Teaching Talmud in the 21st Century

Gemara Conference Brings Educators Together to Brainstorm New Goals, Standards and Techniques

On June 20, a group gathered in Yeshiva University’s Belfer Hall to engage in passionate debate about the gemara, their arguments peppered with yeshivish sprach [classic Talmudic terminology] and citations. But this was not your average beit medrash scene. Instead of young talmidim [students] trying to understand the content and language of the gemara, the group consisted of teachers, rebbeim and principals searching for new ways to think about teaching this ancient subject.

Azrieli's Dr. Moshe Krakowski facilitated the June 20 conference.

That was the central focus of “G21: Gemara for the 21st Century Classroom,” a conference hosted by the Institute for University-School Partnership HSChinuch Community. More than 35 teachers and administrators from some 15 schools spread across four states, convened to discuss new curricular models and technologies, as well as possible academic standards and benchmarks to help assess student learning, in a field that has been central to Jewish knowledge and identity for more than a millenium: gemara instruction.

“The values of critical thinking, problem-solving, collaboration and authentic, passion-driven learning have long been part of traditional gemara study,” said Naava Frank, director of continuing education and professional development at the YU School Partnership. “Nevertheless, there are numerous challenges inherent in making a foreign, complex and heavily conceptual text meaningful to a digital generation. By convening leading gemara educators, we hope to work together to develop a clearer sense of how to tackle these challenges.”

In three sessions led by Dr. Moshe Krakowski, assistant professor at YU’s Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration, the group thought up potential shared teaching goals and considered methods to implement cutting-edge educational theories and teaching approaches that met the unique needs of their individual schools and students. They also discussed the challenges, costs and benefits of reconciling modern advances in technology and education with the inimitable traditional method of teaching gemara.

“A lot of the goal in gemara learning is to connect students to tradition,” said Rabbi Yehuda Chanales, who teaches at the Torah Academy of Bergen County. “The fact that I’m learning the same page of Talmud with my students in the same way it would have been opened and studied 300 years ago is very powerful. For years, a lot of that tradition came with a particular sense of teaching and learning: the rebbe is the source of authority and conveyor of tradition, and the students soak up knowledge, learn from him and learn collaboratively in chavrusa [study partnerships] to prepare for his shiur.”

More than 35 teachers and administrators representing 15 schools discussed new goals and standards for teaching gemara.

Chanales, however, has tried to create more interactivity between his students and the text by building select technological tools into his lesson plans, like having students fill out a group Google doc as they learn with chavrusas or asking students to present Powerpoint presentations to demonstrate their understanding of a topic—techniques he believes can play an important role in fostering a connection between modern students and an ancient text.

“We struggle with the tension of valuing that tradition and authenticity that’s felt when you walk into a beit medrash where everyone is sitting with their books open and the rebbe at the table, but also incorporating technology and project-based learning to help create the clear connections to our students’ lives which has always been our goal in teaching Torah,” said Chanales.

He is far from alone in feeling that tension. In addition to teaching, Chanales facilitates YU’s HSChinuch Community of Practice, a site designed to give middle and high school Judaic studies teachers a forum to share resources, raise questions and discuss ideas to enhance Torah-teaching strategies. The G21 conference was inspired by recurring posts on HSChinuch calling for a clarification of goals and assessment tools in gemara classes, as well as advice and support in dealing with common problems such as lack of student motivation or connectedness to the material.

“This conference is actually long overdue,” said Krakowski. “There are many talented teachers out there in the field, each working alone or in small groups to try to move it forward. Yet to this point there has not been any sense of a shared vision, or coherent plan of action, to conceptualize what gemara teaching and learning ought to look like in schools today.”

In the first session, participants from schools including The Ramaz School, Yeshiva of Flatbush, Salanter Akiba Riverdale Academy (SAR) and the Hebrew Academy of Long Beach-DRS sought to create that shared vision in break-out groups. Working together, the teachers and administrators compiled a master list that included technical skills, such as understanding the layout of a daf [page of gemara], building a functional vocabulary, and knowing how to identify and analyze textual nuances, in addition to larger themes, like instilling respect, appreciation and enjoyment of gemara in a student, or grounding them in Chazal’s thought processes about the Jewish legal system.

“The individual sessions where we had to pick a goal were interesting and eye-opening because all of us come from such different schools and perspectives,” said Bracha Rutner, chairperson of the Talmud/Halakha Department at Samuel H. Wang Yeshiva University High School for Girls. “I came here really wanting to know what other schools do, what works or doesn’t work, and there are things people do here that I’ve never heard of. I’m excited to take something back to my school to implement.”

Rabbi Zelig Prag, a long-time educator at the Yeshiva of Flatbush, agreed. “To hear these new ideas and fresh approaches and see the excitement of young people who want to discuss this is inspiring. Our challenges are lack of motivation, excitement, and interest, but it’s refreshing to see that energetic young people are choosing to teach gemara.”

As the conference progressed, activity structures and action steps were discussed to ensure that all participants would emerge with concrete suggestions to improve their schools. The group also created a facilitated process that could be replicated with each school’s faculty to allow their conclusions to be refined and customized to suit the school’s needs.

“What a privilege for YU to convene this impressive group of Jewish educators with hundreds of years of combined experience teaching Torah,” said Dr. Scott Goldberg, director of the YU School Partnership. “The collective wisdom led to important learning about goals and instructional methods for gemara, and the relationships between educators that were advanced and the new ones that were forged are just as important.”

Added Goldberg: “As gemara study continues in communities throughout the world, we are pleased to continue to convene these Jewish educators to advance the teaching and learning of gemara in yeshiva high schools in our online community.”

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