David Stein - Faculty, Shalhevet High School, Co-Creator, LaHaV Curriculum
Noam Weissman - Principal, Shalhevet High School, Co-Creator, LaHaV Curriculum
Ari Segal - Head of School, Shalhevet High School
We're changing how Jewish high school students relate to their heritage. Our LaHaV curriculum takes a bold departure from traditional modes of Talmud and Tanakh instruction by adopting an approach that focuses on the richness and relevance of our tradition, and then asking our students to apply their learning to contemporary issues.
Yet we’re not just transforming Judaic studies for our own students. Through a groundbreaking app built around our curriculum, we’ve created a digitally connected network of Jewish educators who share training, resources, texts, and methodologies, revolutionizing Judaic education across the world.
Jewish tradition is not ancient – it’s living, breathing and responding to the world, and we've designed a curriculum to convey that vitality. The curriculum itself is built upon a clear, scalable, spiraled and repeatable methodology that spans the entire corpus of Jewish wisdom. We begin with thorough introductions, focusing on principles, development, values and procedures of the halakhic process, providing the conceptual context for them to understand halakhic decision-making. Among the detailed topics covered by our materials, students explore the sources and nature of rabbinic authority, the role of logical reasoning, precedent, dissent and popular practice within halakhic decision making, and the process by which ancient Talmudic discussions inform modern-day decisions. Armed with these introductions, juniors and seniors put theory to practice by analyzing modern halakhic issues that Orthodox Judaism has dealt with, including electricity on Shabbat, women in halakha, the State of Israel, morality in the Bible and Biblical Criticism. By introducing students to the mechanisms and development of their heritage with a focus on textual skills, and then challenging them to use these tools to understand Judaism’s varied responses to modern issues, we seek to inspire lifelong commitment to and engagement with Jewish learning and tradition.
We began our project as two former college roommates discussing ideas for a single classroom at Shalhevet High School, and since then it has since exploded outward into a national and international movement. As graduates of the American Jewish day school system, we were deeply familiar with the challenges facing Jewish education, as well as two common approaches that schools have adopted to transmit Jewish wisdom in the classroom. The first approach, which we had experienced in our own high schools, we quickly labeled the “traditional” approach to Talmud education – choose a tractate, choose a chapter, and start learning. This approach was heavily focused on how to learn by building component skills and focusing heavily on text, while guided by the course of the Talmudic sugya which students follow page by page as they study. As far as we understood, this approach had been the standard mode of Jewish learning for millennia. There was only one problem that emerged as we began discussing it: we both had basically slept through our Judaics classes in high school, and had gotten to where we were despite our high school Talmud experiences, not because of them. We had spent plenty of time learning how to learn, but our teachers never demonstrated why the skills and issues we were learning were relevant in any way to the world around us. In short, this approach never demonstrated to us the importance of Jewish learning and wisdom. Pedagogically, we knew that this approach was not a “curriculum” in any way, and we also knew that it would be completely ineffective in engaging and inspiring our students to learn about their heritage.
On the other hand, we were aware of a second approach. We knew that some schools were moving away from traditional Talmud study and exploring more contemporary topics – Jewish sexuality, medical ethics, or war and peace. We labeled this the “hot button” approach, and admired its emphasis on relevance and motivation. By sacrificing the emphasis on traditional Talmud learning and skills in favor of relevance and accessibility, students would be left highly motivated, recognizing the relevance of Jewish tradition to contemporary issues without the painstaking and arduous barriers of linguistic and textual emphasis. Yet we also identified weaknesses in this approach - this sacrifice meant that those very same students would be lacking the component skills needed to independently access the texts and values that inform these issues or the ability to transfer their learning from one narrow issue to a new or different problem that may arise within the broader Jewish community. In a word, what the “traditional” approach lacked in motivation and relevance, the “hot button” approach lacked in skills and repeatability.
We were convinced that there had to be a third approach, one that would balance immersion in text and skill building with relevance and student motivation to bring Jewish tradition to life. We knew that we wanted to teach our students about the central issues and values in our community – the modern State of Israel, the role of women in Orthodoxy, Biblical Criticism, and technology and hilkhot Shabbat. Yet we also knew that we needed to demonstrate how Judaism grappled with these issues – the process by which answers to these critical problems were developed, for we understood that the most important part of Judaism is often the process of debate and tension of competing values rather than simply the final result.
We immediately set out to identify the core ideas, concepts and skills that would allow any student to understand how Judaism responds to an ever changing and complicated world, and in an instant, our curriculum was born. Our plan was simple, and consisted of two parts. First, the “building blocks”: what are the ingredients and values that serve as the foundation of Jewish tradition? How does Jewish law actually work? We started by gathering sources about the principles, mechanisms, values, and sources of rabbinic authority: sevara (logic), minhag (popular practice), majority rule, judicial independence, diversity, unity, leniency, precedent – the list grew and grew as we began identifying our essential questions: Is halakha human or Divine? Rigid or flexible? Is God Moral? What is the source and scope of Rabbinic authority? Is halakha a democracy? Should law follow earlier or later authorities? How was the Bible impacted by Ancient Near East culture? What checks and balances exist within halakhic decision-making process? How does Jewish tradition balance between diversity and unity, or between innovation and continuity? Soon, we had gathered hundreds of sources and built courses on halakhic legal theory and Biblical exegesis.
