Reflections of an Experiential Educator: An Interview With Yonah Fuld

by | Feb 14, 2023 | Building The Jewish Experience | 0 comments

Jewish Educational Leadership is pleased to share with you excerpts of our discussion with Yonah Fuld.

Jewish Educational Leadership: You chose to incorporate experiential education into your classroom and your school long before it was a norm. What prompted that bold move?

Yonah Fuld: Most people will tell you that schools are in the business of achievement, academic advancement. Most of the energy invested in schools is that children should learn; they should know. And that is not wrong. But missing from that are other areas, which are just as important.

Here’s one: values. You can’t really learn values—and I mean learning it so that you get it deep into who you are—you can’t learn that by studying books and taking tests. It has to be lived. As Pirkei Avot says, lo hamidrash ikar ela hama’aseh, the learning is not the goal, the practice is. How do we get people to internalize values, to live and act on their values? It is only by doing it, by experiencing what it feels like.

Here’s another: the emotional and psychological well-being of the child. How can you teach a child who is not happy? What will an unhappy child learn? We established ten core principles at SAR—they were in the teacher handbook, the parent handbook, and we lived by them. Do you know what the first one was? Our number one goal is that the student should be a happy child. Happy kids love to come to the place that makes them feel good. Happy students can be open to all sorts of learning. Do you know what it feels like as a parent to have your child get up in the morning and say with an eager smile, “I’m so excited to go to school!” Experiential education was one of our pillars of trying to raise happy children.

And another: leveling the playing field. Some students are just good at the regular, formal, educational learning—absorbing and processing knowledge. But others are not as good at that. When they are in an environment that focuses only on intellectual pursuits they are reminded every day that they are not as good as the others. But what happens when you create an environment that values other kinds of learning—affective learning, values learning, learning by doing—and puts those aspects of learning as an equal to academic achievement? All of a sudden, all those children can shine. And just like kids can say, “I’m good at math, but not so good at writing” or vice versa, they can say, “I’m great at hesed, but not as good at the book stuff.” We create multiple models of excellence.

Here’s more: relationships with teachers. When students do things together with their teachers it creates all sorts of bonds that wouldn’t exist in traditional classroom settings. They learn to see their teachers not only as classroom people, but as real role models. And the reverse is true also. Teachers get to see their students as people, rich in many different kinds of ways, not just as receptacles of information. Good relationships mean happier students (and happier teachers), a better environment, increased opportunity to learn from role models, and enhanced learning all around.

Can you elaborate a little on the importance of relationships with teachers?

Sure. I once had a Rabbi who said that more people were drawn closer to Judaism by his wife’s cholent than by his sermons. I’ve met too many people in my life who were turned off of Judaism by a single teacher who treated them poorly—said the wrong thing, didn’t understand what was happening with the student. And whether it is justified or not to judge a system by the people who practice it, it is the reality. So having a student who likes, admires, respects, and feels close to a teacher is critically important. And parallel to that, having a teacher who really understands the students and tries to connect with them individually makes a huge difference.

SAR is an Orthodox school, so that observing halakha is an important part of the education. That can be limiting, especially on areas of student voice and student choice. How did you deal with that?

Lots of people think that halakha is all about the bottom line—what do I have to do, how do I have to do it, when do I have to do it. The more you learn, the more you understand that the answer to most halakhic questions is that there’s a mahloket (debate) about it. So while it’s true that there often needs to be a bottom line, there are often multiple possible bottom lines. And when we are learning things that are not halakha, the opportunities for student voice are almost endless. Let’s take this week’s parasha as an example. For sure there are those who see Yaakov as the ultimate good guy, pure and innocent in everything he does. But there are other opinions as well. Just look at the midrash which suggests that the travails Yaakov endures for most of his life are midah keneged midah, a measure-for-measure punishment for what he did to Esav [taking his blessing] and his father Yitzhak [lying to him]. Children have a right to say that, and that kind of empowering approach can be taken for almost everything they learn.

How does this express itself in experiential learning?

Every morning, in the berakhot that we say on Torah study, we ask God to make our Torah learning sweet, veha`arev na. Well, if it’s important that God make it sweet for us, why should it be any less important for us—as teachers—to make it sweet for our students? Aren’t we God’s deputies, doing His work? So one of the ways to make it sweet is to make sure the learning environment isn’t top-down, teacher-dominated. We want the students to be able to internalize what they are learning and to develop positive attitudes toward their learning. I want every student to feel like they have received the Torah at Sinai, and even more, that they want to accept it. Experiential learning is the way I chose to make this happen.

Can you give some examples?

I have a million examples. I should point out that even though SAR is an Orthodox school, that doesn’t mean that all the families are Orthodox. Let’s start with the holiday of Sukkot. In the NY area, most day schools did not have classes on Sukkot. We chose to open because we wanted our students to have an authentic Sukkot experience—not just ride their bicycle or watch TV while their parents were at work. We wanted them to feel what it’s like to take a lulav and etrog for real, on the days that it counts, not just as practice. We wanted them to be in a sukkah and experience it on the days that it matters.

