How we teach

How can collective work shed light on Jewish pedagogies and benefit Jewish education for years to come?

What if instead of using the Jewish tradition to help “ground us” in the secular world around us, we developed pedagogies that originated from Jewish ritual and text whose methods were also Jewish?

What if instead of using “Hanoch Lenaar Al Pi Darco/ Educate each child according to their own way” from Proverbs as a tagline to support differentiated instruction, we gathered all of the texts, mitzvot and rituals that align with differentiation and contemplated what differentiation could actually look like through a Jewish lens?
Adam Eilath

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All too often Jewish educational leadership is reactive in our orientation to vision setting and the construction of pedagogical frameworks. What I mean is that we feel responsible for following the latest trends in secular pedagogy and doing the adaptive work of aligning the Jewish tradition with the field of education. Of course, there is much to be said about the adaptive and flexible nature of the Jewish tradition. However, there is also tremendous value in taking a step away from the day-to-day developments within the secular world of pedagogy. It is worthwhile to try and distill the pervasive values, themes, mitzvot and thought processes inherent in the Jewish tradition that can be developed into pedagogies. 

What if instead of using the Jewish tradition to help “ground us” in the secular world around us, we developed pedagogies that originated from Jewish ritual and text whose methods were also Jewish? For example, what if instead of using “Hanoch Lenaar Al Pi Darco/Educate each child according to their own way” from Proverbs as a tagline to support differentiated instruction, we gathered all of the texts, mitzvot and rituals that align with differentiation and contemplated what differentiation could actually look like through a Jewish lens. 

Over the past year, twelve educators gathered regularly to develop “Jewish Pedagogies” through a remarkable initiative facilitated by M²: The Institute for Experiential Education and supported generously by Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah and the Jim Joseph Foundation. We were given the space to leave the day to day challenges of our individual professional settings. We were given permission to tinker, contemplate and ideate. Starting slowly, we ideated, brainstormed and listened to one another as we developed our pedagogies. We were given “qualifiers” that set boundaries for us and had regular Hevruta sessions, the ability to consult with experts and countless opportunities to present our research and thinking in front of our cohort.   

The end results were tremendous with unique pedagogies, ideas and resources being developed. I also believe that we started a process that will truly benefit Jewish education for years to come. We are building the framework for the Jewish tradition, rituals and mitzvot to directly inform not only what we teach, but how we teach. 

I wanted to share a few brief reflections on why this collective work was so successful.

  • There is an incredible benefit in being in diverse spaces where Jewish educational leaders are put together from different backgrounds. Often we get stuck in echo chambers within our own disciplines; camps, Hillels, day schools, synagogues, informal educators etc. Having the opportunity to zoom out and think about our work in the field not within our disciplines, but within the field of Jewish education is extremely helpful. Our cohort was diverse and included voices from across the denominational spectrum which truly allowed us to hear the ways in which our teachings resonated with Jews from incredibly diverse backgrounds. In one learning session we were asked to translate a Hebrew translation of a Kafka excerpt into English. The ways in which we each brought our unique backgrounds and experiences to the translation of words was truly fascinating. 
  • Especially in contemporary liberal Jewish settings, we often find ourselves asking, “what makes this experience, program or initiative “Jewish”. We find ways to stretch the boundaries of “what is Jewish” as much as possible. The Pedagogies Circle offered a very specific framework for what made a “Jewish pedagogy”. We needed to ground our pedagogy in one of the paths to acquiring Torah from the Mishnah on Kinyan Torah, our pedagogy needed to be rooted in a mitzvah or practice that is pervasive in the Jewish tradition. By providing us with a clear set of expectations of what qualified as a Jewish pedagogy, we were able to dive deeper into the Jewish tradition.
  • Finally, this process showed us that there is a clear need for this work. Jewish educational leaders have plenty of opportunities to teach, write curriculum or collaborate with specialists and artists to create innovative lessons and experiences. What we don’t have enough time to do is go back to the drawing board and think about what it means to teach Judaism, Jewishly. One of my colleagues in the program spent the entire year thinking about the pedagogy of a “Siyyum.” Others thought about the practice of teachers and students offering “brachot” to one another in the process of teaching. Perhaps the greatest gift was that we were given the time and space to think deeply about what an authentic Jewish pedagogy is and allow that to be at the core of our practice.

Adam Eilath is head of school, Wornick Jewish Day School. He’ll be sharing his research on the Pedagogy of LeSHa: Learning that leads to love, together with his fellow graduates of M²’ jewish Pedagogies programs at Discovering Jewish Pedagogies: An Online Symposium. September 1, 2021, 12:00 PM – 2:30 PM ET.

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