Training vs. Learning: A Different Conception of Professional Development

Torah studyBy Abigail Dauber Sterne

The word “training” is often synonymous with “professional development.” While a training session can be quite useful for a professional, learning is by far the more enriching experience. This summer, when more than 100 Hillel professionals engage in immersive Torah study, it will not only be lishmah – for its own sake – but it will be the most significant kind of professional development a Jewish communal professional can experience.

We are thrilled that our professionals are fully immersed in learning opportunities at Hillel-organized events, and at the Pardes Institute for Jewish Studies, Mechon Hadar and the Shalom Hartman Institute. Unlike other times of the year, this summer these professionals are not being trained in any specific skill. Instead, they are learning ancient Jewish texts together. They are engaging in timeless ideas that have inspired and guided the Jewish people throughout the centuries.

The difference between training and learning, or teaching and learning, is not merely a semantic one. It is a deeply ideological and educational difference. Having one teacher in the room implies that the teacher is active while her students are passive. If, however, we are all learning together, we are all actively studying, actively nourishing ourselves and growing. This is why at Hillel, we rarely speak of teaching, but rather, we speak of learning. Whether I am the facilitator or the participant in the Torah study, I am always a learner.
Certainly, there is an important place for skills training in every profession. There are many tasks in our day-to-day work that require hard skills – everything from using Excel to fundraising, managing up to supervising. But, skills will never replace the inspirational power of ideas and texts. The continuous pursuit of learning is a core value of Hillel’s work, and one we are proud to offer to our professionals.

True learning, in the words of Prof. Deborah Kerdeman, “emphasizes, not proficiency and power, but proclivity for self-questioning and doubt.” And as Rabbi Steven Greenberg notes, true learning doesn’t “stay put in one category.” The text or idea being learned has no specific or limited impact. Rather, the text reemerges in all sorts of ways for the learner, with an impact that may be personal, professional or both.

Pirkei Avot (Ethics of our Fathers) Chapter 6, Mishnah 1, sums this idea up well: Rabbi Meir says:

Anyone who involves himself in Torah for its own sake merits many things, and moreover the entire world is worthwhile for his sake; He is called “friend,” “beloved,” “lover of the Ominpresent,” “lover of [all] creatures,” “delighter of the Ominpresent,” “delighter of [all] creatures;” He is clothed in humility and reverence, and it prepares him to be righteous, devout, upright and trustworthy, and it distances him from sin, and draws him near to merit. We enjoy from him counsel and comprehension, understanding and strength…

In other words, one who learns Torah is affected on every level. He acts differently. His identity is changed and shaped, and he becomes someone from whom others learn. All of these attributes are valuable – indeed, necessary – for Hillel professionals who wish to serve as educators to Jewish students.

As countless leadership training programs are developed and skills workshops are created, we must remember our end goals. At Hillel, we seek to shape leaders and develop who they are as individuals. To do this, we must create space and opportunities for deep, all-encompassing learning that seeps into every part of our being.

Abi Dauber Sterne is Hillel International’s VP for Jewish Education and Director of the Joseph Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Experience.