Petah Libi: Building a Culture of Open Hearts in School

by | Mar 7, 2021 | Meaning-Making in Jewish Education | 0 comments

If I were to ask any parent or Judaic studies teacher in my school what is their ultimate goal for students’ Torah learning, I would likely hear something like this: We want students to find Torah learning meaningful, to feel an emotional, personal connection with God and His Torah that engenders a lifelong commitment to studying Torah and adherence to mitzvot. And, of course, it is essential that they develop skills and literacy in classic Torah texts, primarily Tanakh and Gemara.

Teachers often respond in two different ways to this tension between relevance and meaning on the one hand and literacy and access skills on the other. Some focus their energy away from the substance of the learning to the charisma, joy, or relationship with students that they work to bring to the classroom. Other teachers focus on more explicitly convincing students of the relevancy of the texts they study by choosing to connect through texts that feel more relevant to students’ lives.

Both of these approaches have value, and many teachers feel pressure to do more, both in and out of the classroom, to work on both areas. All this, however, places the onus of meaning-making on the teacher and what they are doing to or for the students instead of finding ways to create space for students to engage in their own quest for meaning and connection.

This intense pressure to constantly be doing more focuses on externals and prevents both students and teachers from focusing on how they want to be. If we want our schools to be environments for personal and religious growth, we need to focus on building the inner world in which that growth will take place. Developing a school culture that slows things down, encourages deeper listening, and provides opportunities for members of the school community to understand each other better is foundational to engaging in religious meaning-making. An environment in which there is trust, self-awareness and the comfort to be vulnerable can help foster authentic dialogue. Only in such an environment can content choices and pedagogy that facilitate personal connection and religious meaning-making take root and lead to true internalization of Torah texts and values.

How can we create learning environments where students are fully present, where both their hearts and minds are open to an encounter with Torah? How can we make sure that learning helps students build a deep personal connection with a lifestyle guided by Torah?

These questions have driven much of our work and learning as a 6-12th Judaic faculty in Fuchs Mizrachi over the past six years. As Rick Schindelheim discusses in this journal, we are constantly evaluating the content we teach in Tanakh and Gemara with an eye towards what may promote meaning-making. Following much of the approach Jay Goldmintz articulates, we dedicated time to personalizing learning by asking questions that better elicit active meaning-making from students. Despite this work, we continued to feel that something was missing and, thanks to JEIC funding, we built a partnership with Rav Dov Singer and Yeshivat Mekor Chayim. From them, we learned new language and approaches to talk about religious and personal growth, embedding it within our school culture. We anticipate that this budding culture, in turn, will allow the more thoughtful curricular and pedagogical choices to see their true impact.

Connecting with Ourselves and Others as a Means of Connecting with God

In a recently translated article published in Tradition, Rav Singer presents his thesis:

To my mind, rather than exploring proofs for God’s existence, it is far more appropriate to explore ways to feel His presence. Instead of speaking about Him, we must learn to speak to Him.

A meaningful relationship, in other words, stems from direct encounter and the experience of dialogue. Meaningful tefillah, therefore, cannot only include learning about the words and laws of tefillah but must also include learning how to encounter God and speak to Him. Similarly, meaningful Torah study must involve dialogue between the learner and the words of Torah, in which they bring their unique experiences, emotions, and ideas to the learning and are open to hearing the new insight and perspective Torah has to share.

How do we teach students to truly bring themselves to the learning, to learn with an open heart? If learning how to listen and speak to God are the ultimate goals, Rav Singer claims there are two pre-conditions:

1) Connecting with Ourselves: Self-awareness allows us to understand our thoughts, emotions, and values, as well as to know how those factors influence our behavior. If we can’t think about and articulate our own emotional life, it is much harder to control it and build a more personal sense of meaning.

2) Connecting with Others: Before we can build an emotional relationship with a God we cannot see, we must learn how to talk about our inner world with others and be open to listening and learning from them. This requires building a trusting environment, practicing open and honest dialogue, and developing an appreciation for the different ways in which each of us processes and makes sense of our experiences.

Rav Singer’s ideas are rooted in the world of hasidut, in general, and Rebbe Nachman of Breslov in particular. At the same time, the importance of social and emotional learning has grown increasingly popular in education and the broader business world. As Kegan and Lahey argue, true learning and growth only occurs when people feel they can bring their full selves to their task and are rewarded for reflection, self-awareness, and the courage to work through challenging group dynamics together.

Engaging Students’ Hearts: Student Learning and Culture

To apply this type of work in educational settings, it is critical to create spaces in schools for students to take a step back from the hustle and bustle of moving from class to class and from one activity to another. This year at Fuchs Mizrachi every student has one forty-minute Judaic class a week that is dedicated to what we call Lev HaShavua (the heart of the week). After an introductory activity promoting student mindfulness and presence, this time generally includes two different components: parnasut (support, sustenance) and avoda pnimit (internal work). For parnasut, a different student each week is assigned the task of “sustaining” the group by bringing food and sharing of themselves. Students talk a little about their background, sharing something about their personal story that members of the class may not know. They then proceed to go a bit deeper by sharing a dilemma or reflection on something they are thinking about. Other students respond by reflecting back to the presenter, sharing what they heard and what resonated with them.

