The Most Essential Part of a Jewish Education Isn’t What You Think

By Rabbi Shmuel Feld

Two teens from New Chelm sneak out at night. In order to pass the final hurdle, they need to jump between two tall buildings. The first one makes it, and the second is frozen with fear. The first calls from the other side saying with confidence, “Don’t worry. I will use this flashlight to make a beam of light for you to walk across safely between the buildings.” The other responds, “Do you think I’m crazy? You could just turn it off when I’m in the middle.”

This type of cross talk mimics the kind of conversations educators have about the nature of teaching in the Jewish classroom. Do we teach content, or do we teach the skills to unpack the content? Even a hybrid approach ignores the heart of the matter. That’s because the real point of Jewish education is for students to continue a commitment to and engagement with Judaism and its texts when NOT sitting in our classrooms.

In the 1990’s and 2000’s, Judaic teaching capitalized on newer approaches to curricular scope and sequence (spiralling up), giving way to the development of proven pedagogic approaches for skill-building over the years. While we can appreciate and lean on the merits of that effort, it is a misplaced focus.

When it comes to Judaic Studies, the most important aspects of pedagogy teachers should embrace are those associated with motivational pedagogy. Whether or not a child wishes to engage in the wisdom of our thoughtful lessons after the school day ends impacts more than our job performance. It is the very reason we perform our jobs. We know that the depth and power of our tradition can guide, inspire, and influence their lives in positive ways.

In the past decade, there has been a compelling turn in positive psychology toward the power and lasting value of intrinsic motivation. While the research and thought leadership on harnessing intrinsic motivation contains many definitions, conditions, and settings, six main components seem most applicable to student learning in the classroom:

  1. Autonomy – This describes the ownership, engagement, and control students exhibit over their decisions. Students should want to bargain and negotiate so that they have possession and control over their own learning. The more students demonstrate responsibility and follow through, the more you can offer different levels of independence. Trust, or lack thereof, defines the breadth of the autonomy.
  2. Relatedness – This describes people’s desire to maintain close, safe, and satisfying connections that develop trust in the social environment, while feeling part of it. Students feel motivated when they maintain deep connections with peers, a teacher, or even parents not present in the classroom. Creating rapport and developing a trusting culture make learning easier.
  3. A Progression Towards Mastery – This defines the self-perception students hold about their journey from beginner through proficient to well adept. At different points in their development, students need support academically, emotionally, or in reflecting on their mechanics. Teachers supply the building materials for the students to trust their own instincts and self corrections.
  4. Purpose – This encompasses the emotional or spiritual ties that energize people to act and answers the question of why engage in this activity. In Judaic Studies, an emphasis on the importance of learning is not strong enough to overcome other interests or obstacles. Our religion has multiple stated purposes within the bounds of our ancient wisdom, which both transcend time and students’ trust (e.g. social justice, kindness, ethical leadership, closeness to the Divine, etc.). Having students develop their own formulations of a purpose helps create ownership.
  5. The Need to Feel Significant – People want the feeling that they matter, affect the environment, or have a meaning or distinct identity. Different from relatedness, this drives a desire for specialness or a way to be noticeable. Even within a group of teenagers who want to look the same, they seek to celebrate the characteristic that makes them unique.
  6. Resistance to Change – The brain actively defends the physiological and psychological assumptions, expectations, and needs that affect functioning. Maintaining stability within the boundaries, known as homeostasis, underlines this need for balance and could cause people to resist beneficial change. Students will avoid “boring” work, taking appropriate risks, or topics weighed down with emotional baggage as a sign of a functioning and effective resistance to change. “I can’t do ____.” is the quintessential example every teacher has heard from students. By building trust accrued in the first five elements could a teacher can help students grow beyond this resistance.

There is no mystery solved here. The real mystery seems to be why schools drifted towards traditional extrinsic motivators and moved away from what we know has been effective and positive for as long as we have been observing human development (and now with the research and fMRI to prove it). A few brave schools have demonstrated a renewed commitment to cultivating intrinsic motivation by intentionally weaving it into their curricula and teacher trainings. Rather than debating whether a flashlight beam ensures a safe crossing between building tops, we can focus a spotlight on healthy motivation that empowers and engages students.

The Jewish people have successfully transmitted our wisdom, values, and practices for generations – well before schools relied on potentially demoralizing outside forces such as traditional grading methodologies. Let’s put our minds together to develop new best practices and approaches that focus on helping students develop a positive Jewish identity, an enduring commitment to Jewish wisdom, and a lifelong passion for Jewish learning.

Rabbi Shmuel Feld is the founding director of the Jewish Education Innovation Challenge (JEIC), a bold initiative that catalyzes radical improvement in Jewish day schools across North America. JEIC challenges day schools to achieve their mandate of optimizing student internalization of Jewish wisdom, identity, and decision making through directed funding, impactful convenings, philanthropic partnerships, and originating bold initiatives and experimentation. You can reach him at