Educating With Soul


Aryeh Ben David founded Ayeka: Center for Soulful Jewish Education in 2008. Before that, the Scarsdale native who moved to Israel in 1987 taught at the Pardes Institute for 20 years, serving as director of spiritual education. He is the author of “The Godfile: Ten Approaches to Personalizing Prayer,” “A Guide to Fulfilling and Meaningful Shabbat Table Conversations” and, most recently, “Becoming a Soulful Educator: How to Bring Jewish Learning from Our Minds, to Our Hearts, to Our Souls — and into Our Lives” (Jewish Lights). The Jewish Week interviewed Ben David, who lives in Efrat, about his new book via e-mail.

What was the inspiration for this book?

I had taught adults for almost 20 years. I saw talented, bright, and motivated adults learning a ton of material. But I observed that their learning was not affecting them. They were seeking knowledge and their teachers wanted to convey knowledge, and the whole process was remaining the transmission of information.

For me, Jewish learning has been a journey. I come from a family that has been very marginally connected to Judaism for three generations, and Jewish knowledge was the gateway and springboard for my personal and spiritual growth. Throughout my journey, learning has been the vehicle through which I clarified who I was, who I could become, and how I could take small steps to becoming a better me.

So about 10 years ago I did a crazy thing, and left a virtually tenured position. This book is the fruit of the first 10 years of cohering a systematic approach that can enable any teacher to teach any subject in a soulful way.

What is the goal of a soulful educator?

It’s different from that of a standard educator. The soulful educator sees him/herself as the vehicle to help his/her students use the subject matter to clarify and enhance their lives. The goal is not just to know the material. The question is not: “Did you understand the subject?” The question is: “Now that you understand the subject, how do you think it will impact your life?” The goal of teaching is — what happens after the class.

The soulful educator epitomizes loving his/her students. This love enables him/her to take personal risks — because educating is not about his or her own personal image. The love for the students enables the educator to be vulnerable, sharing, personal, and listening and valuing the unique personal path that each student is on. It is much more than mastering the material and conveying it in a clear and enjoyable way.

What was the difference between being a very good educator, as you said you once were, and the soulful educator you have become?

I always loved my students and taught in an exciting and meaningful way. I would say that the biggest change is that now, as I try to be a soulful educator, I listen much more to my students. I give them space to explore and find their own personal paths. Often in the past I wanted to impress my students with how much I knew and how deep and creative I was. I took up too much space and limited the directions of their comments if they took me away from my agenda.

You dedicate the book to two individuals whose names have probably not appeared on the same page before: Rav Kook, the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of pre-State Israel, and Parker Palmer, the educator, Quaker elder, and activist who founded the Center for Courage and Renewal. Why these two?

Both Rav Kook and Parker Palmer changed (and continue to change) my life — both personally and as a teacher. They both focus and shed tremendous insight as to how the heart learns, the needs and make-up of the soul, and how to always strive to change and become. They both not only talked the talk but walked the walk. Rav Kook was known for being the epitome of love and kindness; during my personal contact with Parker Palmer he has done likewise. They taught through being themselves and lived lives of authentic modeling.

As the new school year is about to begin, what steps can teachers take immediately to think about meaningfully reaching the hearts and souls of their students?

The first thing that we educators need to think about is — how can my learning and teaching reach MY heart and soul. If it is not meaningful to me, if it does not penetrate my life, then whatever subject I may be teaching — I am really modeling disconnection.

How does Ayeka work?

Ayeka has staff and runs programs in both the U.S. and Israel. Otherwise, we are virtual.

We partner with middle and high schools to immerse key members of their staff in the Soulful Education approach. We teach them how to “Ayeka-cize” whatever subject they are teaching. We work with the staff for the whole school year. This gives new life to the teachers individually, and bonds them together as a staff.

How can we encourage more young people to pursue teaching as a career?

My suggestion is: Only go into education if you cannot do anything else! What I mean is — only if you cannot do anything else in your heart and soul — that is, you were born to be a teacher, you were called to be a teacher. You cannot do anything else because doing anything else would be a betrayal of why you were put on this earth.

In what ways is your advice also useful to parents?

Every kid has his/her own path. Parents destroy kids with their expectations and agendas. Kids end up living an inauthentic life, which often leads to regret and depression, and sometimes aggression. Love and listen to your kids. That’s 99 percent of what they need from you.