A Deeper Kind of Professional Development

Participants in the Jewish Learning as a Spiritual Practice Track convened by Jane Shapiro and Rabbi Sarah Tasman for the Kenissa Cross-Training in December 2019 at Pearlstone Retreat Center.

By Jane Shapiro and Rabbi Sarah Tasman

Have you ever left a conference feeling you’ve been “talked at” and “power pointed” to the extreme? Have you left wondering if any deep learning has taken place? In our roles as chairs of a track on Adult Jewish Learning as a Spiritual Practice for the Kenissa Cross-Training held recently at Pearlstone Retreat Center, we tried to reach for something deeper and more transformative. First, we wanted to benefit from sharing a genuine spiritual experience with our colleagues. We also wanted to cultivate inquiry, curiosity and interest in what good teaching might look like. And thirdly, we hoped to surface common language and understanding of what we mean by spiritual experience in today’s idiom, and what it looks like in real teaching moments.

Over the spring, summer, and fall of 2019, we identified other practitioners in the field to participate in our track. Our vision was for participants to have a meaningful personal and professional development retreat in which we could also prepare for Hanukkah by learning together. Since the Kenissa Cross Training would be happening during the month of Kislev, we asked each of the presenters to offer a learning experience connected with the themes of the season: Hanukkah; light; darkness and/or winter. Our desire was for each session to provide a chance for participants to connect deeply with themselves, each other and our themes. We discussed our goals for the gathering along the way and then put together a series of sessions which would allow us to learn with and from each other through a variety of modalities including: text learning, chevruta partner learning, meditation, yoga and movement, food ritual, and creative writing.

Here is a sampling of the kinds of sessions we hosted:

The communal ritual plate created for the session entitled: Building a Blessing: A Hanukkah Ritual Honoring Oil, Darkness and Light led by Jodi Balis and Rabbi Sarah Tasman.

Rabbi Benjamin Barer, a Jewish text faculty member at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, MD, led a text and chevruta based session called: “When a Candle Isn’t Just a Candle: What Beit Shammai Can Teach Us about Chanukah, Fear, and Life.”I (Rabbi Sarah Tasman) co-led a session entitled “Building a Blessing: A Hanukkah Ritual Honoring Oil, Darkness and Light” with Jodi Balis, owner of Red Lentil Consulting, Food Ritualist and Culinary Educator. Rebecca Minkus-Lieberman, co-founder and Executive Director at Orot Center for New Jewish Learning, and Deb Wineman, Orot Center for New Jewish Learning faculty member and yoga instructor, led a session with meditation, yoga and text called Hanukkah: Embodying Light. Yael Flusberg, a yoga therapist and faculty member at the Jewish Mindfulness Center of Washington, DC, led a creative writing session entitled “A Light Onto the World: A Special Class in Mindfulness & Writing.” In our last session, Ariele Mortkowitz, founder of Svivah, a woman centered community, gave a “How I Built This” talk on the creation of her organization.

After each lesson, we used a protocol called backstaging introduced by me (Jane Shapiro), asking people to shift their point of view from “how they would have done the lesson” to the cultivation of curiosity about what teaching can look like in the moment. We encouraged appreciation for the creativity and skill of everyone in the group in place of judgment. We like to call this ego-freeing collegiality. It has the ability to touch the heart as well as jumpstart the mind. Colleagues enter a state of deep cognitive work as they have to do a “split screen” immersion in their own learning experience just as they are observers of teaching. Reflective writing on how the teacher(s) began their session, what pivots they made, what their beliefs might be about learners and subject matter were recorded. Then, each teacher was interviewed about their “in the minute” choices and modifications. These rich conversations enabled the group to compare and contrast actual pedagogic practices, and led to connections not generally noticed. This led to emerging shared language and principles, grounded in actual work, and ready for further discussion and probing.

What Did We Learn?

At the end of the conference we found that participants were relaxed, connected to one another, describing their experience as if they had been on a retreat. We agreed on a working definition of what makes teaching “spiritual” and a lexicon of pedagogic language to describe what we feel we are all doing. This included the following:

1. Utilizing the Language of Invitation/Hospitality

It is important to create a comfortable container from the very beginning to encourage participants to be open. It is also critical to invite participants into the “experience of learning” (especially when people may be new to the topic, content or modality of the learning) rather than approaching this as a “class” or as a “lesson.”

2. Incorporating Different Ingredients

The learning experience incorporates a variety of modalities including, but not limited to: food, ritual, singing, writing, text, discussion, movement, etc. in order to address different learning styles and for participants to explore the topic(s) in different ways.

3. Reading and Adapting to the Energy in the Room

Being sensitive and responsive to what is being experienced by the participant in real time rather than just sticking to the lesson plan. The facilitator is able to adapt in the moment to change or modify as needed.

4. Encouraging Encounter with Something Greater Than Yourself

A few examples: dedicating your learning to someone; connecting with another person during the learning experience through chevruta; small groups; the voice of the text, and/or bringing in a quote or teaching from another source to be in conversation with the main content.

This conversation is not just about Jewish Education writ large, but more specifically about meaningful and creative Jewish learning and Jewish learning as a spiritual practice. The group is committed to continuing to explore spiritual learning and how other teachers might be able to share and learn about the practice. The smiles in this concluding group photo demonstrate how professional work can truly illuminate.

Jane Shapiro is a Co-Founder of the Orot Center for New Jewish Learning, based in Chicago, IL. Rabbi Sarah Tasman is the Founder of the Tasman Center for Jewish Creativity, based in Washington, DC.