Seeking “Holy-istic” Educators

By Rabbi Jason Gitlin

I remember the first time I heard my teacher speak about his life as a stutterer. He told us that he felt incapacitated by his speech. At one of the most important moments of his life, he almost allowed the disability to engulf him and dictate his aspirations and goals.

Growing up a stutterer, I identified with his story of feeling inadequate—an emotion shared by everyone who faces any form of disability (meaning everyone). I was also both comforted and inspired by his ability to overcome its potential for limiting his choices in life. Instead, he modeled a way to integrate this aspect of himself into his spiritual development and identity.

While profound in itself, this story was just one of many ways this teacher captured the hearts and minds of students and made us feel connected to, even responsible for, one another. It was partly his character. Our teacher seemed to have access to all sorts of information and wisdom. Yet whenever he taught, it felt as though he was learning the material with us for the first time.

Despite his stature in the community, he conveyed a sincere humility for which he was widely respected. He managed to do this by regularly making us, rather than himself or the content, the most essential component of our learning. Projects, tasks, and activities were always being arranged that involved experiences connected to the ideas. By giving responsibility to everyone, he allowed us to understand that learning could be elevated to meaning-making through community and the insights we arrived at as a group. He loved to reflect on both our triumphs and tragedies, spinning yarns about our group into a series of stories he would tell, eventually sending us off at the end of our learning with a complete narrative that offered both personal and communal meaning.

If at this point my teacher sounds somehow familiar, it is because his name is Moshe Rabbeinu (“our teacher, Moses”), the Jewish tradition’s exemplar of a humble educator. This portrait of a teacher is deeply reflective of many of the foundational attributes of experiential learning and holistic education. It speaks to what, I believe, is Judaism’s profound relationship with these educational theories. It also helps explain why the educator described above is not just a monograph of Moses, but a composite of some of the most engaging and memorable teachers I experienced while learning in Jewish settings. These include holiday and Shabbat tables, batei midrash, camps, and tiyulim (trips) in Israel.

Experiential learning and holistic education trace their formal roots back to the work of modern scholars such as John Dewey and Maria Montessori, who sought to broaden education’s cognitive goals and emphasize its role in shaping an individual’s moral, emotional, physical, psychological, and spiritual dimensions. Holistic education promoted the belief “that each person finds identity, meaning, and purpose in life through connections to the community, to the natural world, and to spiritual values such as compassion and peace.” The ultimate aim of education in holistic learning is to help each person reach his or her potential, stressing what the American psychologist Abraham Maslow termed “self-actualization.”

Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, who was a contemporary of Maslow, began his tenure as the head of The Jewish Theological Seminary’s Teachers Institute and articulated a complementary conception and relationship with God. In his Questions Jews Ask, Kaplan wrote: “The cosmos is so constituted as to enable man to fulfill the highest human need of his nature . . . Man normally veers in the direction of that which makes for the fulfillment of his destiny as a human being. That fact indicates the functioning of a cosmic Power which influences his behavior (Reconstructionist Press, 1956; New York. 83–84).”

However one chooses to conceive of and believe or not believe in God, Kaplan’s conception of the Divine offers a primary mission for Jewish living and learning that is in harmony with the goals of experiential and holistic education. Moreover, Kaplan’s conception is not just a modern innovation, but rather one deeply informed by traditional Jewish narrative and practices, both biblical and rabbinic.

Moses provides just one compelling example of how Jewish narrative provides a rich orientation for experiential learning and holistic educators. In his work on Informal Jewish Education, Professor Barry Chazan defined the holistic educator as “a total educational personality who educates by words, deeds, and by shaping a culture of Jewish values and experiences . . . His/ her role in this context is to create opportunities for those experiences and to facilitate the learner’s entry into the moments.”

In the journey of leading the Children of Israel out of Egypt, bringing them to Sinai and eventually to the gates of the Promised Land, Moses (with God’s help) facilitates a series of rituals, experiences, and moments that ultimately shape the Israelites’ identity and practice as Jews. He does this—as described in the examples above—by utilizing and relying upon attributes that have come to define informal and experiential Jewish education: personal and emotional dimensions of learning, strong relationships and community, a curriculum of experiences and values, and the integration of authentic Jewish content.

If invoking our tradition’s Prophet par excellence and the epic mythical events of the Bible seem too daunting or lofty, take heed. To engage in professional development around experiential education is not just about acquiring discrete skills and techniques that have proven effective in instilling Jewish learning and identity. This type of learning is an opportunity for educators to integrate a pedagogy that inspires them to think about the mission and narrative of Jewish life, further shaping their identities as both Jews and teachers, and benefitting the entire community through the creation of truly “hol-y-stic” educators and learners.

This article is reprinted from the first issue of Gleanings, an eJournal run by the Davidson School that explores issues in Jewish education.  

Rabbi Jason Gitlin (The Rabbinical School of JTS, ‘13) is project manager for ReFrame.

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