'Judaism is a vehicle for becoming our better selves'

Faced with fusty texts, teachers learn to breathe new life into Jewish studies

Ayeka founder Aryeh Ben David says that when it comes to learning about Judaism, schools should be teaching connection over content

Reporter at The Times of Israel

Aryeh Ben David, founder of the Jerusalem-based Ayeka: The Center for Soulful Education, leading a training session. (Courtesy: Ayeka)
Aryeh Ben David, founder of the Jerusalem-based Ayeka: The Center for Soulful Education, leading a training session. (Courtesy: Ayeka)

NEW YORK — Eighteen months ago, students at the Bi-Cultural Day School in Stamford, Connecticut, received a relatively flat account of Moses and the 12 spies.

They learned the who, what, where, when and possibly the why of the story: Moses sent out 12 spies to do a little reconnaissance in the land of Canaan. Ten came back and scared the daylights out of everyone, and only two, Joshua and Caleb, challenged the majority opinion.

End of lesson.

And while that’s fine if the goal is to win Jewish Trivial Pursuit, it’s not ideal if the goal is to help students deepen their spiritual and Jewish identities.

According to longtime educator Aryeh Ben David, quantity shouldn’t trump quality — especially when it comes to Judaic studies. Yet, for too long Jewish educators have pushed content, rather than connectedness, said the founder of the Jerusalem-based Ayeka: The Center for Soulful Education.

Founded in 2006 with the goal of reframing Jewish education, the non-profit’s name is the biblical word for “where are you.” Ayeka provides learning tracks for educators, parents, and individuals with online and in-person options in the United States and Israel. The idea is to help teachers breathe life into Jewish text study.

The organization has also published two books, “Becoming Soulful Educators” and the “Ayeka Haggadah: Hearing Your Own Voice.”

“We’re offering a paradigm shift in the way we teach. Students won’t remember what they are not personally connected to,” Ben David said. “Ayeka looks at Judaism as a vehicle for becoming our better selves, and it can’t be an intellectual process. Learning can’t be just about content and memorization. They [students] have to own it in their own lives.”

And that’s been the result at Bi-Cultural.

Since the introduction of Ayeka, the students are asked to consider what they would do if they had a minority opinion, said Michal Smart, director of Jewish studies at the school. Then they are asked to think about something they might be experiencing.

Maybe it’s peer pressure to do something they don’t want to do, or something they know is wrong. Teachers then ask the class to think about one small step they could take to change their situation. They will be asked to journal about it for homework and then, perhaps a week later, teachers will check back to see how they are doing.

Illustrative: First grade students sit in a classroom on their first day of school at a school. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

“It’s building community in the classroom. Judaism isn’t just about more information. Torah is a teaching of life and if you don’t ask those questions then you just a read a story. You have to put yourself in the story and put the story inside you,” said Smart.

Bi-Cultural was one of the first day schools to implement Ayeka. Now with the help of hundreds of thousands of dollars in multi-year grants from four major American Jewish foundations, including the Jim Joseph Foundation, Ayeka will expand its Soulful Professional Development program in up to eight Hebrew day schools in North America.

The grant will go towards training Judaic studies teachers to implement its Soulful Education pedagogy in their classrooms, as well as to coach colleagues in their schools in Ayeka’s methodology. The multi-year program will include retreats, on-site coaching sessions, and individual mentoring and webinars for staff, as well as for the administrations of the selected day schools.

Illustrative: school children in class. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“Jewish learning can be both a powerful and deeply personal experience that adds genuine meaning to one’s life. But the Jim Joseph Foundation knows that these experiences are only effective when facilitated by well-trained and well-resourced educators,” said Stacie Cherner, senior program officer from the Jim Joseph Foundation.

Two teachers from each day school that will participate in Ayeka’s Jim Joseph Foundation Spiritual Education Program will undergo training, which can last up to a year. Once they complete training they will help implement the method in their school.

“This isn’t just another tool in the tool box. It’s not like going to a seminar for the day and then pulling out what you learned if nothing else is working,” said Rabbi Yehoshua Looks, COO of Ayeka. “What students need from their teachers is a degree of vulnerability. The teacher has to be present. They have to be affected by the material too. If Judaism comes across as preaching, we lose students.”

Yehoshua Looks, COO of Ayeka, talks with educators. (Courtesy: Ayeka.)

Ben David has worked for decades to make traditional Jewish learning personally relevant.

Born in the United States, he moved to Israel in 1978. After receiving his rabbinical ordination from the Israeli rabbinate, he served as director of spiritual education at Jerusalem’s Pardes Institute from 1987-2007. He also served as rabbinical educational consultant for Hillel International from 2004-2007.

Some thought the idea was flaky. Some thought it was a gimmick. We’re not touchy-feely and I don’t play the guitar

In 2006, he founded Ayeka. “At first, some thought the idea was flaky. Some thought it was a gimmick. We’re not touchy-feely and I don’t play the guitar,” Ben David said, smiling.

Kidding aside, Ben David said he sees too many students disconnect with Judaism and what they learned after their formal education ends.

In recent years there has been a push for more experiential learning, taking students outside the classroom for activities. But Ben David thinks that sends the wrong message.

“It sends a deleterious message, a subliminal message that what takes place in the classroom is boring. We need to make what happens in the classroom as meaningful,” he said.

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