The power of presence: Havruta learning toward original Jewish pedagogy, practice and paradigms
During a moment of social isolation, this feature of the fellowship provided a framework both for the refining of ideas and pedagogical processes and for establishing and deepening new relationships when they felt most critically needed.
Jewish educators are, by nature, responsive and reactive. They are required to deliberately infuse Jewish content in teaching students and communities that are dynamic. In the past two and a half years, this phenomena has been accelerated and the demands placed upon Jewish educators have increased. We have collectively been tasked with reinventing our programs, lessons, work environments and goals to align with health and safety conditions, crises in mental health and a rapidly polarizing political climate.
In 2020, we were both given the opportunity to join the inaugural cohort of the Jewish Pedagogies Research Fellowship, an initiative of M². The initiative was started as a way to proactively encourage Jewish educators to design authentic pedagogical frameworks that are rooted in the Jewish tradition, rather than trying to retrofit a Jewish lens or Jewish values onto a preexisting educational framework.
While we both believed in the vision of this fellowship, we did not realize how powerful and necessary the experience would be. Over the course of a year, we were given the opportunity to slow down, think together, test ideas within the context of community and experiment with pedagogical practices without the usual pressures of a tight deadline or time-crunch. We were given license to take a step back and probe the foundations of our beliefs and worldviews and to align our personal educational frameworks and practices with our Jewish texts, traditions and identities. We were able to test out our practices with one another before bringing them to our communities of learners who were enriched as a result.
In addition to the focus on content creation and pedagogical research, throughout the fellowship we were also afforded an intense and uplifting havruta experience. For the duration of the fellowship, in addition to learning in a habura model (in which learning happens in small groups), we learned together one-on-one in havruta every other week, to sharpen our thinking and expand our existing methodological frameworks.
During a moment of social isolation, this feature of the fellowship provided a framework both for the refining of ideas and pedagogical processes and for establishing and deepening new relationships when they felt most critically needed. As educators we are charged with crafting learning experiences for others, and so often the intimacy of a havruta model is at the core. We create source sheets and questions that guide, we think about the interplay of personalities and the social dynamics of partnered learning with our students, we experiment with particular settings and different kinds of texts for learners of varied ages and backgrounds. But how often as educators do we have the opportunity to fully be present and offered the chance to learn with a new havruta ourselves? When such an opportunity presents itself — particularly at busy moments in one’s professional trajectories — it should be viewed as a gift.
We most certainly thought it was. At a moment when we were both trying to balance the uncertainties of pandemic realities, the shifting needs of our families and communities, our students needs alongside our own, it may not have seemed intuitively obvious that carving out blocks of time to carefully read texts together, engage in dialogue and debate and be present to listen to abstract ideas forming was what we needed. But in fact, those learning sessions and the opportunities to shut out the chaos of the world swirling around us, was exactly what we needed to keep us going, thinking, learning and growing.
The intensity of the havruta experience is one that promotes both individual and collective growth. A productive havruta involves listening carefully, pushing back, sharpening, questioning, suggesting, inviting dialogue and disagreement. It is a mode of both learning and teaching and the two operate in a feedback loop: the more one learns, the more one can teach, and the more one teaches the more one learns. It is a mode of communication and learning that is being erased from contemporary discourse and one that we were grateful to have experienced, particularly during the pandemic, when so much learning was flattened and relationships thinned. Our learning grew and flourished as we were able to refine each other’s work, read and discuss related texts and articles, pushing back and drawing forth, as we assimilated new ideas from our varied experiences. Our learning together resulted in a newfound friendship and the production of concept papers and resources that were better off as a result of collaborative thinking and consistent feedback.
We know that educators often feel overwhelmed and overworked and the notion of taking on a fellowship with the added responsibilities towards a havruta and a community of learners can seem daunting. But our experience has taught us that we need to commit ourselves to generating new ideas, theories and paradigms for our field. Relying on another person — a true havruta — to show up for you when you may feel depleted or have difficulty showing up for yourself provides the motivation and energy that such commitment depends upon. At this moment of reemergence from our silos and pandemic realities, small cohorts and havrutas that flourish over time are exactly what educators need.
Shira Hecht-Koller is education director for M²’s Values in Action Initiative. An educational entrepreneur, attorney and writer, she is the author, with Hanoch Piven, of Dream Big, Laugh Often: And More Great Advice from the Bible, which is due out in March.
Adam Eilath is the head of school at the Ronald C. Wornick Jewish Day School in Foster City, Calif., where he leads a group of educators dedicated to developing leaders steeped in the Jewish tradition and values. Eilath is currently faculty on M²‘s 2023 Pedagogies of Peoplehood Research Fellowship.
Learn more about the work of M²’s Research Fellows at the upcoming virtual symposium, “Teaching Jewishly: New Practices for Today’s Needs,” on Jan. 25. Register here.