Dr. Shira D. Epstein, a rising star and pioneer in the world of Jewish education, is taking her scholarship and applying it to real-life challenges. An assistant professor of Jewish Education at the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education, the thrust of Dr. Epstein's work revolves around teaching educators, specifically Jewish educators, how to teach young people the "evaded curriculum," issues related to building healthy relationships, the body, and sexuality. In the process, she is winning accolades, receiving grants, and breaking ground in Jewish education that will have ramifications for generations to come.
On April 1, 2008, she will be recognized by DAYENU!, the domestic violence initiative of the New York Board of Rabbis, at their first leadership luncheon. Dr. Epstein will be acknowledged for her leadership in the field of domestic violence prevention within the academic community, leading the way towards ending gender violence by transforming the way Jewish educators look at gender, healthy dating, and building stronger self-esteem in young people.
What is the “evaded curriculum?”
The “evaded curriculum” is the curriculum that educators in Jewish schools have traditionally steered away from, like issues of gender, sex education, dating, harassment and bullying, building healthy relationships, and body image. My classes and research focus on bringing these issues more to the foreground and helping educators integrate them into their curricula.
How do you do that? In other words, don’t Jewish educators have enough to teach without worrying about that?
That’s a common response I’ve come across, but I think that educators have to realize that not responding or choosing to ignore a situation in their class is a conscious decision. I’m trying to train educators to take up praxis, meaning, engage in a process of constant reflection and action, in their work in regard to gender issues. So if a sexist comment arises in the classroom, for example, I want the teacher to be aware that deciding not to pursue it is a deliberate decision. And perhaps the issue will lead to a future lesson or be addressed in some new way that my guide on healthy relationships addresses.
What guide are you referring to?
JTS received a grant from the Jewish Women's Foundation of New York to support my work on training Jewish educators to address "evaded curricular issues" such as healthy relationship building in formal educational settings. Because of the grant I was able, with the help of the project’s national advisory board and help from Abbi Sharofsky, a JTS rabbinical student, to put together a guide called Programming for the Evaded Curriculum, which helps Jewish educators to integrate programming on these issues into their settings. I have also been so fortunate to have the opportunity to author a curriculum for Jewish Women International geared toward thirteen- to fifteen-year-old girls titled "Strong girls, healthy relationships: A conversation on dating, friendship, and self-esteem." I am really proud of this because it's a very practical way to support educators in addressing healthy relationship building. So often, Jewish educators have not seen it as part of their jobs to talk about what constitutes healthy relationships, and my work is an effort to fill that void.
You have also just been awarded very impressive grants from the Dobkin Family Foundation and The Hadassah Foundation?
Yes, I’m so excited. These grants will enable me to further continue my work. The fact that these foundations recognize the importance of this is very validating to me. My program is also being considered for a second grant by the Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York. And of course it’s wonderful for my students, too, in that they know that this work we are all engaged in is in the forefront of Jewish education.
What classes do you teach at JTS?
I teach Curriculum and Instruction, Perspectives on Gender and Education, Skills for Teaching, Jewish Early Childhood Education: Theory and Practice, and the Day School Practicum.
You have been on sabbatical these past six months. What have you been doing?
I have been working on my book, which has the working title The Evaded Curriculum. It’s been wonderful to be able to have the time to put all the pieces of my work down on paper. Also, I ran the New York City Marathon.