While they rarely struggle to figure out what food they want to bring for their friends, in the beginning, we provided prompts to help guide what they would share. Any basic question that provides some insight into the student’s lives is valuable such as: What is your favorite time of the week? What type of music do you like listening to and why? What is a story you remember from when you were younger? For the second, deeper portion, students are asked to consider questions like: Where are you currently feeling successful or unsuccessful, and why? What is currently the most important part of your life? What are your plans for the future? Older students, or those more experienced with the process, may talk about religious dilemmas or dilemmas in relationships they have with others.

In many ways, this work is not so different from a well-designed advisory or social-emotional learning session. Indeed, after our first semester where parnasut took up most of the Lev HaShavua time, most students felt that the sessions were having a significant impact on their relationship with their peers and teachers but were generally not influencing their religious lives. Nevertheless, we believe that the framework triggers religious thinking and growth because it takes place within Judaic studies classes, includes Hebrew terms, and is explicitly presented as a foundation for religious connection and growth.

The second component of Lev HaShavua is the avoda pnimit—some form of introspective activity where students are encouraged to answer questions for themselves then share and learn from each other’s responses. For younger students, the deeper level of parnasut questions referenced earlier may suffice for this avoda. Sometimes, the avoda may be connected to an idea in the parashat hashavua or the time of year. For example, at the beginning of the year students were asked to consider the verse, “for this command … is not out of your reach … for it is very close to you (Deut. 30:11-14). They reflected on which aspects of their religious lives felt distant to them and which felt closer and more connected. What goals did they have for themselves for the upcoming year, and what makes them attainable?

Other times, the avoda may provide an opportunity for students to dig deeper into a topic that came up during regular class time. After learning about Rashi’s comments at the beginning of Exodus that highlight God’s love for the Jewish people, students were asked to reflect on the people in their lives whom they love unconditionally and who unconditionally love them. They were challenged to consider what it could look like if they showed unconditional love to someone with whom they struggled to get along.

Yet a third model is using the avoda to explore an issue on students’ minds. For example, seniors may be thinking about college or gap year decisions and need the gift of space created for them to reflect on their goals and aspirations. Underclassmen may have questions about the value of studying Tanakh or Gemara or may need to work through group dynamics in the grade or class. Engaging in these types of conversations in the Lev HaShavua framework moves the teacher away from providing direct answers for the students, instead facilitating students’ abilities to learn from each other, sit with the problems, and perhaps even find solutions for themselves.

In many ways, this approach seems very different from our typical model of meaningful religious growth for students. Often religiosity is defined through external behaviors: Is a student praying outside of school hours? Are they taking part in extra-curricular Torah learning opportunities? How engaged do they appear when praying or learning? How do they dress? These behaviors may serve as indicators of a student’s religious commitment, but they may simply be a function of what one educator recently described as “groupthink frumkeit”—religiosity based on the expectations of the external environment. If we focus on only educating for students’ religious doing, we neglect the more challenging, authentic, inner work of religious being. To develop students’ inner connection to Torah and mitzvot we must sensitize them not only to fitting in to a religiously committed environment but to what they are feeling and thinking internally.

Engaging Teachers’ Hearts: Faculty Learning and Culture

Shifting the locus of meaning-making in our schools to students requires teachers who can facilitate this work. More than providing training or curricular resources, teachers must engage in a similar process in their own avodat Hashem. While the faculty experience is certainly instrumental to buying in to the work with students it is also, in many ways, a goal unto itself. As we have seen at Mizrachi, when teachers learn more about each other, feel comfortable sharing their successes and challenges, and work together to deepen their personal relationships with God, Torah, and Jewish values, the dynamic between them and with their students changes. As a faculty, we have developed a common language to support and challenge each other, slow ourselves down, recognize our own roles in the challenges we face with students, and encourage reflective thinking.

This cultural change was accomplished by setting aside regular time during the school day for faculty to engage in the same parnasa and avoda processes that are at the core of Lev HaShavua. Our faculty participated in bi-weekly sessions for a year before introducing Lev HaShavua to students. Through our parnasut we learned about each other’s families, what brought us to careers in education, and how different experiences in our lives shaped what we bring to our classrooms. Through our avoda, we explored topics such as how we enter our classes, what types of relationships we value with students and why, and the role of the Land and State of Israel in our own lives. These regular sessions were supplemented by more intensive workshops with the staff of Mekor Chayim on topics ranging from group facilitation skills to envisioning our future as educators.

There are so many incredible teachers in our schools working constantly to make Torah meaningful for our students. However, we must not focus solely on building social environments and learning experiences that promote external religious behaviors. By dedicating time and resources, we can create an environment where teachers’ and students’ hearts are truly open—a culture that is mindful, open, curious, vulnerable, and reflective. Only then will the Torah we teach in the classroom, the extracurricular opportunities, the relationships, and the experiential programs have their true desired impact—building a profound and lasting personal connection to Torah learning and a Torah lifestyle. We have begun to see the power of a different approach at Fuchs Mizrachi and invite others to learn together with us.

Yehuda Chanales

Yehuda Chanales

Rabbi Yehuda Chanales is Director of Educational Advancement and a member of the Judaic Faculty at the Fuchs Mizrachi School in Beachwood, Ohio. He is the recipient of a Wexner Field Fellowship and is currently leading a partnership with Yeshivat Mekor Chayim in Israel to enhance the culture of personal and religious growth in schools.

See all the previous issues of Jewish Educational Leadership

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