership region and attend the Partnership meetings there with a group led by Rabbi Stanley Miles. “There were seven of us in Nahariya,” she said, “and I was more inspired than I have ever been in my life. This is where I saw the possibilities [of the Jewish identity project]. I was so excited I hardly slept.” (Watch the next issue of Community for the story.)

Brichto is a very experienced Jewish educator who travels twice a week from Madison, IN, to teach at LBSY. She’s also a freelance writer and editor, a founding partner of Enrichment Educators – a group that designs, develops and teaches after school enrichment programs on foreign language, culture and literacy, a court interpreter, a yoga instructor and a guest teacher and lecturer for a variety of groups across the United States.

She has been a Florence Melton Adult Mini-School instructor, served as director of the Teachers’ Resource Center for Cincinnati’s Bureau of Jewish Education and has strong connections with leading Jewish educators across the country.

She is fluent in English, Hebrew, French, Spanish and Italian and has lived in Israel, France, Italy and Guatemala. She has a BA in languages, literature and creative writing from Sarah Lawrence College and an MA in comparative literature from New York University.

“I come from a family of iconoclasts,” Brichto said. “My father was a professor of Bible at Hebrew Union College. He was always fighting with colleagues and students who took the path of least resistance. Not to mention his kids. We weren’t allowed to get away with intellectual dishonesty or laziness. I’m sure that both Rabbi Miles and Rabbi [David] Feder, who were his students, have stories about him.

“My mother was an incredibly gifted educator,” she continued. “She gave Rabbi Miles his first teaching job.”

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