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One Size Fits All No More! How Competency-Based Education Can Enhance Rabbinical School

If you spend any time at all reading about the latest innovations in higher education, you know that the buzz is all about competency-based education.  There are a few elements of this movement that would at first glance be antithetical to the goals of seminary education.  Competency based education is described as: highly individualized for each learner; dependent on technology and on-line learning; and oriented heavily towards skills-building for specific jobs.  Competency based education, in its purest form, decenters learning from the classroom where the teacher is surrounded by students to a model of extreme micro-learning, where each student is considered a “center” and the teacher becomes one of many possible resources that the student may use in his or her mastery of competencies.

How can there be any value in this model for a place like RRC, where we emphasize community building, the cultivation of meaningful relationships among students and between students and faculty?  How can competency-based education serve an institution that values the development of a student’s inner spiritual life as much as skills acquisition?  Why would RRC employ a system that seems to valorize the individual over the community?

Over the past couple of years, the faculty at RRC has been engaged in the creation of a new curriculum for rabbinic education and we have come to realize that competency-based education has a place within a community of learners.  In fact, I would argue that in some ways, competency-based education is a return to more “traditional” modalities of Jewish learning!

Over the coming months, I will be inviting colleagues as guest bloggers to share their thoughts about the future of rabbinic education and the value of a Jewishly modified competency-based education.

It is my hope that in addition to re-imagining rabbinic education, we will also be making a small contribution to the future of higher education in general.


That Question I Know You Want to Ask

So how did you decide to become a rabbi? Every one of our students gets the question. And in many ways the lifeblood of the RRC academic community is the ever-growing sum of their rich responses.  Sandra Lawson, however, probably hears that inquiry more often than most. 

Sandra’s life portfolio would look unusual even to the casual observer: Military police investigator and personal trainer, but also student of the Old Testament and, her mom has told her, descendant of an Ethiopian Jew. Still, as Sandra tells on her blog, nothing had prepared her for the impact of meeting Rabbi Josh Lesser, ’99, at congregation Bet Haverim in Atlanta. “What kind of rabbi are you?” she asked him. “I had never seen a man espouse feminist values, a white man so connected to communities of color or anyone so devoted to helping others.”

Read Sandra’s story.


Teachings from Avraham ibn Tuxedo and Moshe Seinfeld

Imagine the following:  the Torah commentaries of Moshe Seinfeld, Avraham ibn Tuxedo, Hannah Maccabiah and Charlie Lev Mazon appear on a page of newly discovered “mikraot gedolot” edition and they are addressing the first perek (chapter) of bamidbar.  Each has unique torah to offer.

We sit together and study the page.  Like any community of avid Jewish learners, we could talk for hours about the teachings.

Now imagine the following:  you learn that Moshe Seinfeld was a great Hasidic rebbe, you learn that Avraham ibn Tuxedo lived during the Golden Age in Spain and that he was educated in the context of Muslim intellectualism; you learn that Hannah Maccabiah was the only female scribe known to us from the period of the Qumran scrolls; and you learn that Charlie Lev Mazon was Tevye’s father from Fiddler on the Roof.

Now we go back and read the same page of text.  Will we learn the same things as our first go around with the text?  How will our understanding of each commentator’s words of torah be different than the first go around?

RRC’s text-oriented curriculum is based on the premise that in order to move into deep relationship with earlier commentators and texts, you first need to know with whom or what you are in sacred relationship.  A hallmark of text study at RRC is that we expect our students to know who is sitting around the table of text study (and who were their teachers, what else influenced their thinking, how did their environment shape their value system, and what were the literary conventions of their time).

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Rabbinical School: Top Ten Reasons for Engaging in Text Study


Rabbinical schools talk a lot about text study.  As we at RRC are engaging in re-imagining rabbinical education, our faculty have spent hours talking about our goals for text study.  We devote more hours to text study than any other kind of study.  In short, why engage in text study?

