Image: © Tanner Mardis / Unsplash.com

By Rabbi Rachel Bovitz, Rabbi Dr. Morey Schwartz, and Judy Snowbell Diamond

Originally published by ejewishphilanthropy.com

The publication of “The Kranjec Test” in eJP several weeks ago sparked a conversation throughout the Jewish educational world. We want to add our voice to the conversation and offer a constructive addendum: “The Learner Test.”

The Kranjec Test, the principle that any source-sheet with more than two sources must include at least one non-male identified voice is a collective call to action. Its goal, to increase exposure to a diverse set of voices, and to elevate and teach women’s Torah wisdom, is something we prioritize and focus on as we develop curriculum. But focusing solely on the gender breakdown of sources is far from the only way to structure Jewish learning that is responsible, inclusive, and impactful. We believe The Learner Test, a maxim for educators to always put their learners’ needs first, creates the optimal conditions that lead to deep engagement in the Jewish education space.

The Learner Test relies on three big questions when designing courses for adult learners:

  1. Do the texts we choose speak to what our learners seek to explore today?
  2. Does the diversity of texts in our curriculum present the nuanced complexity of the subject matter honestly and provide learners with multiple challenging ideas to consider?
  3. Do our learning sessions create an open dialogue, an appreciation for the richness of multiple perspectives, and do they ultimately build a stronger community?

The Learner Test requires reviewing and refining our materials and the way we teach them with a critical eye, constantly. A culture of ongoing reflection and iterative evaluation has been a hallmark of the Florence Melton School for decades – here’s how we actively delve into each question:

Do the texts we choose speak to what our learners seek to explore today?

Our learners want access to fresh concepts, new ideas, and yet unexplored traditions that give them confidence to authentically participate in the Jewish conversation and stretch their minds. Our learners seek to consistently expand their knowledge horizons. It’s vital to teach with a bias towards exposing learners to ideas and concepts they haven’t yet explored that apply to their worlds today. Rabbis and educators, who teach our courses, are actually our initial learners. They often share with us that the gift of Melton teaching starts with their exposure to texts and thinkers that have impacted Jewish communities for centuries and continues as they implement suggested frameworks around how to teach those texts to address the challenges learners are faced with today.

Today, many female learners who begin their educational journeys in their 50s or beyond want to access and learn what their brothers and fathers learned many years ago – what’s in Torah, what’s in Talmud. Access to these classic sources gives them agency and allows them to feel ownership and a deep connection to Jewish tradition. They absolutely want to hear from diverse voices, but they are also empowered by coming to know the same traditional sources studied by their male counterparts for centuries.

In addition to access, learners seek to build a framework to help organize their disparate knowledge – to help structure concepts they have general awareness of about but for which they need context. Because of this, at Melton we don’t believe in one-offs, but rather in comprehensive courses that allow our learners to craft a fuller picture of how Jewish ideas, practices, and history fit together.

Does the diversity of texts in our curriculum present the nuanced complexity of the subject matter honestly and provide learners with multiple challenging ideas to consider?

To truly impart wisdom, you need to give learners the chance to delve deep into a wide variety of challenging texts that are part of the always expanding Jewish library – including its classics as well as contemporary thinkers. Through deep engagement, learners grapple with the paradoxes and paradigms that are so often uncovered.

Exposure to voices of all genders is one of the many important ways we ensure deep learning occurs, but not the only way. It’s also critical to ensure curriculum include thinkers from different streams of Judaism and from international Jewish communities outside of North America. Translation of non-English texts and instilling an appreciation of cultural differences are critical steps in this process.

Maybe most significantly, we purposefully build lessons with texts that contradict one other. We consciously choose to include opposing perspectives, not to confuse but to be intellectually honest and expose learners to multiple points of view. We make clear to our learners that we do not have an agenda to indoctrinate, but rather an interest in empowerment and to push learners to think critically and come to their own conclusions. By exposing learners to multiple perspectives, they become interpreters, themselves.

As we all know, a curriculum is only as good as its teacher. How diverse texts are taught is critical. Having a text on a source sheet does not necessarily mean that its message is given its due. We train our faculty to honor the diversity of voices they teach. It’s crucial that teachers not show their preference for one text or another but instead they challenge learners to see the merits of texts of different viewpoints.

Do our learning sessions create an open dialogue, an appreciation for the richness of multiple perspectives, and do they ultimately build a stronger community?

Learners gain confidence as they become part of the conversation. They get excited when they can identify a life experience echoed in a text written thousands of years ago by someone much different than themself. Similarly, they can be moved by a piece of articulate modern Jewish scholarship that bravely calls out an antiquated Jewish notion that might need to be questioned or reinterpreted. We create multiple entry points to invite our learners to engage in “dialogues” with their Jewish ancestors.

Lastly, it is vital to encourage students to study texts from fresh perspectives, outside of their lived experiences. We try to instill the importance of deep conversation with folks who differ in points of view. Beginning with broad conversations, learners often develop relationships built on their shared educational experience, and in doing so, create deeper bonds within the Jewish community. Eye-opening education means fostering fruitful conversations with people in your community who think differently than you do. Figuring out how to do this correctly has positive implications far beyond the classroom, as it bridges penetrable communal divides that feel larger than they are.

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Making sure we always put our learners at the center of our organizational focus is an ongoing effort. It means we take their needs seriously and earn their trust to provide them with a quality Jewish education. We’re grateful that the Kranjec Test sparked a discussion about deep intentionality around inclusion of non-male identified voices. We believe this kind of focus must also be applied to understanding our learners’ needs around access, framework-building, and expanding knowledge. It’s imperative that we continue to create materials that challenge the mind with integrity and to teach responsibly so we learn from one another and from ideas different than our own.

Rabbi Rachel Bovitz is Executive Director at Florence Melton School of Adult Jewish Learning, where Rabbi Dr. Morey Schwartz is the International Director, and Judy Snowbell Diamond is the Director of Curriculum Development.

Image: © Tanner Mardis / Unsplash.com