With that in mind, one of the school days on Sukkot was a sukkah hop for everyone in the school, from kindergarten through the eighth grade. In every class we asked for parents who had a sukkah to volunteer to host the students for a while. Every sukkah had different treats, every sukkah had a story, every sukkah had a song. Ten minutes in each sukkah. Parents who did not have a sukkah were asked to help by driving students from one sukkah to the next. And here’s the thing. When we prepared the students for the sukkah hop, we taught them derekh eretz, how to be a mentch in someone else’s home, how to be a mentch in someone else’s car. Don’t kick the upholstery. Thank the homeowner on the way in. Thank the driver. It wasn’t just the sukkah moments that were the experiential education; it was the moments before and after and in-between. You know what happened? Every year there were more and more sukkot being built, because children wanted their friends to visit their sukkah. There was even one family who gave me money to buy sukkot for families who wanted to build a sukkah but couldn’t afford it—I bought the sukkot and told them that the school had some extras.

Of course, the school built its own sukkah where the kids would eat when they came. And we had a musician come in and play and sing with the children during the meal.

On another day, we had the teachers prepare an educational activity that was part of their regular program but that would be done outside of the school. Some classes went to West Point to learn American History, others to Wall Street to learn about business and finance, others to the Central Park Zoo to learn about animals. It didn’t make a difference where they went, but we made sure that every place we went to had a sukkah. So the kids learned that they could go to West Point and still have a sukkah, that they could go to work in mid-Manhattan and still eat in a sukkah. We didn’t need to lecture them about the halakhot of sukkah, we did it. In real life. This is what they did for eight to ten years of their lives—they experienced Sukkot.

Yonah Fuld is a dynamic and creative Jewish day school educator. Recently retired as Educational Director of The Lookstein Center, Rabbi Fuld’s pioneering and groundbreaking work in experiential education at SAR Academy (Riverdale, NY) inspired dozens of schools to incorporate it into their own programming.

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Lulav and etrog—we made them available at cost for the students. Can you imagine hundreds of students coming in to tefilah in the morning and davening together, shaking the lulav together, learning by doing, not by reading it in a book?

That’s just one week out of the year, but we had activities like that going on all the time.

What was the impact on parents? How did they react to this?

I’m going to tell you a crazy story. I mentioned that not all of the families were observant. One night there was a reception in the school. I don’t remember what it was. Afterwards a teacher came over to me and told me the following.

He was teaching the book of Bamidbar that year and got to the section of tzitzit. The teacher thought, “My students say this every day. What am I going to do with them to make this more meaningful?” So the teacher decided to teach the students to tie tzitzit. I know that this is common today, but it was unheard of in those days. With boys and girls in the class, he told the boys to tie the tzitzit for themselves and the girls to tie them for their fathers, brothers, boyfriends—whatever. Months later, at this reception, the teacher overheard a conversation between two fathers munching on some snacks (both parents were non-Orthodox). One father noticed the tzitzit strings of his friend sticking out of his pants and commented: “Since when do you wear tzitzit? You barely ever come to synagogue and when you do—you drive!” The second one responded: “My little princess made me a pair of tzitzit, and you think I won’t wear them?!” At that point the first one tore open his shirt and proudly displayed his own. “Me too!” he exclaimed. “I wouldn’t miss a day!”

You ask how this impacted on families, on the Jewish experience at home? Parents building sukkot and using them—because their kids learned to love being in a sukkah. Parents wearing tzitzit. It is now more than thirty years later. These families are now observant with children and grandchildren who are observant and active members of their communities. That’s the power of experiential education.

What were some of the more memorable things that you did experientially?

That’s a tough question. I have two that pop into my mind right now, but there are so many.

Here’s the first. The year was 1988 and we were approaching the fiftieth anniversary of Kristallnacht. We found a fabulous speaker who was flying in from California who would speak to parents and students, but felt that we wanted something more experiential than a speaker. Someone, in our planning meeting, suggested that we break some glass—a suggestion which made me shudder. As someone whose parents fled Germany immediately after Kristallnacht, I used to watch my mother go into shock every time there was the sound of breaking glass. So I rejected the suggestion of breaking glass quickly, but then someone else said, “How about putting some glass back together?” That was interesting, as it was not just a commemoration of the past, but a way to use the past to move forward. I contacted a Rabbi who had a hobby of working with stained glass and asked him to come up with an idea.