The following is an excerpt from a document that one of our working groups produced - the group included faculty, students and alumni.  This was not meant for public distribution so apologies in advance to the authors!

Why do we teach sforim?

We believe that:

 The material contains trans-historical value and we want rabbis to teach and share that wealth.

Rabbis are text brokers--- Jews want rabbis to translate traditional material into contemporary, accessible and relevant terms.

Engagement with this material imparts a Jewish identity, character, substance to our wisdom.

This material is a foundation of the Jewish imagination and we want rabbis to continue to develop expressions of that imagination/culture.

You can’t read Amichai without knowing what comes before.

Text-study is a tool for critiquing contemporary practices/perspectives/ideologies that we want to challenge.

If we are to understand ourselves deeply, we need to understand the many narratives that comprise our identities and Jewish texts articulate one/some of those narratives.

Knowledge of Jewish texts conveys authenticity and authority.  Halachic knowledge is valuable currency in intra-Jewish conversations.

Text study builds a mindfulness and reflectiveness about detail which leads to critical thinking and the ability to hold multiple viewpoints together.

We want rabbis to be able to connect their inner life to the ongoing life of the Jewish people.


Yentl in Rabbinical School

Last week, we went to a friend’s home for Shabbat dinner.  Within 10 minutes of arriving, I walked into their study—a gorgeous room with ornate, built-in wooden bookshelves filled with large Hebrew books—tractates of Talmud, commentaries, legal codes...Every time I walk into that room, a place deep inside my heart is activated.  As a friend has said to me, it is my inner Yentl calling out.  And indeed there is a part of me that has always longed for the old world yeshiva, the ability to sit with large dusty books and immerse myself in learning from sunrise to sunset, only pausing to daven and eat. But of course, unless I wanted to pull a Yentl, I could never enter into that world nor am I prepared to make the commitment to daven three times a day without fail no matter what else may be happening around me. Ironically, it is a yearning that would in fact disempower me, that would strip me of so many of my core commitments and passions, and that would have me defer to the more observant, the more learned, the more “authentic.”

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When to Slow Down and When to Speed Up

How often have you heard or said the following about non-fiction:  I’ve just read an amazing book – you should take a look at it – you just need to read the opening and concluding chapters.  How many books could be just as powerful, if not more powerful as an essay?

Now, for those of you who have studied classical Jewish texts: how often have you heard or said the following about text-study:  I wish we had more time for this text; we’ve barely scratched the surface?

Last week, I was studying theories regarding creativity.  Immediately, I looked for books on the topic at the bookstore, added more dead trees to my shelves, and proceeded to bury myself in the reading.  I would read and ruminate, read and ruminate.  At some point, something led me to a TED talk on the subject.  I found myself frantically taking notes on this eighteen minute talk and when it was completed, I was completely energized.  I had an “aha” moment which lead me immediately into some new ideas regarding rabbinic education.

What was the difference between the eighteen minute TED talk and the two books apart from the visuals?  The TED talk immediately got to the point.  The books framed arguments around arguments and by the time the authors made their point, I was tired.  We use too many words these days and their value is going down.  I could probably take almost every two hour lecture down to twenty minutes and my students would walk away with the same ideas AND more energy.  (I’m not talking about the value of discussion groups where most of our learning takes place at RRC.)

Now let me shift to the practice of Jewish text study.  In this context, my interaction with the words is completely the opposite!  The slower that I move through the words, the more energized I get.  My “aha” moments come when I have studied a single verse of Torah for an hour.  Text study is a practice while the study of texts has an objective.  Text study is about questions while the study of text is about answers.

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The Archbishop of Canterbury, TED talks and Rabbinic Education

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the competencies that a rabbi needs to be successful and satisfied.  The language of core competencies and assessment mechanisms pervades higher education today, but frankly, it’s not a very sexy topic.  Our faculty members practically jump out of their seats when we’re discussing our vision for the rabbinate or when we are considering new programs and pedagogies.  Contrast this with the glazed over eyes as we talk about finding the right language to list competencies and all the related skills, abilities and knowledge.  Lists are not as exciting as freeform creative thinking.

