Oct 07 2016

A Collaboration of the Field and the Academy

By Charlotte Abramson and Rabbi Sheryl Katzman

Building on 13 years of experience designing standards-based curriculum in TaNaKH, the Jewish Day School Standards and Benchmarks Project (now the Legacy Heritage Instructional Leadership Institute) of the William Davidson School of Jewish Education at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, launched the Rabbinics Initiative to develop a compendium of standards and benchmarks for the teaching and learning of rabbinics. We began the process at our February 2014 advisory board meeting entitled A Collaboration of the Academy and the Field.

We brought together teachers, scholars and the leadership of the day school associations. Practitioners shared experience from the classroom and their knowledge of children. They represented schools from grades K-12 and a broad spectrum of religious affiliations. By design, they pushed the group to see the faces of diverse learners. Scholars from the fields of Jewish education and rabbinic literature supported the work and ensured that we remained authentic to the disciplines of rabbinics and education.

Inviting Jewish education scholars created a bridge between the field and the academy that had immediate impact on the work of developing standards and benchmarks for Jewish Day Schools.  Inspired by their participation in the Rabbinics Initiative, the Davidson School and the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education at Brandeis University launched a partnership to develop a research project, Students’ Understanding of Rabbinics. The project brought the experiences of students to the forefront of our deliberation in new and invaluable ways during the writing and initial implementation phases of our work. During the initial writing phase, the voices of the students represented in the study helped us develop criteria to select which standards to develop. Those voices reminded the pilot schools to place student at the center when selecting standards to guide the development of their curriculum.

We had some trepidation about sharing this research with our schools. Continue Reading »

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Sep 30 2016

New Report Gives First Look at How Students Understand Rabbinics

Published by under Center News

Volumes of TalmudWe know almost nothing about what students have learned, what they understand, or how they think when they study rabbinic literature. There is, therefore, no empirical basis for educators or researchers to articulate educational goals in this subject. The Students’ Understanding of Rabbinics project, a partnership between the Mandel Center and the Davidson School at Jewish Theological Seminary, was launched to develop a knowledge base for the field of rabbinics education in general, and to support the ongoing development of standards and benchmarks in rabbinics, as part of the Jewish Day School Standards and Benchmarks Project at the Davidson School.

The exploratory first phase is complete, and Dr. Beth Cousens’s report is now available. Continue Reading »

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Sep 16 2016

Who’s Afraid of Assimilation?

Published by under Commentary

Antique postcard of a family celebrating Rosh HashanahIn Jewish education and policy circles, the typical attitude to assimilation is clear: it’s a bad thing. In fact, it’s often taken to be the thing that Jewish education is supposed to help us avoid. In other words, the assumption is that educating Jewish students “Jewishly” (setting aside what that might mean, for the moment) is counter-assimilatory.

Conversations about assimilation often use one of two metaphors. The first is a biological one: assimilation is a disease and education is the inoculation against that disease, or at least provides the healthy nutrients to strengthen the body against it. Stuart Charmé calls this a “drink-your-milk” model of Jewish education. The second metaphor is martial: assimilation is an assault and education is a defense against that assault. For example, Seymour Fox once asked whether Jewish education was succeeding as a “bulwark against assimilation.”

But what do we actually mean, when we use these metaphors? What’s the disease, exactly, and what’s the organism that is being threatened? What’s the assault, and what’s the fortified position? Both metaphors rely on dramatic oppositions between in and out, between Jewish and other – distinctions that no longer hold, regarding practices and ideas, and even regarding community. They assume a zero-sum model of identity and culture that is utterly alien to the lived experiences of contemporary Jews. Continue Reading »

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Aug 22 2016

New Survey Finds that Hebrew at Camp is about Connection, Not Proficiency

By Sharon Avni, Sarah Bunin Benor, and Jonathan Krasner

ad51b3ad-195d-4a74-b0c2-6ade23f37fc1Chanichim, follow your madrichim to the teatron for peulat erev.” For those not conversant in the language of many American Jewish overnight summer camps, that means “campers, follow your counselors to the theater for the evening activity.” Why do some camps feature sentences like this, or decorative Hebrew signs, or spirited Hebrew song sessions? How does Hebrew usage differ among the wide variety of Jewish overnight camps? These are some of the questions we set out to address in our study of Hebrew use at camp. While we are working on a book presenting the full study, we want to share some of the results with you: findings from a survey of 103 camp directors of diverse Jewish residential camps across North America, about their camps’ use of Hebrew.

Our findings show that, for the most part, in the minds of camp administrators, Hebrew usage at camp is not about developing proficiency in spoken Hebrew. Rather, it is a vehicle for nurturing feelings of belonging to the camp community and the broader Jewish community, as well as connection to Jewish sacred texts, Israel, and the Jewish people. Continue Reading »

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Aug 04 2016

Understanding and Assessing Transformative Educational Experiences

Published by under Center News

By Arielle Levites

All educational sites have some program of change embedded in them. They reflect beliefs about who the learner is at the start of the process, who the learner should rightly become, and beliefs about how to best effect the evolution from A to B. But not all educational sites call themselves transformational.

Programs that offer Jewish spiritual educational often frame their pedagogy as transformative. For example, the Institute for Jewish Spirituality has a page on its website devoted to “Stories of Transformation.” These personal accounts testify to the power of Jewish spiritual learning and practice for participants.

For all that leaders and participants use the term “transformation” to describe their work and experiences, they often offer different models for how transformation can happen and how its effects are felt.

One popular model of spiritual transformation in the American religious imagination is the “conversion” model. Exemplified by the conversion of Paul on the Road to Damascus, it depicts transformation as sudden, swift and permanent. Featuring high emotional arousal and a sense of intense personal experience, the conversion model is usually marked as extraordinary in some way.

In sites that teach Jewish spirituality, however, other models of transformation take center stage. In the “cellular metabolism” model, for example, this transformation happens slowly and subtly over time, until the self is remade—like the belief that the human body remakes itself over at the cellular level every seven years or so. It’s change that is not obvious from the outside. While not the only native model of transformation at work in Jewish spiritual education programs, the cellular model is a popular one. According to this model, spiritual transformation is radical change that might not be noticed. That makes it hard to assess with many of the tools researchers often use to demonstrate change over time.

Learning more about models of transformation in Jewish education can help researchers understand the terms by which these educational programs seek to be understood and measured.

Arielle Levites is an affiliated scholar at the Mandel Center, where she directs the Students’ Understanding of Rabbinics Project.

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