He sent instructions in advance for every parent to bring the name—English or Hebrew—of a relative or someone they knew who was killed in the Shoah, and he himself came that night with two huge triangles of colored glass which he hung over each other to make a Magen David. As parents entered, he had everyone write the names on the glass with a special marker, and after a very brief introduction two students were instructed to shatter the two glass triangles. While the speaker from California addressed the students and their parents, the artist began working smoothing the broken edges. When the speech was done he had everyone pick up a glass fragment and place it down somewhere on an outline he had drawn. When all the pieces were placed the words Am Yisrael Hai were visible in one of the colors, with all the shattered names as part of the larger piece. The experience was not to be forgotten, and the finished work—which was so heavy that it needed to be lifted with a crane—was eventually hung prominently in the school.

The second also involved a tragedy. We had one year in which two parents, both very significant people in the community, passed away. One happened in shul on Shabbat morning, so people were deeply affected. By the time the second one happened the children in school were beside themselves in grief. Monday morning there were more tears than I could remember, bordering on hysteria. And we needed to start the day with tefilah. On the spot, we decided that we needed to do more than talk, we needed to do some sort of action, and to have the students involved in something that would help them channel their energy into something positive. After dedicating the morning’s tefilah to the deceased parents, together with the students we organized a runathon—students would run laps around the gym and get sponsors to donate money for each lap—and that money would be used to purchase an ambulance for the local ambulance corps. With donations from ten cents a lap and up, students raised enough money to purchase an ambulance—that would save lives and in which babies would be born and that would rush sick people to hospitals—which was dedicated in the memory of those two parents. In fact, there was so much money left over, that together with another school we managed to purchase a second ambulance for Magen David Adom in Israel. Students took their grief and channeled it into positive, active work, and they could be proud of the real value of their efforts.

These sound like powerfully moving moments. Can you identifying underlying ideas that drove your work in experiential education?

I’m not sure that I’ve ever articulated this, but here’s a try. First, carpe diem, seize the moment. When we see the world with the lens of looking for educational opportunities, then we are provided with an endless stream of inspirations. Happy events are celebrated, sad ones are mourned and transformed into positive action. Every piece of news, every personal-local-national-world event, a broken bone of a classmate or a tooth falling out, is an opportunity. The trick is not to find the opportunities, but to figure out which ones to mark and how to do it in ways that will involve students meaningfully. Carpe diem.

Second, it’s all about values. What are the values that we want to imbue in our students? It is those values which help us determine what events to mark and how we are going to do it. Take, for example, what I described to you about Sukkot. Built into every moment was the message that whatever you do, you need to be a mentch. Don’t kick the upholstery. When we would take students to a shiva home, they were taught how to behave—what to say and what to not say. The core value of thinking about others, doing good for others, the entire world of bein adam le-haveiro, came through in every activity that we did.

Years ago, the JNF organized tree plantings, especially around Tu Bi-Shevat. Everyone who sponsored a tree planting received a personal certificate. We did that as well, and had each student bring in money from their family to sponsor a tree. But we added a twist. We had everyone secretly bring in extra money, from their personal allowance, to sponsor an additional tree in honor of their dear parents. I stress the word dear, because that small word added so much. When the students went home on Tu Bi-Shevat they presented their parents with two certificates—one for the tree that the parents purchased and the surprise, the tree sponsored by their child in their honor. The value of supporting Israel, a core principle in our school, was married to the value of honoring their parents.

Every activity reinforced core values, and when those values get reinforced daily-weekly- monthly, especially when they involve what the students do as opposed to what they hear others say, they sink in.

None of this is rocket science, and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out how to do this. There’s nothing special about what I did; it’s just basic common sense. What are the things you want to accomplish? What are the activities which you can do with students that will help those values be reinforced? How can we make sure that what our students encounter with their learning, and especially their Jewish learning, is sweet?

Before Yom Kippur many people are taught to ask forgiveness, to admit what they’ve done wrong. That can be heavy for kids, loaded with guilt if they take it seriously. Here’s what we did. Every student received an envelope. They were told to identify something positive that their parents did for them in the previous year, something that they want to say “Thank You” for, and write it down. When they finished writing their thanks they were given an opportunity to add something, if they wanted, for which they wanted to apologize. They didn’t have to, but the opportunity was provided to add that. No guilt, no shame, just an addendum to a thanks. Accentuate the positive. Teach young people to be honest with themselves and others, to appreciate others, to appreciate their parents. Reinforce those core values at every opportunity.

Every week, at Friday dismissal, students were encouraged to not only say Shabbat Shalom to their teachers, but to thank them for the joy, for the learning, for the good moments that the teachers helped create.

Every part of the day, the week, and the year can be transformed into a fun or meaningful moment. Tefilah doesn’t have to be boring or rote; it can be turned into a scavenger hunt for students to find things in the siddur. Don’t “shush” the students, encourage them to daven out loud, to raise their voices as they sing and pray. Make sure that when a stranger walks into the room they greet him and offer him a seat. Special events and everyday ones are all opportunities to engage the students in activities that will make their learning sweet and will strengthen the core values that they will never forget. These will impact the students in the short term and will leave them with rich Jewish experiences that they will carry with them as they mature and eventually raise their own families.

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