But here’s the thing:  if we don’t really name the specific competencies with their attendant skills, knowledge, abilities and behaviors – we risk wasting our students’ time, and in this economic environment, we have a moral obligation to maximize learning opportunities.  Don’t misunderstand me, I believe that our graduates finish our program with the right set of competencies – my thoughts today are about the means.  Are we (by we I mean all liberal rabbinical schools) helping our students to attain the necessary competencies in the most responsible fashion?  Do we have hoops to jump through that are now obsolete?  Are we focusing too much on requiring courses rather than requiring competencies?

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We Are Ready to Engage. Will the Jewish Community Join Us?

An RRC student in her second year recently shared a story with us.  Before rabbinical school, she spoke with a prominent leader in the Jewish philanthropy world to ask which rabbinical school would best enable her to continue her training in social justice work.  As our student remembers the conversation, the person said that she would not find this kind of training at any rabbinical school.  Our rabbinical student shared this story with us after she had a “eureka moment” in a class on Jews and Money in which she realized that she was indeed deepening her training in social justice work at RRC.

Over the summer, I had a conversation with an employee (a rabbi) of a relatively new Jewish social justice/service organization that has been doing great work in engaging young Jewish adults in volunteerism.  During this stimulating and rich conversation, the rabbi said that all rabbinical schools are completely blind to the importance of social justice work in Jewish life.  He suggested that rabbinical schools operate as shtetls, unaware of the real world around them.

I understand why this impression exists, especially for rabbis who endured an education that was less than satisfactory.  The truth is that liberal rabbinical schools in the United States tend to run more conservative than other progressive Jewish organizations.  Rabbinical schools are stuck between the past and the future, and finding new modalities of engagement with Jewish tradition is challenging.

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Sometimes You Get What You Wish For

 What if we didn’t think of intermarriage as a threat to our survival?  What if we considered intermarriage as an opportunity that enriches Judaism?

Paul Golin, Associate Executive Director of the Jewish Outreach Institute, recently posted an essay entitled “Will Bob Marley’s Grandchildren Be Jewish?”  Paul rightly notes that current statistics regarding the religious status of the grandchildren of intermarried couples reflects the Jewish community’s attitudes toward intermarriage in the 1960’s and 1970’s, if not earlier.  In other words, today’s statistics tell us more about the past than the present.

This got me thinking:  the children or grandchildren of intermarried couples who were excluded from Jewish life left Judaism.  If you tell someone that they are bad or a disappointment, then they will leave!  Of course the statistics are as they are – we created this reality.

Imagine the following attitude:  What a gift to live in a time and place where we can forge deep, loving connections with people who are not Jewish.  Think of what these fellow travelers can teach us.  Think of the ways that we may be able to enrich their lives with the wisdom of our teachings and the power of our rituals.  Think of all those who may choose to join the Jewish people.

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Rabbinic Formation and the Israel Experience

As I’ve spoken to individuals who are interested in becoming rabbis, I’ve learned that in the majority of cases, it is the individual’s experiences in Jewish contexts rather than their study of Judaism that brings them to rabbinical school.  The study is crucial; but identity is formed through experiences.

This statement may sound obvious.  A powerful experience that involves interaction with other human beings is more likely to be life changing than a great read.  In a recent survey of our alumni, rabbis indicated that internships with supervision served as the most effective learning modality while at seminary.  Real life experience.

Now I’d like to apply this observation to the way in which rabbinical schools in the United States have constructed their Year in Israel programs.

Thirty years ago, the vast majority of rabbis-in-training had been to Israel before rabbinical school.  Their relationship to Israel was rather uncomplicated and internal struggles focused on the call to aliyah and diaspora guilt.  In this context, spending a year studying in Jerusalem made sense because it enabled students to study with great Jewish thinkers and to immerse themselves in the cycles of Jewish time.

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