From Chair Pose to Congregational School Poised for Changed

How can we inspire our Jewish children to go out anywhere in the world, establish for themselves a Jewish community, and be active in their practice?

by Zachary Lasker

This summer I was in Cleveland teaching a course on Jewish education, and after days of sitting, my legs yearned to stretch. A nearby yoga center piqued my interest, and nervously I entered the studio. I’d only been practicing for 18 months, and at home managed to overcome my insecurity as one of the least coordinated individuals by sticking with a few particular instructors. In Cleveland I was out of my comfort zone – new location, new class, new teacher. We proceeded through a series of poses to which I was, thankfully, accustomed. Standing pose. Chair pose. Plank. As I settled into the core Downward Facing Dog pose my nerves melted into confidence. I could walk into any yoga studio, and feel at home in my practice. How do they it? …and why does this question feel all too familiar?

How can we inspire our Jewish children to go out anywhere in the world, establish for themselves a Jewish community, and be active in their practice? The question of how to guide learners to embrace a set of rituals and beliefs is central to my work. Settings of education may vary, but most aspire to cultivate some type of lifelong commitment to Jewish living and learning. An example of success be a school/camp/youth group graduate who seeks out a prayer service in college, feels at home in the pews, and even stands up and leads now and then. If my experience with yoga in Cleveland became a college student’s story with Kabbalat Shabbat at Ohio State, then daiyenu!!

Currently I am exploring how congregational schools can be strengthened to cultivate within learners a positive Jewish identity and a commitment to a set of Jewish values, practices, and beliefs. The stakes are high. The majority of non-Orthodox children enrolled in a program of Jewish learning is in a part-time setting. Fortunately, congregational learning is receiving a lot of attention from Jewish professionals and parents who are not satisfied with the current level of engagement. Folks are working hard to try out new ideas. In fact, the purpose of my trip to Cleveland was to teach a course titled “The Best of Camp in School Settings.” As I settled into the next Chair pose my mind raced to how Jewish educators can learn from the practice of yoga.

How is it that many kids sit through 2-6 weekly hours of instruction on Hebrew language, prayer, values, and holidays and retain very little, and yet, as an adult, I’ve logged a similar number of hours learning yoga and can enter any studio and participate?

Children are like sponges with the capacity to learn a tremendous amount, yet there are challenges to congregational schools. Hours of instruction decrease as schedules grow busier. Trends in 21st century secular education are veering from a focus on content towards skills in critical thinking, team work, and the ability to ask questions and self-navigate to the answers. Regardless, there remains an expectation for congregational schools to focus on b’nai mitzvah preparation, and a laundry list of subject areas. Important conversations are taking place about the goal of these schools, and my focus is on the support we offer educators to succeed.

Yoga instruction includes a range of goals from the mechanics of the poses to the life benefits of breathing and mindful intention. As an adult I learned that when a yoga instructor calls out “Ardha Chandrasana” my mind translates “Half Moon Pose” and my body topples over as I balance on my right hand and leg with my left hand and leg extended up (photos omitted on purpose). I can even explain the benefit of this stretch. In the meantime, when congregational teachers call out “lulav” and ask about the four species, too many students are like deer caught in the headlights.

I attribute my strides in yoga to a particular teaching style. Enter a yoga studio for your first class and you will not see a desk, book, or whiteboard. Your tools are a mat, blocks, and a blanket. When class starts you engage in the “practice” of yoga. We need to “practice” or “do” Judaism with our learners in the same way that they put their hands to piano keys to learn music, dribble on the basketball court to become athletes, or dissect a frog as young biologists. How is it that the same kid who struggles to recite the Amidah prayer can shine on the basketball court and recall statistics for players and games? Of course, part of it is motivation. I am self-motivated to take on yoga. Still, we spend a lot of time with kids on mastering the Amidah. How can we be more successful?

