Three YU Alumni Awarded Kohelet Prizes

$36,000 Prizes Celebrate Progression in Jewish Education; Three Additional Alumni Receive Honorable Mentions

Three alumni of Yeshiva University’s Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration—Rabbi Yoni Fein ’13YC ’14A, Shira Greenspan ’14A and Rabbi Tzvi Sinensky ’04YC ’07R ’15A—have been awarded 2017 Kohelet Prizes celebrating progression in Jewish education. The annual prize from the Kohelet Foundation bestows $36,000 to each of six educators or teams of educators who demonstrate extraordinary accomplishment in six categories such as interdisciplinary integration, differentiated instruction, developing critical thinking skills and taking risks.

Each category received many submissions and required entrants to demonstrate a model that had already been implemented in their classroom, as well as the project’s impact on students. Winners were selected by a panel of judges in the fields of education, psychology and neuroscience, identified by the Kohelet Foundation.

“We are incredibly heartened by the numbers of submissions that indicate the amount of talent, innovation and commitment to the field of Jewish education that the Kohelet Prize serves to celebrate,” said Azrieli Dean Rona Novick. “We’re so thankful to the Foundation for providing an opportunity for those in the field and beyond to hear about the wonderful things that are happening in Jewish education. We at Azrieli are enjoying particular nachas from the substantial representation amongst the winners, honorable mentions and the submissions that come from Azrieli’s students and graduates. It’s extremely validating to know that our programs inspire the work of our graduates and have direct impact on the lives of so many Jewish students.”

Rabbi Fein, of the Moriah School of Englewood, New Jersey, won the differentiated instruction category for the school’s recalibrated approach to teaching Talmud, which uses a data-driven model to create personalized learning pathways that students progress through based on proficiency and mastery in eight specific domains that provide a comprehensive understanding of Talmud—including content, vocabulary, functional structures, and real-life application.

“The model of Talmud instruction in Jewish day schools has remained mostly intact for decades,” said Rabbi Fein in a statement for the Prize’s consideration. “I designed a new innovative approach to middle-school Talmud instruction that we believe to be a game-changer. With a team of rabbeim that includes both experienced and first-year teachers with limited technological skills, I’ve worked to establish a successful growth mindset and collaborative culture around the transition to personalized learning in Talmud.”

Greenspan, whose project was conducted at Yeshivat Noam of Paramus, New Jersey, won the risk-taking category for “In Every Generation,” the school’s independent anchor activity for accelerated Tanach students which encourages meaningful inter-textual exploration of the Bible. The project called for students to identify underlying themes of Pesach by analyzing 18 events in Tanach that took place during the holiday and create their own seder symbols to be used at family sedarim.

“Sometimes, we teachers set out to meet a goal and, in doing so, challenge the success of another goal,” said Greenspan in a statement to the Kohelet Foundation. “That was the challenge I faced when I aimed to increase engagement and make learning more meaningful for my gifted Tanach students a few years ago. Through extensive research and work, I developed an enrichment anchor activity for students who had demonstrated a unique aptitude for learning Tanach independently, developing and supporting abstract ideas through concrete textual evidence.”

Rabbi Sinensky, of Kohelet Yeshiva in Merion Station, Pennsylvania, received the award for the interdisciplinary integration category for the school’s philosophical ethics unit in its junior year’s Integrated American Literature, Jewish and Western Philosophy course, known as Tikvah. Each unit includes books from the corpus of American literature, read and discussed alongside selected pieces from philosophical and legal texts from both Jewish and other sources. The course culminated with an event titled “Meeting of the Minds,” modeled off of Steve Allen’s PBS program of the same name in the 1970s, in which a student moderator would introduce and interview historical personalities played by other students, who would then discuss and debate major philosophical questions as figures such as Plato, Maimonides, or Kant, among others.

“In playing the philosophers they chose, our students internalized the theories, worldviews and actual language of some of the giants of Jewish and Western philosophy,” said Rabbi Sinensky in his closing reflections to the Prize Committee. “For an hour or so, students spoke to each other as if they were Plato, Rambam, Rashi, Kant, John Stuart Mill and C.S. Lewis, inhabiting these thinkers’ approaches to ethics, and arguing contemporary scenarios from universal rational principles. The class’s remarkable achievement in this pilot project demonstrated their abilities and the project’s robust nature.”

In addition to the three winners, three YU alumni received honorable mentions. Rabbi Yehuda Chanales ’07A, of Cleveland, Ohio’s Fuchs Mizrachi School, received recognition in the development of critical thinking category for his school’s submission, “Torat Chayim: Real World Learning in Tanach and Gemara; Analysis and Integration through Real World Application.” Adina Blaustein ’08S ’12R, of Cleveland’s Fuchs Mizrachi Starks High School, received an honorable mention in the risk-taking category for an experiment she started to create an opportunity for differentiated learning in her Tanach Skills Lab. Finally, Rabbi Natan Kapustin ’04A of Abraham Joshua Heschel High School in New York City received recognition in the real-world learning category for “Israeli Knesset Simulation,” a combination of live role-playing and online virtual world interaction in which high school seniors immerse themselves in Israeli politics by assuming the roles of members of Knesset.