Taking Jewish Education Out of the Box

Someone who thinks out of the box will not fare well in today’s yeshiva, but those are often our future leadersthe CEOs, entrepreneurs, and Jewish thought-leaders.

by Maayan Jaffe

According to the model of Western philosophy, a successful Jewish student would be one who masters the Talmud, the laws of Shabbat and kashrut, and the tales of the Midrash, says Rabbi Dovid Abenson.

“Every institution craves the box child,” Abenson, founder and director of the Shaar Hatalmud online Jewish learning program, tells JNS.org. “The box child is a child that fits the mold.”

Yet Abenson asks, if a student has not internalized a love and appreciation for knowledge, nor a faith and security in Judaism, “can we, as teachers, really call his education successful?”

Abenson is one of several parents and educators working to slowly shift the yeshiva educational system to be more in line with the way they feel our ancestors taught Torahand at the same time, in a manner fitting for the 21st century child.

The Midrash (Devarim Rabbah 8:3) states there is a natural progression to Torah learning. First one studies the Hebrew language, then Chumash, then the Prophets, then Scriptures, then the Mishnah, then the Talmud, then the codified laws, and finally, the philosophy of Torah. Abenson says many teachers introduce abstract Talmudic concepts before basic Chumash because they are pressured by schools to have their children appear more studious than what should be expected of them.

King Solomon, the son of King David, advised the opposite – to “educate a child according to his way.”

“A child should be taught according to his ability and not according to your educational policy or method,” Abenson says.

Similarly, Rose Marchick, a Jewish foster mother who holds a doctorate in psychology and lectures at Johnson County Community College in Kansas, says the “true mark of learning is progress, and progress is different for each person.”

Compounding the problem for schools is that dialogue on this subject remains rare. According to Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran, who has written extensively about Jewish education, discussing the challenges of many yeshiva day schools’ methodology is considered a shanda (scandal) when it should actually be viewed as a necessity.

“Children are the most valuable possession of… the Jewish people,” says Safran.

Joan Fogel, a special education consultant in Overland Park, Kan., says change starts with parents.

“Parents need to be advocates,” she says. “They need to know well their children and their needs,” and then help the school to think outside of the box, act creatively and use support systems.

Parents also need to be willing, says Fogel, to choose a school that is right for their child and family – which should involve looking at the religious aspects of the school, but also at its educational philosophy.

This is easier in larger communities, where there are multiple Jewish schools, says Dr. Marvin Schick, president of the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School in Staten Island, N.Y. Schick helped found four schools in Staten Island and one in Edison, N.J., catering to children of different backgrounds. They range from an advanced yeshiva high school, to a mainstream boys elementary school, to a girls elementary school, to a Jewish foundational school for children from less-observant homes, to a day school for children from Russian Jewish families.

“You can’t make one model and expect everyone to come,” says Schick. “If a child is going to succeed in any school, it has to be a school the child is comfortable in.”

If there are not enough students to make multiple schools in a community, he recommends various tracks. For example, at his boys school, nighttime Torah learning is only required once a week. The other nights are optional, and other activities are offered for boys who cannot manage to learn for so many hours each day.

“There is a class for boys who want it more intensive, and those who are not as interested have a somewhat different curriculum,” Schick explains. “Even in the very Orthodox community, one mode does not fit all.”

One option that is picking up some steam among Orthodox parents is Montessori-style learning, something that, according to Brocha Baum-Zahler, “goes back to our ancient traditions.”

Zahler runs the Darchei Noam Montessori center in Baltimore, where teachers are charged with supporting and fulfilling each child’s specific needs and tendencies. The classroom environment is designed to encourage exploration and to allow a child to experiment. The teacher serves more as a guide, “rather than as the person who provides everything,” explains Zahler.

Chayim Lando, director of Learning Institute for Torah Empowerment, says this hands-on philosophy should be brought into yeshiva day schools at every age. When he taught eighth graders at a Jewish school in Los Angeles, he would combine written work with hands-on projects.

“The children were encouraged to be as creative as they wished,” says Lando. “Parents would come up and say, ‘This is my son’s only opportunity… to shine. He is not good academically but he is wonderful with his hands.’ By enabling these to kids to feel a connection to Judaism through their creativity, it fosters a connection where one would not have existed otherwise.”

Rabbi Laib Schulman’s Mesivta Neimus HaTorah in Baltimore works with boys who are “slightly academically challenged,” to develop learning, life and social skills, and self-esteem. He breaks the day into several small parts, providing adequate exercise and breathing breaks and incorporating extra-curricular activities and field trips with practical skills. Last year, the school hosted a plumber who taught the boys basic techniques to use when they own homes.

The boys learn Gemara, but not exclusively that. Every day, for example, a different rabbi presents a contemporary question on Jewish law and spends about a half-an-hour discussing it with the boys.

“We are making sure the Torah comes alive for them so they can… relate to it,” Schulman says.

The Jewish Education Project (JEP), meanwhile, is working with day schools nationally to better integrate technology into the classroom. Ginger Thornton, director of instructional technology at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Silver Spring, Md., says that through JEP her students use a Google applications-based learning management system, which contains activities and resources ranging from forums, glossaries, and wikis to assignments and quizzes. Each system is customized to fit the needs of the day school.

“Some of the largest tech users in our school are in our Judaic courses,” says Thornton.

There is a tendency for schools to create employees “who will sit down, work, not ask too many questions, be on time, not be interruptive,” says Marchick, who has fostered more than 150 children over the last nine years.

“Someone who thinks out of the box will not fare well in today’s yeshiva, but those are often our future leaders – the CEOs, entrepreneurs, and Jewish thought-leaders,” she says.

Rabbi Ira Budow, whose Abrams Hebrew Academy in Pennsylvania went through an extensive evaluation and transformation process over the last several years, says educators need to admit where they have weaknesses and then work on fixing those weaknesses.

“We are very protective of our schools as being the best and we don’t want to admit when we need to fix things. … Not being open to redefining our schools is not a recipe for success,” he says.

Marchick says, “Without options – that is the box.”