The simple answer is to engage kids in the many different forms of prayer and guide them towards opportunities in which to be prayerful, rather than stick them behind a desk forced to recite the words from a photocopy or textbook. Fortunately, many congregational schools are already moving past overly frontal techniques. The more mindful answer is to strategically employ the approach of experiential learning, currently at the center of many conversations about Jewish education. For years we have seen the fruitful impact of this approach in the setting of Jewish summer camp or through organized trips to Israel. Current debates question whether experiential methods can be integrated more prominently in non-immersive settings where educators lack the luxuries of residential living, lakes, and fields.

Fortunately, experiential Jewish education is a broad approach, and not restricted to one particular environment. Dr. Jeff Kress, an expert at The Jewish Theological Seminary, explains experiential Jewish education as a combination of several attributes that involve relationship building, entry points for a variety of learners, engaging a person’s emotions, providing opportunities for reflection, and connecting with other life experiences. The practice of yoga is quite experiential – relationships are formed with instructors, emotions are engaged, there are several opportunities for self-reflection, and instructors connect the practice to issues confronted outside the studio. While individuals interested in yoga can certainly attend a retreat, most learn within a limited number of weekly hours in a studio near home; conditions which are similar to the congregational school.

Conversations about an experiential approach to congregational learning often start with the question “How can we make Hebrew school more like camp?” This is a fine way to start the conversation, but we need to be careful as we experiment with answers. People who expect to enter a school and see the exact same magic that can occur in a Jewish camp are doomed for disappointment. We cannot extract individual activities from camp, replicate them in a school, and expect the same total outcome. A Jewish cooking activity is effective at camp because the hour spent kneading challah dough takes place in a larger context. The camper also sits near his cooking instructor during prayer services or joins her for Israeli folk dancing before lunch, or he might use his baked challah during Shabbat dinner that night. An experiential approach is more than “hands on learning.” There is a risk that a cooking elective in a congregational school will exist in a vacuum. It becomes “culinary education” and not “Jewish education.”

I am constantly struck by the incredible skill set of yoga instructors. They are authentic experiential educators. As pedagogues they are knowledgeable about the mechanics of yoga, appropriately challenge students while scaffolding us to success, assess progress and offer feedback, and draw connections between our practice of yoga and daily lives. As classroom managers they are generally patient and nurturing, and bring us together as a group while also offering individual “hands on” support as needed. Much of this success can be attributed to their training. A minimum standard in the industry is that yoga instructors receive 200 hours of training in areas ranging from alignment and anatomy to the science and art of sequencing a class, and as well as how to offer hands on adjustments. Many receive a total of 500 hours to deepen their abilities and benefit from a larger amount of mentoring and practice teaching.

If we want congregational schools to adopt an experiential approach, then our top priority must be to prepare teachers to integrate these techniques into their pedagogy and classroom management. The profile for congregational school teachers varies greatly from emerging adults who teach while in college to adults for whom teaching is a secondary avocation. Most bring some combination of interest, personal experiences in Jewish education, and varying levels of content knowledge. However, few arrive with any formal training in experiential learning. Those who have benefited directly from experiential programs have strong instincts, but need guidance on how to explicitly modify for settings that are not residential.

I am eager to continue my exploration of this approach, and giving thought to the art of yoga helps clarify some immediate needs. Leaders in Jewish education must allocate resources in time and funding for the preparation of experiential educators on a local or national level. This preparation should certainly include the school educators, but must also include other professionals in the synagogue community so that the school is truly embedded in a larger community. In turn, our educators have an obligation to collaborate internally and externally to ensure that schools, camps, and youth groups take advantage of opportunities for joint training, programming, and communication as we steward families through an increasingly wide network of experiences.

Dr. Zachary Lasker is director of Melton & Davidson Education Projects at William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of The Jewish Theological Seminary. He recently helped launch the ReFrame initiative, focused on strengthening congregational schools. Previously he served as Camp Director for Camp Ramah in California.