Inspiring Fresh Thinking in Jewish Education

Azrieli Brings Teachers and Administrators Together to Explore Creative Problemsolving at HUB Conference

Close to 70 Jewish educators and administrators attended “The HUB,” a conference hosted by Yeshiva University’s Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration to help Orthodox Jewish educators and administrators network and recharge. The event, called an “unconvention” for its non-traditional style, was held at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Englewood, New Jersey, and on YU’s Wilf Campus from February 26-27.

Dr. Rona Novick and Rabbi Dr. Jacob J. Schacter

The goal of the conference, said Azrieli Dean Dr. Rona Novick, was to “to provide a space for thinking and learning together, and to link participants to the deep pedagogical resources and expertise of Azrieli and Yeshiva University. Whether it is the daily concerns of how to collaborate with families and which curricular approaches are most productive, or the overarching mission to provide students with robust Jewish identity in the modern world, we want educators to know they are not alone. Azrieli and the broader Yeshiva University community has much to offer these committed educational leaders.”

On Monday, Rabbi Dr. Jacob J. Schacter, senior scholar at the Center for the Jewish Future (CJF) and University Professor of Jewish History and Jewish Thought, set the tenor of the day with his keynote talk, “Conveying the Idea of Halakhic Authority in a World of Personal Autonomy.” He voiced what he saw as the primary conflict facing Jewish educators, what he called “the challenge of choice.”

On the one hand, because students living in contemporary America know full well that they live “in a culture of choice,” they feel no obligation to fulfill any obligations, he argued: “Personal autonomy is all about ‘I decide! I don’t have to do this! I’m done! We live in the United States.’ ”

On the other hand are the teachers of these children trying their best to inculcate in their charges a “countercultural notion of ‘I submit to a higher authority,’ to construct an ethic of submission, of the obligation of the mitzvah, in a culture that screams the opposite.”

Admitting he had no ready solution to the conflict, Rabbi Schacter nevertheless proposed that an experiential Jewish education that conveys to students the “romance” of formal compliance might bridge the divide, illustrating what he meant by a quote from Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik about his mother: “I learned that Judaism expresses itself not only in formal compliance with the law but also in a living experience…. Without her teachings…I would have grown up a soulless being, dry and insensitive.”

“Students will follow the obligatory,” he concluded, “if they can feel this ‘living experience’ of fulfilling every single mitzvah, feel how precious the Torah is and how it provides protection and meaning, even if we don’t always understand it all the time.”

Becky Troodler

Becky Troodler, principal of Kohelet Yeshiva Lab School and Kohelet Yeshiva Middle School, an educationally progressive Modern Orthodox elementary school in Merion Station, Pennsylvania, led an exercise that she called “Dream Big/Dream Next.” For “Dream Big,” participants were separated into smaller groups segmented by the topics of faculty, parents, diversity, the outside world and balance. They were tasked with brainstorming solutions without regard to cost or practicality and then making a poster of the results for display. “Set your fixed ideas to one side,” she said, “and let your minds be creative.”

While each group came up with ideas specific to their topics, there was also a consensus across groups about the need for integrating parents, teachers, students, technology, curriculum and faith into a more organic and communal enterprise. As one poster put it, “Let’s create a culture of connection, trust, non-judgment, mutual respect, accessibility [and] self-awareness,” while another proposed the creation of a “center for social, emotional and spiritual learning and growth.”

In the follow-up exercise, “Dream Next,” Troodler asked the groups to bump their visions up against the realities they face and discuss how to get around the roadblocks to change in ways that kept their larger visions alive and possible. “The goal of this exercise,” she explained, “is to figure out how to integrate the big vision into a decision-making process. As leaders, we often find ourselves so deep into the dirt that we don’t know how to stand up to get the broader view. But if we can find the time to think big, it can refresh us and encourage us to reach out beyond our comfort zones for insight and assistance.”

Dr. David Pelcovitz

A presentation by Dr. David Pelcovitz, Gwendolyn and Joseph Straus Chair in Psychology and Jewish Education at Azrieli, gave the participants just the kind of insight and assistance Troodler had recommended in a talk on developing skills to handle, in positive ways, the delicate issues of substance abuse, gender issues, trauma, depression and anxiety.

He had the participants organize themselves into trios, then presented three scenarios—inappropriate sexual material on a student mobile phone, a teacher braiding a student’s hair, and a student declaring a loss of faith in God. For each scenario, the groups role-played conversations and discussed how they would handle the situation, and Pelcovitz augmented their discussions with the relevant research on each topic. “In handling situations like these,” he noted, “we must, of course, listen with compassionate ears. But it’s also important to engage the rational parts of the brain through having more data and insight.”

Monday also included networking discussions on topics like promoting digital responsibility and women in leadership, and a night seder with options for promoting “personal learning and growth.”

On Tuesday, morning sessions offered participants choices to attend paired conversations, which matched two or more individuals with different perspectives on a topic. These pairings included experts in the corporate world, non-profit leadership, rabbis and educators, on topics including fundraising, strategic planning, sexuality in teens and innovative pedagogies. After morning sessions at the hotel, the conference moved to the Wilf Campus for “Round-Robin Speed Thinking.” For three sessions of 20 minutes each, participants could visit any of 10 presenters to ask questions and discuss ideas.

The “Round-Robin” leaders included Rabbi Daniel Feldman, Rosh Yeshiva (Ethical Issues in Hiring and Firing); Rabbi Yaakov Glasser, David Mitzner Dean of CJF (Inserting the Experiential Into Jewish Education); Dr. Scott Goldberg, associate professor of Jewish education, Azrieli (Hebrew Literacy Essentials); CB Neugroschl, head of school, Samuel H. Wang YU High School for Girls (Inclusion of Diverse Learners); Rabbi Menachem Penner, Max and Marion Grill Dean of Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary [RIETS] (Tefilah); Dr. Eli Shapiro, Digital Citizenship (Technology Use and Overuse); Dr. Moshe Sokolow, Fanya Gottesfeld-Heller Professor of Jewish Education and associate dean, Azrieli (Teaching Israel Today); Michael Strauss, interim dean, Sy Syms School of Business (Entrepreneurship in Jewish Schools); Tikvah Weiner, head of school at the Idea Schools, and Rivka Press Schwartz, associate principal, general studies at SAR High School (Power, Privilege & Gender); and Rabbi Mordechai Willing, Rabbi Dr. Sol Roth Chair in Talmud and Contemporary Halakhah, Rosh Yeshiva and lecturer in Talmud (Practical Halacha for Educators).

The conference concluded with a conversation with Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman, president of YU, who praised the participants for what he called their “holy work” and encouraged them to continue teaching their students “to sanctify God’s name by living out our values and reminding them that they have a unique contribution to make in redeeming the world.”

On the evening of the second day, many of the HUB participants set up tables at the Jewish Job Fair, the largest event of its kind in the United States, where 175 job seekers met with 100 organizations. The Job Fair is a collaboration among Azrieli, CJF, Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies, RIETS and Wurzweiler School of Social Work.

Keren Simon, executive administrator of the Morris and Gertrude Bienenfeld Department of Jewish Career Development and Placement at YU, and one of the Fair’s organizers, noted that “the Jewish Job Fair is so much more than a job fair. It brings together so many important bastions of the Jewish future, the movers and shakers of our Jewish world, and creates opportunities and networking for future leadership and staff.”