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Focus on Issues: Educators Turn to Text Study for Inspiration in Classrooms

Jewish educators are looking to traditional sources for inspiration in the classroom.

“Text study is an essential element for becoming better educators,” says Kyla Epstein Schneider, an adjunct professor at the Cleveland College of Jewish Studies. “If teachers don’t deal with texts as foundations of Jewish learning, then they are doing `feel-good’ Judaism. Text study can only enrich their teaching and their personal growth.”

With that in mind, a beit midrash, or house of study, was for the first time made an integral part of the annual Conference on Alternatives in Jewish Education, which is sponsored by the New York-based Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education.

Some 150 Jewish educators from across the country gathered daily at the August conference here over a three-day period in a yeshiva-like atmosphere that the beit midrash organizers call the havruta project.

The project pairs people on a one-to-one basis so they can engage the sources without the intervention of a teacher. To assure the study process did not intimidate newcomers, the texts and accompanying traditional and contemporary commentary were laid out in a booklet specially created for the conference and facilitators introduced the material.

“Instead of making the teacher — a personality — the center of the class, the text is the center,” says Raphael Zarum, one of the leaders of the British equivalent of CAJE, Limmud, which introduced the havruta project at their conference in 1997 and collaborated with CAJE on the beit midrash.

“I want everyone to be a source,” says Zarum. “If you rely on someone else to learn, you’re secondary.”

CAJE organizers hope teachers will use the material and the process in adult education and high school programs across the country.

Luann Watson, who teaches at Temple Achdut Vesholom in Fort Wayne, Ind., says that the beit midrash set her on the right path for teaching fourth-graders.

The CAJE beit midrash is indicative of a trend across the country towards more traditional text study.

The Havruta program sponsored by the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York began four years ago and is now used in some 140 Conservative congregations, according to Marilyn Werman, JTS program’s administrator.

Bill Moyers’ Genesis series on public television fostered a new enthusiasm for the Bible and has spawned many text study groups. The Florence Melton Adult Mini-School, a two-year course in which students study philosophy, history and ethics, has doubled its enrollment over the past five years to some 2,000 in 38 cities around the world.

In Reform congregations, “there is a heightened interest in learning not about Judaism, but learning Judaism, in learning not about text, but learning text itself,” says Rabbi Jan Katzew, director of the department of Jewish education at the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. Katzew cited a call he received recently from the adult education chairperson of a congregation asking for assistance in setting up a literacy program.

“He says, `We don’t want speakers to come and do it for us. We want to engage the texts ourselves.'”

What used to be called adult education institutes are now called batei midrash in many communities. “Institute is a term that has academic panache,” says Rabbi Robert Abramson, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s director of education.

“Using the term `beit midrash’ represents a turn towards authentic Jewish experience with an added dimension — the role of personal meaning in relation to the text. Study does not just become an academic exercise; it attempts to ask: `what does this mean to me?'”

Rabbi Cherie Koller-Fox, one of the founders of CAJE, says that the beit midrash signaled what has been missing from the annual conference.

The conference offered many courses on Torah study and spirituality, but these were largely on the practical level.

Teachers think that they need practical skills and “we need to send them back with paper and tools and programs” about Torah study and spirituality, “but that is only a third of what we have to do,” says Keller-Fox, the spiritual leader of Congregation Eitz Chayim in Cambridge, Mass.

“There should be no day in a CAJE schedule without limmud and kavannah – – without an infusion of Torah and spirituality,” she says. “You can only teach for so long before you need to be filled up again. Nothing fills you up like Torah.”

While the beit midrash was an innovation for CAJE, those planning the study sessions also had to address the anxiety of participants.

“Adults without grounding in texts are afraid they will feel foolish or stupid approaching an area in which they have no expertise,” says Abby Wiener, a teacher at The Jewish Day School in Allentown, Pa., and one of the beit midrash facilitators at the CAJE conference.

Aside from scheduling conflicts during the conference, that anxiety may be one reason the beit midrash attracted only about 10 percent of the 1,500 teachers, principals and lay people who attended the conference.

For those who did participate, the beit midrash offered a “democratic and transdenominational experience,” says Ed Frim, executive director of the Commission on Jewish Education in Columbus, Ohio. “Everyone is looking for a connection to tradition. This empowers people to make Judaism their own.”

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