At Milken Community School, our core values are deeply imbued into lesson plans throughout the 6-12 curriculum. Our skilled educators infuse this unique lens into their discussions and lessons. A shining example of our core value of Ahavat Yisrael, “connecting to Israel and the Jewish People,” can be found in Alex Mendez’s grade 9 history class. "I take the Jewish part of history courses very seriously,” Mendez says, noting that so often, history classes linger too long on negative individuals who have mostly contributed to human suffering, particularly to the Jewish people. Mendez seeks to shine a bring light on lesser-known examples of human survival within Jewish history in a larger context.
Alex Mendez pored over historical records and books to find Gracia Mendes Nasi, born in 1510 in Portugal. “The challenge of her life was how to connect with Judaism and at the same time survive,” says Mendez about the figure from the sixteenth century. This was a difficult time and place in history to practice Judaism due to the Spanish Inquisition.
Following the death of her husband, Gracia Mendes Nasi became independently wealthy and rather than remarry and share her wealth, she chose to retain her own fortune. Eventually, she fled Spanish rule and found her way to the Ottoman Empire where she could practice Judaism freely. Along the way, she used her financial status to provide loans to various monarchs which she leveraged to protect Jewish populations around Europe. After she established herself in modern-day Turkey, she worked tirelessly to provide pathways out of persecution for Jews around Europe.
“You could call her attitudes Protozionist,” says Mendez. Garcia used her wealth and influence for the betterment of the Jewish community by fighting for the civil rights of Jews, financing the building of synagogues, and providing help for the poor. Her tzedakah included the feeding of 80 impoverished people each day in her own home.
Mendes Nasi died in Constantinople in 1569. At the time, the rabbis compared her death to the destruction of the temple, but with time, her memory was increasingly forgotten.
When constructing this section in his class, Mendez notes, “I wanted to provide the perspective of a powerful Jewish woman from a time period where our students don't get to see many such examples.” Within the lesson plan, Gracia Mendes Nasi exists alongside figures like Machiavelli and are asked questions such as whether “the ends justify the means”.
Uncovering windows into the Jewish experience throughout history are what reveals the depth of learning that happens at Milken and highlights the ways in which academics align with building a stronger Jewish identity.