Between Passion and Knowledge: Creating Space for Student Exploration and Growth

One of the goals of experiential Jewish education is to impact the formation of the Jewish Identities of our learners.

personal meaningBy Kenny Pollack

[This is the eighth in an annual series of articles written by participants and alumni of the YU Certificate Program in Experiential Jewish Education (EJE), highlighting EJE related ideas and practices.]

I didn’t always think I was going to be a Rabbi or a Jewish Educator. My love for sports had me dreaming of being a sports writer but the turning point – my “aha” moment – came after my second summer working at Camp Stone, a Bnei Akiva Moshava camp in Northwest Pennsylvania while working as a bunk counselor with arguably one of the most difficult bunks in camp history. The impact that summer had on me had nothing to do with my personal enjoyment. On the contrary: it was a result of the meaningful Jewish experience I was able to create for my campers. Investing my time in other people for the first time in my life was so extremely fulfilling and meaningful for me that it cemented my decision to dedicate not only my career, but also my entire life, to Jewish education.

Like most teachers in the field of Jewish Education, I seek to bring the passion I have for Judaism to my students. While this may sound familiar to the many idealistic educators working in the field, coming up with a successful and well-tested recipe for accomplishing this lofty goal takes time and a lot of patience. Toiling through the first few years of teaching certainly wore me down. Preparing classes until late at night, endless meetings with department heads, and a general sense of questioning whether I was making a difference in my students’ lives took a big toll on me. The passion for inspiring students never leaves, but the toll that the other responsibilities takes on you can shift focus away from the other important aspects of being a teacher, namely: making sure my students are learning the content that I have been tasked with teaching them.

Serendipitously, just as I was struggling with these ideas I enrolled in the YU Certificate Program in Experiential Jewish Education (EJE). In the Certificate Program, we discussed how one of the goals of experiential Jewish education is to impact the formation of the Jewish Identities of our learners. I realized that I needed to develop lessons that my students would find personally meaningful, and so personal meaning making became my new objective. The challenge I encountered in developing a learner-centered approach – one that creates ample space for the students’ self-exploration with the subject matter – was in trying to assess whether I had done a good job. How do I assess ‘personal meaning’ and ‘passion’? It is very hard to quantify and unless I hear direct feedback from my students, how would I know if I did or did not impact my students’ Jewish Identity? I also started to feel pressure from a professional standpoint- not because my supervisors were micromanaging the materials I was presenting – but because I wanted to be able to show them all the progress and growth my students had undergone.

One of the things that I learned in EJE is that as an educator I need to “let go” of having a clear cut destination, and instead be more wholly engaged with facilitating the process of the journey. I need to constantly remind myself that as an educator my responsibility towards my students is in painting a picture for them, but not to interpret their feelings on it. Knowing when it’s my time to influence – to paint the picture – and when it’s my time to let my students do the work of interpretation – is what is most important. In the Certificate Program we called this the balance between Pre-Determination and Self-Exploration. The key is in the balance, and success can be only measured by knowing when and how much of each to use.

Here are a few things that I would like to suggest about this idea:

  1. Awareness and intentionality – We need to be extremely conscious of the fact that we have tremendous power of influence over our students and that we need to use it carefully. I have found that my students will respect and listen to me more when they feel that I am legitimately invested in their journeys, no matter where they are taking us both (and yes: we are on this journey with our students, we are not just spectators)
  2. Differentiated measures of success – we should give ourselves permission to spend time to really think about how we define success. Not just in terms of information and memorization (these things are also important) but also in how our students’ Jewish identities are being developed based on what they are experiencing in the classroom. We must develop indicators to know when our students are invested self-exploration. and each student will do so differently.
  3. Relationship-Based Education – Know your students well enough to tell when they are and are not plugged in. It’s very easy to put an assessment in front of our students and then grade it and this assessment can be as innovative and experiential as we make it, but we also must take the time to develop strong relationships with our students, in which ideas are free to flow back and forth and authentic dialogue is welcomed.

Finally, while it is critical that we understand that we can take our students on a journey of self-exploration, we cannot decide for them what their destination will be. We must allow them to experience their passion on their own terms, and not imbue them with our passion. We must remember it’s not about our goals, but about their growth.

Kenny Pollack is a high school teacher and runs programming at the Fuchs Mizrachi School and served as the Founding Director of Moshava Malibu. Kenny is a graduate of the second cohort of the Yeshiva University Certificate Program in Experiential Jewish Education.

Applications for Cohort VI of the Certificate Program will be accepted through March 14, 2016. For more information and to apply visit

The YU Certificate Program in Experiential Jewish Education is generously funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation.