Where Everyone is A Teacher

By Dr. Julie Lieber

I remember the first time I taught a Kevah Group. I came home devastated. “It was awful,” I told my husband. “I probably only spoke for a total of 15 minutes throughout the entire 1½-hour session.” Simply put, I felt I wasn’t value added. I was, after all, the teacher, and yet despite my years of training, expertise and experience, instead of sharing my interpretations of the texts, I watched the participants share their thoughts and ideas with one another. My ego was bruised.

My husband looked at me and reminded me: “Isn’t that what successful teaching looks like?”

Despite years of teaching, studying best practices in education, and having come to the belief that learning at its best should be interactive, I had spent most of my teaching hours, both in academic and community settings, talking and sharing my ideas, instead of allowing those in the room to become active learners. And so when it finally happened, I was dumbstruck.

As adult Jewish educators, many of us pay lip service to facilitation and conversation. When asked about our pedagogical preferences, we decry frontal teaching. Still, when we walk into a room, we default to a more traditional educational mode of frontal teaching, where we are the show that everyone has come to watch.

We know from endless research studies and from our own experience as both teachers and adult learners that for Torah study to truly mean something, students have to be active participants in the experience, not just passive consumers of someone else’s already digested learning.

There is, of course, room in the Jewish educational landscape for the more traditional model of shiur teaching, where students watch a master educator unpack texts, weave them together, and present her chidush (novel interpretation), and there are contexts where the academic model of the “sage on the stage” might be appropriate.

Yet, if we are to imagine adult Jewish learning taking a seat at the table in conversations about broader Jewish engagement strategies, and if we take seriously the proposition that a renaissance in adult Jewish learning can and should be a hallmark of contemporary Jewish life, we need to ask ourselves anew: What might teaching Torah look like in the 21st century?

We have learned much from recent studies of trends in 21st century Jewish life, foremost among them that increasing numbers of Jews are not connecting with more traditional Jewish communal offerings and structures. These generally younger Jewish adults want to define and redefine their Jewishness, participating in and crafting their own experiences in ways that resonate with their particular and often changing needs.

Despite this, make no mistake. 21st century Jews are not disaffected and disengaged. Rather, they are seeking meaning, community, purpose, and personal transformation in new ways that reflect their desire for authentic and customized experiences.

The Jewish organizational world is recognizing the importance of adapting its programming and offerings to this new reality. But, just as Jewish organizations are taking risks to change long-held beliefs and assumptions around programming and structures, where is the soul-searching around our modes of teaching Torah? Now is the time to make the long-needed changes in our models for teaching adults if we want adult Jewish learning to survive as a relevant and compelling element of Jewish life.

In the older institutional model, adult education was a forum for educators to communicate their knowledge and impart literacy. Today, we must take seriously the pedagogy of conversational Torah study.

Conversational Torah study is not about listening to an educator have her “aha” moment but rather about creating the space and opportunity for all learners to have their own “aha” moments. I often think of the kabbalistic model of tzimtzum, in which we imagine God contracting to make space for the creation of the world. In the pedagogical framework, this means that as teachers we need to contract for the purpose of ultimate creativity and expansion. When we, as educators, limit the space that we take up, we make room for our learners to generate meaning, discover their own connections to Jewish wisdom, and ultimately create a more expansive experience of Torah study for all those present.

So, how do we make that happen? How do we train for a mode of conversational Torah study in the 21st century? It takes work and for many of us un-learning and re-training.

Below are five key principles that we have gleaned and worked to hone as we train rabbis and educators from across the national and denominational landscape to become 21st century adult Jewish educators in our Kevah Teaching Fellowship, the brainchild of Kevah’s Rabbi David Kasher.

  1. Know your audience. Student-centered learning applies to adult Jewish learning, too. Ask yourself basic questions about your learners’ expectations, interests and backgrounds before you even step into the room. Teaching is not all about you (the teacher). Craft an experience that aims to meet your learners’ needs, not yours.
  2. Its all in the opening. The way you open your teaching sets the stage for your learners’ engagement and sense (or lack) of belonging. Don’t assume that all of your learners naturally connect with or care about Jewish texts. Begin with an opening question that all those present can relate to and opine about and that ultimately opens your learners up to considering some of the bigger themes you will explore in the texts.
  3. Ask good questions. Asking the right question is more important than preparing a good answer. Good questions will allow for multiple voices, bring the learners into discussion with one another, and move the conversation forward organically. If you are not genuinely interested in hearing multiple people’s opinions about what you’ve asked, then it’s probably not a strong conversational question. And, if you are looking for “one” answer, then you might as well just state it yourself.
  4. Create drama. Carefuly plan the experience you are creating for your learners. Don’t just source dump. A successful teaching experience has a well thought-out arc and carries with it the excitement of a good film – where the learners are on a ride and are eager to reach a satisfying resolution.
  5. Be both a firm and nimble guide. Holding these two poles together may be the most challenging of all. While that sounds like something a yoga teacher might say, it rings true as a pedagogical principle. This may be the most difficult task of all. Your role as guide is indispensable for containing the conversation and your ability to be responsive to those present will determine the success of their experience.

Since that evening when I taught my first Kevah Group, I have realized that it is up to us as educators to change our ingrained models and expectations of what should happen when we walk into the room. We need to truly reimagine what teaching Torah in the 21st century looks like. If we can do this, adult Jewish education can once again become a widespread and core Jewish practice and a destination for 21st century Jews who are seeking to make their own meaning.

Dr. Julie Lieber is Interim Executive Director and Director of Education at Kevah. Kevah supports a national network of small groups that meet regularly for community and conversation around Jewish texts. Along with Rabbi David Kasher, Julie is also the director of the Kevah Teaching Fellowship, where she trains rabbis and educators in the pedagogy of conversational adult education.

This article previously appeared in the JFNA blog “Ideas in Jewish Education and Engagement;” reprinted with permission.