By Rafi Cashman
We in the Jewish education community are really beginning to dive into general education research when it comes to teaching (and learning) sacred text. The Mandel Center’s recent two-day conference on developing independent readers of Tanach was a wonderful experience of how productive such a gathering can be—especially when conducted with a group of talented, thoughtful and committed educators. I entered the conference having spent the last three years with the Tanach PLC at my school trying to use the research on early literacy and reading complex texts to inform our teaching practices in the middle school. But our group felt as though we were doing this work alone, and encountering a larger body of research that we weren’t always sure how to apply. I left the conference with deeper knowledge, a series of new questions, a new community of practice, and new ways for thinking about the relationship between literacy research and the teaching of Tanach. Continue reading
By Arielle Levites
As part of a larger study of student understandings of rabbinics—what it is, how it is learned, and what it’s for—it was clear to the research team that it would be important to include the voices of day school educators who teach rabbinics. We interviewed ten educators, including those who teach rabbinics and those who supervise its teaching. We sought diversity by denomination (of the school and its students), geography, perceived sophistication of the school’s curricular approach by the standards and benchmarks team, and the educator’s pre-service preparation (rabbinic ordination, graduate level study of education, academic study of rabbinic text). We asked them how they conceptualized rabbinics and what understandings they wanted to develop in their students.
The educators we spoke with respected the complexity of rabbinic texts and the possibility that one could teach for multiple understandings. Yet when asked what understandings they prioritized in their teaching, almost everyone emphasized promoting an understanding of rabbinics as a model for reasoning and ethical decision making. Continue reading
By Ziva R. Hassenfeld
This year marked the beginning of an exciting new chapter in Jewish education. A few weeks ago, Prizmah, a new organization comprising the five major day school networks, held its first conference. Thousands of educators from across the country gathered to compare notes, share best practices, and chart the future of Jewish education in North America.
This moment represents an opportunity to take a fresh look at what day schools, regardless of their particular ideology, share: the study of Jewish texts, however defined. For the last 15 years, the Jewish Day School Standards and Benchmarks, developed by the William Davidson School of Education at JTS, have offered a clear picture of what it looks like to read Tanakh successfully. The first standard, for example, states that students will be “independent readers of the biblical text.” They should notice textual details and ambiguities, and will be able to “cite a text to prove a point opinion or claim.”
But how do we get students to that point? Continue reading
By Ziva R. Hassenfeld
Many believe that being a great Jewish educator is, above all, about being a passionate and spiritual Jew. But decades of education research have shown that good teachers are made, not born. Ultimately, an inspiring Jewish journey can only take an educator so far. The best Jewish educators need to have deep knowledge of how to teach as well.
Aryeh Bendavid recently argued that without the “white fire” of a teacher’s spiritual journey, the “black fire” of Jewish learning lacks intensity. This notion of teaching and Jewish studies teachers is what Jewish education scholar Alex Pomson called “the teacher as Rebbe, the oldest and most powerful archetype of Jewish teaching.” Bendavid concludes by arguing that professional development for Jewish educators should focus on cultivating their inner spiritual life.
But in research that I’ve conducted at the Mandel Center, I’ve found that Jewish studies teachers from across the Jewish educational landscape already place a high priority on their own spiritual life as a key factor for success as Jewish educators. One teacher told me, “Either you’re a teacher who’s living by this stuff, or, at the very least, you have some connection to this stuff. That’s why you’re teaching this.” He paused and concluded, “My passion for Judaism just innately comes through when I’m teaching.”
To be sure, powerful role models are a key ingredient for successful Jewish education. But being a good teacher requires much more. Continue reading
By Elliot Goldberg
I’ve argued that the teaching of rabbinics begins sooner than you might think. How would early childhood educators respond to my theories? I went on the road to find out.
Recently, I spent two days with the faculty of a Jewish early childhood center in a Jewish day school, to launch their participation in the Legacy Heritage Instructional Leadership Institute Rabbinics Initiative, a project of the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education at the Jewish Theological Seminary. One of the consultation’s goals was to raise teachers’ awareness of the ways in which rabbinics was already a part of their curriculum.
From the onset, teachers had some reservations about the notion that they were teaching, or were teachers of, rabbinics. That they were teaching in a Jewish school whose curriculum was shaped by Jewish values, the Jewish calendar and Jewish practices was apparent, yet faculty shared a commonly held assumption that the starting point for the study of rabbinics begins when a book from the rabbinic canon is placed in front of students.
There is a certain logic to this assumption. Because, for the most part, we encounter the rabbis – and their stories, thoughts, ideas, and values – through texts, we equate the discipline of rabbinics with the study of rabbinic literature. Because rabbinic literature is often complex and, due to its language and logical structure, can be challenging to learn, we wait until students have acquired the appropriate skills and intellectual maturity before we engage them in the study of rabbinic texts.
Yet, while rabbinic texts might be absent from the early childhood environment, rabbinic literature has significant influence over many of the topics in the curriculum. Jewish early childhood programs, therefore, do teach rabbinics. Continue reading