In the 1980s, Dungeons & Dragons was considered the cause for moral panic among religious circles, particularly in Christian communities. By now, public perception of the fantasy game has positively shifted thanks to Internet communities and platforms such as YouTube. Through this change in perception, one Sunday school teacher at Temple Chai is using D&D as an educational tool in the synagogue’s religious school program. Jeremiah Kaplan is combining his love for the game with the stories of the Torah to give six students a unique learning adventure.
Kaplan knew that pitching the idea might be a tough sell due to negative connotations surrounding D&D’s early years, but he nonetheless felt that it would be a great way to teach children religious literature.
“We needed a class that didn’t start with some old man with a beard saying, ‘the Torah says this, the Torah says that,’” Kaplan said. “If our kids don’t understand who these stories are about then they’re not going to care. At this age we have to meet them on their level and one of the ways that we can do that is having shared common interests. The idea of telling stories together is a big part of building those interests.”
Dungeons & Dragons is a tabletop role-playing game that first appeared in the mid ‘70s. While there are rules akin to an average board game, the genre allows for a collaborative story to be told where players create characters that can make narrative-based decisions. One of the players, dubbed the Dungeon Master, is tasked with creating the world and encounters. The setting is usually inspired by high fantasy stories like “A Song of Ice and Fire” or “The Lord of the Rings.”
Kaplan grew up with many fantasy and science fiction novels; the love for the genres came from his father, Rabbi-Cantor John Kaplan of Congregation B’nai Israel in Jackson, Tennessee. The younger Kaplan eventually got into D&D through some friends and fell in love with it. The game has since been one of his favorite hobbies and even serves as a family-bonding activity for Kaplan and his wife and children.
In the Temple Chai campaign, Kaplan diverted from the norm of high fantasy and created a world where his players explore the literal Torah. The players explore a specific Torah story in each session as a way to study its teachings. Once the lesson is learned, the players move on to the next story.
In their most recent session, the adventuring party found themselves at the top of the Tower of Babel as it was being destroyed. The six were split into groups of three, and each group was given a simple jigsaw puzzle to solve. However, the puzzle pieces were jumbled between the two groups. The players had to role-play their characters sharing the pieces and solving the puzzles. Kaplan explained that it was to show how language and humanity split.
The players then had to escape the crumbling tower. Although it was not a graceful exit, the group managed to survive and ended up moving on to the next adventure to meet Abraham before the Battle of Siddim.
Kaplan makes no assumption that his 5-7th grade players know everything about the Torah, and so he makes sure that the game is interactive enough that the students feel invested in learning more about the world.
Of course, the students also bring a lot of personality to the world through their characters.
Some of the player characters of this journey through the Torah included a fighter named Pizza, a wizard named Spookieboi and even Albus Dumbledore of “Harry Potter” fame. Dumbledore’s player, Max, spoke with a British accent for the session.
D&D is known to be a complicated game, so Kaplan condensed and simplified the rules. Although that decision created more restrictions for his players, Kaplan felt it was for the best to keep them away from any odd complications. For example, he said that “one of the kids asked to play as a necromancer (zombie raiser) and I immediately said ‘no.’”
When the players were creating their characters Kaplan steered them toward finding inspiration from the heroes in the Torah. He wrote and developed examples of how different heroes used different skills to succeed in their stories.
However, he wants to do more with this than just give his players a weekly, 45-minute adventure.
“I’d like to turn this into a resource that I can share with other religious schools as a way for them to teach the Torah,” Kaplan said. He’s even begun to write up the material that he hopes to one day publish.
Although he is unsure when that will be, Temple Chai’s religious school leadership has been impressed with this style of teaching and think it helps the students get more excited about coming to school on Sunday.
“I think we’re moving more toward a sense of interactivity and community building,” said Amanda Campbell, the principal of administration and curriculum for Temple Chai’s religious school. “It’s definitely more hands-on and more of a camp-style of education. We’re really looking to reexamine how we teach these lessons and move away from the traditional school. It’s great to see these kids get excited about learning these stories and Jeremiah has found a unique and fun way to do it.” JN