The second component of our curriculum would consist of application: we knew that if we gave students the building blocks but never showed them how to actually build a building, they could never do it on their own, and so we switched our attention to issues that were central to Judaism's encounter with the modern world: the changing role of women in society and halakha, the State of Israel, and observance of Shabbat. We quickly recognized that on any number of contemporary issues – from the role of women in communal prayer, to the ordination of female rabbis, the aguna crisis, the establishment of Yom Ha’azmaut, negotiating land for peace, the observance of shemita in Israel today, and the use of the electricity on Shabbat – contemporary halakhic decision-makers were often arguing about how to navigate and apply the principles we had already identified. So many of the issues that defined – and often divided – our community revolved around questions of halakhic process and rabbinic authority and balancing values of morality, tradition, and innovation. And so, from theory to application, we set to work on the painstaking process of building a curriculum. By weaving together hundreds of sources from throughout the Talmud and Rishonim, we were ready to helps students explore the nature of rabbinic authority in Jewish law, the mechanisms and modes of halakhic decision making, as well as the basic - and often competing - values that define those decisions – and then to apply that information to the world around us.
One of the systemic challenges we face in education relates directly to the challenge of collaboration: teaching can be a surprisingly lonely field. While teachers spend an incredible amount of time interacting and communicating with their students or chatting with colleagues in the faculty room, meaningful peer-to-peer professional collaboration is often frustratingly elusive. Teachers are often required to research and plan material on their own while also honing the structure, execution, and assessment of their course – before even stepping into the classroom to communicate with their students. The result is an exhausting balancing act that can crush novice teachers who are first starting out and discourage experienced teachers from venturing away from tried and true practices - with the students in the classroom often suffering the consequences. While some institutions attempt to mitigate the issue through mentorship or colleague-based professional learning communities (PLCs), these solutions remain localized, and teachers often remain trapped within their professional silos.
As curriculum designers, we're deeply aware of these challenges, as the existing models for curriculum distribution do nothing to mitigate the collaborative challenges that we face – in fact, they often make matters worse. Under one existing model, content providers ship a set of textbooks to participating schools, with each school left to implement the material on their own and then reorder in the summer if things go well. All planning, creation and execution of the curriculum courses takes place concurrently within each participating institution, without learning from or collaborating with others who are working with the same content. At the opposite end of the spectrum, some content providers take a different approach by including detailed lesson plans, instructions, and sample assessments along with the content. This material often dictates exactly what the educator should do, down to specific prompts to ask students, precise segments of video clips to play, and a battery of assessment questions to ask. Under this model, repeatability and replication become possible, but only at the expense of removing all planning and creativity out of teachers’ hands and compromising their ability to infuse their own voice into the material or adapt it to specific students or teaching styles.
When considering these two existing approaches, we recognized that there must be room for a model in between the “open ended” approach of leaving the educators to fend for themselves and the “top down” approach of dictating to educators exactly how to teach. Instead, we've created a third approach to make the wisdom of Jewish tradition accessible to educators and students alike, borrowed from the "open source” model of software development. To do so, we've created a digital app upon which educators can create and contribute materials, giving users the ability to use, adapt, or build upon the existing curricular infrastructure, providing a powerful tool for creating the collaboration that we need within the world of education.
The goal of this app is simple: distribution and collaboration. It’s been designed from the ground up to give users the tools to teach our curriculum and learn from others while also allowing them to contribute their own voices to the project, and it's built around two core features. First, the app allows access to all content that has been created for the curriculum. Every text within the curriculum, along with a teacher’s guide – including translations, summaries, essential questions, big ideas, key skills, and vertical integration – is hosted in this digital library. Worksheets, lesson plans, assessments and projects created by educators across the country are accessible as well – and therein lays the second core feature of the app. In addition to simply providing content to users, the app also allows users to create and edit content as well – creating a truly “open source” collaborative effort. A teacher in Chicago can create a lesson plan that is immediately accessible to a practitioner in Los Angeles. A new unit authored in New York can be viewed and adapted by other educators throughout the country. Teacher’s guides can be edited and updated with new information that is immediately shared with all users. For new teachers learning their craft, this curriculum platform provides them with the materials and sources for their classrooms as well as field-tested examples of approaches adopted by other educators who have taught the same material. At the same time, for the experienced educator, the project offers the opportunity to share and showcase their work, providing for professional development opportunities, recognition for excellence, as well as mentoring and training roles for other educators of the curriculum.
