Out of Zion Will Come Forth (Personalizing) Torah: Building Educational Partnerships with Israel

Image: eJP archives

By Rabbi Dr. Jay Goldmintz

The verse in Proverbs 22:6 instructs us to “educate the child according to his way,” (chanokh l’na`ar al pi darko) a phrase that in modern educational parlance would be a call for differentiated instruction. At the same time, the phrase could just as easily be read, educate the child according to His way, i.e. not according to the child’s needs but rather according to the way of God. Are the two interpretations at odds with one another or do they complement one another?

The notion of initiating a child into the norms of tradition yet doing so in a way that speaks to his own contemporary needs goes to the heart of what Jewish education is all about, as discussed by my mentor Michael Rosenak in his classic work Commandments and Concerns. But another Israeli educator, Rabbi Elisha Aviner, has also suggested that what is true of an individual student, is no less true for an entire generation. Each period of history brings with it its own concerns that present a unique challenge of emphasis to the Jewish education of its youth. In our own day, some of us in my community believe that the “need” that our students seem to crave the most, is the desire for connection, in particular a personal or spiritual connection to God, to observance and to textual study. Over the years, we have done an overall outstanding job as a professional community in focusing our efforts on skills and content, all the while fostering adherence to religious norms. And yet, there is evidence, mostly anecdotal but some empirical, which says that there has been something missing in the education we offer, and that ingredient, namely the personal component of commitment, the internal world of the child.

In truth, there hasn’t always been a lot of attention paid to this aspect of religious education and for good reason – it’s very hard. How does one teach another person about religious experience? How does one foster a personal relationship with God? And how does one do this without compromising the pursuit of a rigorous education that creates self-sufficient learners who have the fundamental skills necessary to learn original texts of Talmud and Tanakh in a sophisticated way? How does one balance the cognitive and the affective? How does one not only teach Torah but also help students personalize what they are learning so that it is compelling and relevant, whether as a religious act in its own right or because of the messages that it can convey for life in the twenty-first century?

Some of us have been experimenting on our own with addressing these challenges for some time, but the Fuchs Mizrachi School in Cleveland, led in this effort by Rabbi Yehuda Chanales, decided to address this issue directly and explicitly as a professional community. Thanks to a grant from the Mayberg Foundation, the Jewish Studies faculty has been able to embark on a two year project to work on their curriculum and teaching together with training and input from a number of Israeli institutions under the auspices of Herzog Teachers College in Gush Etzion. I was fortunate enough to tag along as they traveled to Israel for a week-long training and here is some of what I learned:

As a national school system, Israel has the human, professional and financial resources that we do not have. They thus have the ability to experiment with new initiatives in ways that educators here can only dream about. We would be foolish not to take advantage of that experience. And this despite the fact that there are serious cultural differences between us that require translation and adaptation. Even so, this should not deter us from building better bridges to our kindred spirits there. “Out of Zion will come forth Torah,” may speak not only to Torah’s point of origin, but to its method of delivery as well.

Making change to the way we do education should take place within an organized and deliberate framework that is rooted in research and experience. For the most part, we have been unable to replicate the academic and pedagogic expertise that a government funded system has been able to accomplish. It should ideally consist of what Joseph Schwab referred to as the commonplaces, including curricular experts, for example, who are able to mine the texts of tradition for their underlying values and philosophy without distortion while remaining firm to the principles of appropriate pedagogy for each age group.

It is indeed possible to empower our students to personalize their learning not only in the way we have traditionally understood it, each according to her own pace, but also to nurture their ability to internalize that learning, each according to her own personal needs, be they spiritual or existential. We can teach text but also teach students. We can speak to their minds without leaving their hearts behind and we can do so in systematic ways, by the persona we take into the classroom as well as by the strategies we employ.

Speaking to our children’s inner world must begin with educators exploring their own inner world. This may seem obvious, but the truth is that many of us were never educated that way as students and neither were we trained that way as teachers. Before we start talking about impacting students, we need to talk seriously about what it means for adults to learn and change. In addition, one needs to work with an entire group of faculty at once and not just an individual or two. One of the most gratifying and impressive parts of the trip was to watch this group of teachers coalesce into an even more supportive and caring group, emerging from an intense collaboration of personal sharing with a common language to express their goals and methods going forward. They are working at changing the culture in their school and not just what they do in their individual classrooms.

Regardless of the reasons for this perceived need in our community, there is every reason to believe that it can be met if we would only commit ourselves to doing so. If we follow the first half of the verse from Proverbs, “Educate the child according to his/His way” then we can be assured that the second half of the verse will be realized as well: “And when he is old, he will not depart from it.”

Rabbi Dr. Jay Goldmintz teaches at Maayanot Yeshiva High School in Teaneck, NJ. He has written extensively on religious development and education, and is the author of the award winning Ani Tefillah Siddur series published by Koren.