Heart, Mind, and Being: Effective Educational Leadership Through Trust, Emphatic Listening, Criticism, and the Making of Meaning
By Rabbi Dov Lerea
[This is the ninth in a weekly series titled “When and How Does Effective Leadership Make a True Difference?” written by alumni, staff, and faculty of the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of The Jewish Theological Seminary.]
When asked to describe what “effective leadership” means to me and what it “looks like” in my work, I become dissatisfied. I would like to reframe this question with its original formulation still pertinent: “What does effective educating mean to me and what does it look like in my work?”
Now this is an interesting and challenging question, since my work involves such wonderfully different dimensions. As both the dean and Mashgiach Ruchani (spiritual mentor) at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, I hold multiple senior level positions involving direct teaching and administrative responsibility: introducing, developing, and employing models of reflective practice with faculty; generating and engaging administrative processes for articulating handbook policies; establishing schedules and calendars; coordinating admissions protocols; reviewing pedagogic practices of staff; evaluating student growth and development; and helping ground the institution’s persona within orthodoxy.
I meet regularly with all students one-on-one as Mashgiach, while as dean, I direct the academic review of students together with all collaborating faculty.
These various roles require that I cultivate working relationships with many people who play different roles in the school in a wide variety of positions. I have to constantly figure out, sometimes from minute to minute, which tone, language, framing, questions, challenges, consequences, or rationale a given set of circumstances with particular players, might require.
These relationships, with their multifarious layers of goals, participants, contexts and characters, all require foundations of trust. First, effective leadership and effective educating require establishing, cultivating, and nourishing trust with students and colleagues, peers, and superiors. Without trust, little can be accomplished. Once working in a trustworthy relationship, minds can change, positions can be articulated, conflicts can be resolved, consequences can be enforced, circumstances can be framed for their meanings and halakhic implications, and common ground can be explored.
Establishing this trust, I find, requires good listening skills. Listening actively and carefully, reflecting my students’ thoughts and ideas back to them in ways that convey my appreciation and accurate understanding of their intentions, continuously shows itself to be a more powerful pedagogic skill than responding immediately with more words. This holds true working with colleagues as well. Active, empathic listening is an invaluable skill.
I also find that students and colleagues appreciate constructive criticism. Rabbinical students want to feel they are learning Torah and the textual, reflective, and pastoral skills necessary to become the most effective rabbis possible. Colleagues want to feel that we are collaborating on projects of importance, with vision and strategic intelligence. This of course, requires the trust and emphatic listening discussed earlier. People need to know that I have listened to them carefully, that I have understood their meanings and concerns, that my response will demonstrate an appreciation of their perspective and experience in context.
In order to offer criticism, though, I find that I must demonstrate my ability to receive criticism, and even to name it before anyone else. This equalizes the playing field, so to speak. These moments invite students into a conversation in which they can feel safe to build upon what I might have said, or to modify my own remarks, or even to defend a position or a decision that I have already started to question myself. Such openings, then, affect the culture of the entire beit midrash. For example, when I offer a sicha and want us to consider looking inwards to develop a particular character trait as a matter of religious growth – such as, bitachon (trust), or emunah (faith), or yosher (integrity) – nothing invites students to respond openly and personally like sharing reflections about moments in my life when I learned some lesson, fell short of expected behaviors, or felt a certain way and have now reconsidered my perspective.
In a professional school like Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, which combines a traditional beit midrash as a yeshiva with a graduate-level curriculum to train rabbis, an educational priority I value is the insistence upon thinking aloud carefully and slowly, in a space that is safe for people to make mistakes so that everyone engages in learning Torah for personal meaning. Meaning making, therefore, is an additional leadership goal. I have come to believe that all learning environments require someone to nourish the cultural value of making a personal connection to the material learned, so that the “material” becomes experiential, affecting the interplay between one’s heart, mind, and being.
This brings me to my final point. “Heart, mind, and being” echoes the central motif of qeriat shema, “with all one’s mind (levavekha), with all one’s soul (life) and with all one’s m’odekha (“potential,” “means,” or “resources”).” Ultimately, what this implies to me is that Jewish education must inspire to action. Educating to enable and empower students to think out loud, explore their beliefs, and build trusting relationships in the context of learning Torah, in my students’ case, forming a rabbinic life, must ultimately move them to action. This includes many different kinds of action: commitments to Torah learning with enhanced regularity and depth, acquisition of skills for teaching, working with college students, delivering divrei Torah effectively, or officiating at weddings, funerals, and other life cycle events. It includes commitments to social action in a horrifically fragmented world filled with alienation, anger, and violence. It means volunteering in the neighborhood, working with shut-ins and elders, interfaith work, and habitat work in disaster zones. It includes writing and publishing as thought leaders, reaching people who require a source of faith, hope, optimism, coping, and meaning – all of the most important aspects of life that religious traditions can offer. If all of the skills and learning acquired in a rabbinical school do not inspire to action and remain merely theoretical, then the education has not served its most important purpose.
The Latin etymology of the word “educate” comes from e-ducere, meaning, “to lead outward.” I understand this to mean that all educators are leaders, tasked with the opportunities and responsibilities for figuring out how to inspire students and facilitate the processes through which they move outward into the worlds they come to occupy, bringing the skills they will need in their endeavors with them. The word chinukh (education) has a different sense; chanukat hamizbeakh implies usage, as in, “breaking in the altar through using it in preparation for doing what one is supposed to do.” That conveys the sense of learning by doing, through experience.
These two aspects of educational work – leading outward into action and applying learned skills experientially – are conveyed by the two words we use to describe ourselves: “education” and “chinukh.” Together, they support the different domains of educational work in which I humbly am privileged to engage every day – the theoretical work of exploring texts or rituals or religious ideas, the active and daring work of learning through conversations in trusting relationships that allow criticism, and the experiential work of engaging others in heart, mind, and being.
Rabbi Dov Lerea is the dean and Mashgiach Ruchani (spiritual mentor) at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in New York City. Rabbi Lerea received his doctorate in Jewish Education from the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of The Jewish Theological Seminary.