Experimenting with Different Teaching Modalities

Recently, I came to the realization that I was approaching each and every teaching opportunity as an experiment.  As opposed to a set way of leading a discussion, I needed to different styles at each and every opportunity.

I think I had come to the realization that the style to which I was accustomed – a bunch of texts are brought and the group discusses them in order on the page(s) – was just not working well.  It simply was not as engaging of a modality for my constituency, primarily university students and young adults (20s-30s).  Whether they did not want to look at all of the texts or though it a bit much, I have recognized that the style needed to change.  (One possibility is that the university students are dealing with their own classes and readings for classes, so they want a space to relax and not have to engage so cerebrally.)

Granted, I am most comfortable in that style: that’s what I was used to in rabbinical school and it also allows me to demonstrate to them how certain readings of the texts are to be [understood].  Furthermore, I am a very visual learner, so written/printed texts laid out in front of me are ideal for my comprehension.  However, that doesn’t seem to be the best for my constituency.

So, some of my experiments have been either simply discussing with them about the topic at hand, such as my Hanukah discussion with the Hillel at CSUF or yesterday’s discussion with Long Beach Hillel.  Granted, for that style of discussion, I need to know the material and texts well enough that I don’t need them in front of me, so this  modality only works for certain topics.

Another style is to have the text(s) in people’s hands and have them go around and engage with each other.  An instance of this is last weekend at the tenth annual Jewlicious Festival, where I spontaneously to have the participants rotate in pairs in discussing elements of the text and had them come back together to discuss it as a group.  This style encourages people to meet others and to engage more deeply with the text.

Now that I have begun experimenting and trying out a different style each time I now teach, I am looking forward to seeing what I learn what is more effective and what is less effective….

Jewlicious Festival 2014

In front of the RMS Queen Mary last Friday afternoon
In front of the RMS Queen Mary last Friday afternoon

This past weekend, I had the honor of being one of the presenters at the tenth annual Jewlicious Festival. Taking place on the historic RMS Queen Mary in Long Beach, California, the festival began in the late afternoon of February 28th and concluded in the late morning on March 2nd. This year was my fifth consecutive year of being involved and presenting at the festival.

In addition to helping get things ready for the festival beforehand, I also was present for the weekend and led two text-based discussions. The first of which was on Friday night, wherein I led an exploration of wisdom from our tradition around finding one’s mate, focussing on Biblical and Talmudic pieces. The second of which was on Saturday morning, concerning what not to say, wherein we examined an early rabbinic (tannaitic) piece (beraita) which provided examples of how one can transgress Lev. 25:17.

For the former, I led a discussion in a manner standard for me. However, for the latter, I decided to begin discussing it in a regular way, but then had the group break up in pairs and discuss each of the six examples from the text, rotating after each example. I was glad I was able to make it more interactive, right on the spot! After that rotating element, we all returned to discuss the previous text and what people’s thoughts on it were. It was a great way to get people moving, talking and thinking in the morning!

Moshav Band performing Saturday night at Jewlicious Festival
Moshav Band performing Saturday night at Jewlicious Festival

The rest of the weekend was pretty chill and it was great seeing a lot of faces, both new and familiar, and the Saturday night concert was the most enjoyable it has been in a few years. Also, the VIP wine-tasting aspect was really well attended and quite packed with enjoyable live music going on along with it.

At this point, I have actually been to half of the Jewlicious Festivals, all of which has been on account of my serving as the rabbi for Southern California Jewish Student Services, since my lone predecessor in the post, was Rabbi Yonah Bookstein, the creator of the festival.

Rabbis Without Borders Evaluates

rabbis-without-bordersAs one of the rabbis who have participated in the Rabbis Without Borders fellowship, I was initially saddened when I read Rabbi Rebecca Sirbu’s “A Time for Bold Action: Redefining the Metrics of Jewish Life” which appeared the other day on eJewishPhilanthropy, in which she wrote that there will not be a new cohort of Rabbis Without Borders (RWB) fellows next year.  When I was in RWB two years ago, I greatly enjoyed it and am glad that there is a visionary program devoted to developing the rabbinate and think it has a great potential for helping make rabbis become more nimble in sharing Judaism and Jewish tradition.  I also want others to be able to experience the program and to also be shaped and to develop their rabbinate thereby and, by closing it off next year, this move, unfortunately, prevents colleagues in partaking in the fellowship.  This is especially evident in Rabbi Sirbu’s reporting of 100+ applicants for only 21 spots – there is a very high demand for this great program.

Indeed, I am part of the “over ninety percent of the rabbis” who have gone through the fellowship and, as a result of my experience, “report that they have the tools to make Judaism more meaningful and accessible to a larger population, have increased their audiences, and have enhanced people’s connection to Jewish life.”  Furthermore, I agree with Rabbi Sirbu’s assessment that “the results have been powerful”, which only makes this move a it wondrous.

However, since the aim of RWB is to “help rabbis stay ahead of the curve of American Jewish life and lead us in to the future”, it is interesting that Rabbi Sirbu writes that RWB needs “to gain more information about how and why people use Jewish traditions”, therefore

During the 2014-2015 academic year, instead of soliciting a new fellowship cohort of rabbis, we will devote considerable resources toward meeting with our alumni and their communities and exploring ways they experience Jewish rituals, teaching, and wisdom in their lives. We want to collect data that will give us a better understanding of the motivations and challenges of practicing Judaism today. What is working for people and why is it working? What does it mean for something to “work?” We intend to gather and study critical information Jewish leaders need now in order to prepare for the future.

In a way, despite being saddened that an entire cohort will miss out on this opportunity, nevertheless, I think it is a great idea to draw upon the “strong network of rabbinic alumni from which to draw such information” about developing the program.  Since RWB has “trained 103 rabbis and 68 rabbinical students”, that means there are many opinions (consider the famous adage that in a conversation, two Jews will have three opinions) that will emerge, but it should be fascinating to see how RWB develops and morphs.  I will certainly provide my input!

There was something that was a bit unclear in Rabbi Sirbu’s piece that I would to read about in fuller detail.  The subtitle is “Redefining the Metrics of Jewish Life”, yet Rabbi Sirbu neither describes what those metrics are, nor does she describe how they will be measured. As someone who enjoys metrics as a potentially great tool for use in the Jewish community, I am very curious to read/hear about them.  However, in a follow-up communication with her, she indicated that they will be greatly driven by qualitative data (of which I’m an advocate/fan), which should be awesome.  I’m very much looking forward to this development, as well 🙂