Instead of providing educators with a single “top down” model for teaching, our curriculum app provides Jewish educators with snapshots of multiple approaches that various educators within diverse institutions have adopted. By providing this structure of multiple approaches and examples that teachers can draw from and then empowering them to create and then share their own curriculum materials through our digitized platform, we hope to foster the type of collaboration that will pull us out of our individual silos and allow for the accessibility and scalability to solve the immense challenges that face Jewish education today.
The constant measure of success throughout the project is the impact that this curriculum has on our students. To be
sure, measuring learner impact in education is notoriously difficult - we are hoping to affect our students' attitudes and relationship with Jewish learning, and standardized testing or factual knowledge are simply not enough to demonstrate this. However, thus far, the impact of this program has been nothing short of transformative. In particular, we've seen three primary areas of impact within our own school. The first is a measure of student engagement in lifelong learning. Before beginning this project, only about 10% of Shalhevet graduates chose to spend a gap year studying in Israel after high school, roughly about 3 students per year out of a typical graduating class of 30. For many of those students, continued engagement with Jewish experience and identity simply wasn't a priority, and it was quite clearly reflected in their post-high school choices. Today, however, we've seen a dramatic shift in this reality. Five years after our first implementation of the school-wide curriculum, 70% of our graduating class of 58 students are choosing to continue some form of Jewish study in Israel beyond high school. This trend is representative of an overall transformation in student attitudes towards and engagement with Jewish tradition and wisdom, with students thirsting for continued and sustained engagement with their Jewish learning and identity.
Within the school itself, we encountered similar shifts in attitude and engagement. Two years ago, we were approached by a small group of students asking for more Judaic classes. We obviously couldn't say no - but, after working with our admin team to identify ways to increase our Judaics course offerings, we concluded that there was only one option in our schedule to allow for this: students would need to come to school 45 minutes early to make time for the optional elective Judaics course. We expected only a small cohort of students to register for this option; after all, how many high schoolers would voluntarily choose to wake up early for optional classes? Instead, to our collective shock, 45 students out of a total school population of 180 signed up for the course. Ever since, the enrollment in this optional track has only grown, reflecting the impact of our revolutionary approach to Jewish education.
Finally, we've seen the impact of our curriculum within other schools as well. From trainings conducted in Los Angeles, Israel, and Miami to implementations of LaHaV within schools in New York, Philadelphia, and Connecticut, we've received tremendous feedback from educators and administrators about the impact that the curriculum has had upon their staff and students in raising the bar for Jewish education within their schools.
Three principles of Jewish wisdom have guided our project and fueled our growth. First, we've designed and build our curriculum on the basis of the famous Talmudic principle of "לא בשמים היא" - that Torah is not in heaven. That statement, famously proclaimed by Rabbi Yehoshua in response to a heavenly voice and recorded by the Talmud in Bava Metzia 59b, represents our tradition's inherent tension between tradition and innovation. One the one hand, Rabbi Yehoshua certainly recognized the value of tradition; as a leading member of the rabbinic class, Rabbi Yehoshua had committed his life to stud, practice, and transmission of Jewish wisdom. Yet he also recognized that at times, the survival of our people calls for daring innovation, departure from conventional norms, and audacious rejection of the status quo. His heroic stand against the heavenly voice has served as our inspiration as we chart out a bold departure from conventional educational norms. Yet, like Rabbi Yehoshua, we believe that our success - as well as the very survival of Jewish tradition within a complex and rapidly changing world - is dependent upon our ability to navigate this balance between fealty to the wisdom of tradition and the necessity of innovating in response to the challenges that we face.
Second, we've based our pedagogical and curricular approach upon the educational study of psychology and motivation that are enshrined with the Jewish precept that אין אדם לומד אלה מה שלבו חפץ - one can only learn that which his heart desires (Avoda Zara 19b). Jewish tradition teaches much of what we now know about the role of choice and relevance from educational research - that rote memorization of seemingly archaic discussions will never serve to inspire Jewish leardership and engagement. Instead, we've designed our project around the richness and relevance Jewish wisdom, and the need for our students to know why they are learning what they are learning. We don't expect that to be intuitive, and have created a system that allows teachers to be explicit about goals and values that serve as the basis for the texts that we study. At its core, our curriculum is about the struggle and tension of competing values within our tradition, and by allowing these principles to speak to the hearts of our students, we are inspiring a commitment to the complexity of our past and present.
Lastly, we are driven by the Talmud's teaching in Eiruvin 13b that אלו ואלו דברי אלוקים חיים - "these and these are the words of the living God" - the Jewish principle that there can be more than one "correct" solution to any problem. In our curricular design, we never attempt to force a single, top down approach upon any of our partner schools or educators. Instead, our growth and success relies upon our recognition that there is more than one way of doing things and that we are far better working together than alone. Our "open source" approach to the curriculum, enabled by our digital app, serves as the basis of our belief that there is no one right answer to the challenges of Jewish education, but that rather, through true collaboration, sharing, and co-authorship, this project can become worthy of the Jewish tradition and wisdom that it seeks to transmit.
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