Putting Learners in the Driver’s Seat
December 11, 2020
By Sheri Rodman

For the last few decades in the education sector, innovative teachers have experimented with things like a flipped classroom and project- or problem-based learning that turn the traditional style of teaching and lecturing upside down. 

Here in the local Jewish community, we’ve seen a few examples of this type of innovation and learning, too. A few years ago I met with Len Katz who told me about the beginnings of Congregation Havurah. He said that he and the other early organizers in the 1970s didn’t want to feel like spectators and were looking for more opportunity for engagement and leadership in their spiritual practice and learning. 

Forty years later, a couple young leaders and I experimented with organizing Nickel City Minyan, an offshoot of Nickel City Jews that met monthly, pre-pandemic, for Friday night services. Congregation Beth Abraham graciously opened their arms to us and allowed us to use their space. We also met in private homes and, during the warmer months, outdoors in public parks. We asked participants when they arrived to volunteer to lead a prayer or poem that was meaningful to them and one person volunteered ahead of time to prepare a monthly d’var Torah or sermon. It was this practice, offering the opportunity for a community member to read the weekly parsha, reflect on it, and prepare a d’var Torah to share with peers that was incredible and unique to me, and, I hope, empowering and meaningful to those who volunteered. 

Similarly to the Nickel City Minyan model, recently in the community when a synagogue has been between rabbis or when the rabbi is on vacation they’ve asked for congregant volunteers to deliver the weekly d’var. Jonathan Epstein shared with me a few years ago that he was enjoying this practice at Temple Beth Tzedek and also loved TBT’s “Kadimah-on-the-Bimah” series where Kadimah students delivered the d’var Torah on Friday nights. 

This autumn the Center for Jewish Engagement and Learning (CJEL) launched its first Well Circle as part of its Women Gathering initiatives. The rosh chodesh virtual Well Circle brings a small group of women in their 30s and 40s together once a month to connect, learn about themselves and each other, and connect with Jewish wisdom and ritual. Similar to a book club, the Circle has a different host each month who plans the content and facilitates and conversation. Hosts have the support of the At the Well curriculum and the option for coaching from CJEL professionals. I hosted the first Circle in September and, in advance of the high holidays, focused on reflecting on the previous year and modern opportunities for repentance. Beverly Holtz hosted the second Circle in October and, drawing from her yoga teacher expertise, led us in a mindfulness practice and taught the group about hitbodedut, a specific type of Jewish meditation. Rachel Beerman hosted the third Circle in November and brought her two decades of experience in social studies and humanities education and her love of history and psychology to guide us through an exploration of the synergies between sleep and gratitude. The group is very much looking forward to upcoming Circles in December and January hosted by Naomi Wiseman and Benita Lupu. 

Putting learners in the driver’s seat not only provides the opportunity for deeper learning for them but also allows others to experience different perspectives and sends an empowering message to participants that their voices and their leadership matter. Like Len said forty years ago, Jewish learning shouldn’t be a spectator event. Of course there’s a place for rabbis and other experts to share their wisdom, but the ‘then what?’ is an essential step that’s oftentimes overlooked. I’ve sat around countless Rosh Hashanah dinner tables where someone asks, “what did you think of the rabbi’s sermon?” As a family, we may share our opinions and reflect a little. But what if we had the opportunity to do so with other congregants — perhaps those whose ideas and perspectives would be new and fresh for us to consider? It’s a missed opportunity when a lecture or sermon ends without the chance for discussion — whether it’s a simple ‘turn to the person next to you and share what you’re thinking’ or a more formal, whole-group debrief, time dedicated to processing and reflection is key to lasting learning. 

Following reflection, encouraging learners to become teachers is the next, most powerful step. Research of “learning-by-teaching” has shown that students who spend time processing and then teaching what they’ve learned show better understanding and knowledge retention than students who simply study. I might be able to tell you one or two things about hitbodedut, but I bet Beverly could, at a moment’s notice, be ready to share her wealth of knowledge about the practice. 

As I take on the role of Chair for the Center for Jewish Engagement and Learning, beginning on January 1st,  I look forward to leading with this lens for learning. Central to the CJEL mission is to create opportunities for meaningful and relevant Jewish exploration and learning and also support and amplify the work of synagogues and partner organizations — so don’t be shy and let us know how we can support you. As we begin to plan for 2021 and continue to grow comfortable with online learning, how can we rethink the learning that happens at our synagogues and agencies so that it empowers participants and truly puts the learners in the driver’s seat?

Sheri Rodman has worked in the education sector for fifteen years and is the incoming Chair for the Center for Jewish Engagement and Learning.

Putting Learners in the Driver's Seat - Jewish thought of the week graphic