The Holistic Student

The Holistic Student

The educational system we all know was designed deliberately. It might come as a surprise, though, that the progression of classes in math and science comes from only one -  mostly irrelevant - criterion: how to impart information in a way that would lead a student towards earning a doctorate in the field and becoming a professor.

Needless to say, most high school students will not end up becoming professors, so the seemingly arbitrary organization of classes may not have their best interests at heart. Students proceed from algebra to geometry and jump back into algebra for what appears to be no good reason at all.

Of course, we do not challenge the reasons for this specific order of classes. However, we might, once we consider that math professors of The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics developed it in the 1950s, and it became an embedded part of the national math agenda in perpetuity.

Science classes are arranged this way, too, starting with the study of microorganisms and working up in size to the study of people. Even the STEM movement works on changing tactics, but not curriculum strategy. The reasoning behind these decisions is irrelevant to a high school student’s intellectual development, and it may not always produce the best outcomes.

This sort of division makes little sense for most students and serves only to confuse the majority.

The study of Judaics faces a similar nonsensical problem. When constructing what we know as the typical Jewish studies curriculum, educators designed a system for preparing experts, not for educating our children.

To date, the results have been dismal.

Failure to address what we call the holistic student takes much of the blame.

To understand the holistic student, teachers must look beyond the typical classroom. A student, so much more than just a vessel for information, deserves treatment as a nascent whole being, growing with individual feelings, motivations and struggles. Addressing only an academic subsection of thee individual rejects the distinct nature of the being.

Focusing on the holistic student means less emphasis on grades. Grades as we know them today developed from the Post-Industrial Revolution educational model. In this ineffective model, education imitates conveyor belts and factory designs in part to prepare the masses for factory or office life.  Because of this, the model focuses on the end result, not the process of formation. To assign grades in this factory model, the teacher simply assesses the relative level of each finished product to separate better from worse. 

For Judaics, there is a fatal flaw in this plan. A system in which all students get an A devalues the achievement, so an A grade only has value if few students receive it. In the public school world, this culminates in strict grading structures where no more than ¼ may receive an A in a class, pitting students against each other to compete for the coveted high grades. In the world of Jewish education, this fierce competition contradicts the goals of Judaic classes: everyone must succeed, lest the Jewish people fail.   In the end, treating a student holistically results in a student with greater strengths, a stronger identity, and the ability to make meaning of the world.

Schools can help students embark on this journey by guiding them through the initial phases of self-recognition – getting to know who you are and what you’re good at.

If class levels and grading were determined by singing ability, there would be a completely different set of students in honors and regular-track classes, and a different set of students who earned A grades. Because natural-born voice talent provided the base assessment, students would be penalized for a lack of singing ability and inner sense of rhythm. If that determined a student’s placement in English or math, then that would be absurd.

Similarly, knowledge of Hebrew is not correlated with the grasp of big ideas and concepts in Judaism. Though it happens often, it makes little sense to divide Judaics classes by language aptitude. Instead, we needlessly punish students who do not yet have Hebrew skills by placing them in a class that provides the wrong level of challenge, and they miss out on an opportunity for growth.

Rather than focusing on a narrow path to academic success, Jewish education should start from a student’s existing skillset, whether or not that skillset is one traditionally given importance in the classroom. A more successful model would focus a student’s energy on their strong points and strengthen those further. They can learn to use those strengths to compensate for their weaknesses, much like how adults in the real world learn to operate.  When we tell our students that they have to be good at everything, we admire generalists and discourage others from developing to their full potential. 

For example, an empathetic student who excels at reading people can use those abilities to compensate for a lesser skill in decoding text. In Jewish life, dealing with other people well is more important than skill at decoding Talmud. However, empathy lacks a lofty reward in the average classroom.  By denying a legitimate outlet to use the student’s strengths, the student receives a message about value that serves to discourage achievement.  

Ultimately, caring about the holistic student necessitates prioritizing identity development over textual engagement.  While the two do not mutually exclude each other, the notion that Judaism bases its construct exclusively on text loses the core of community and the soul of the individual. 

As we implement these changes to shift the focus towards the holistic student, it helps to remember the fundamental goal of education: to help students make meaning of the world.  In the end, we don’t care whether our children are great science students or get an A in calculus as much as we want them to have a purpose in life, a strong identity and excellent meaning-making abilities.  How much more so in Judaic studies.

A Conversation with Ruchel Green, HaKaveret Designer

Let's check in with HaKaveret Designer Ruchel Green, teacher and technology specialist at the Silver Spring Learning Center in Silver Spring, Maryland. 

Have you found it challenging being the only HaKaveret Designer working in early education?

Right now is the research phase, and we've been so focused on different introspections of research. We've unearthed so many ideas and getting out of our own bubbles, so the early childhood piece has really played a part in that. Everybody is bringing their own experiences and it's nice to give that early childhood piece a voice in the discussion.

What inspired you to get involved with Jewish education?

For me, it was watching both my parents who are fantastic Jewish educators. I also had really strong teachers who showed me the value of Jewish education. 

What do you find most enjoyable working with young learners?

Without a doubt, it's that lightbulb moment when I see a student grasp an idea and make a connection. That's the best. You know you got through to them. I also love knowing that I'm passing down our heritage to future generations and hopefully we are creating lifelong learners.



Jewish Literacy - Unfortunately, it's Not Enough

Jewish Literacy - Unfortunately, it's Not Enough

Recently, eJewishPhilanthropy published an article about Jewish literacy. We wanted to share this article because it underlines two JEIC focus points.

  1. Heads of School (or Principals) lead and shape culture at their school either by engagement or disengagement. In order to create a more engaging environment, the leaders need more God centered decision making, motivation, and tool sets.
  2. School leaders who value the primacy of a relationship with God will generate a culture with a vast vocabulary, deep self worth, and sensitivity to the Divine in this world.

We encourage you to read the full article and share your thoughts

A Conversation with Jeff Kiderman, HaKaveret Designer

A Conversation with Jeff Kiderman, HaKaveret Designer

Over the next several months, we want to share a closer look to our HaKaveret Designers. This month we spoke with Jeff Kiderman, Executive Director of the Affordable Jewish Education Project (AJE), in New York City. 

What do you find most enjoyable about working in Jewish education?

I think that Jewish day school education is one of the bed rocks of the Jewish community, and to be able to spend each day trying to make it better and more accessible is something I'm really lucky to be able to do.

What are some of the barriers to accessibility in Jewish day schools?

Well, affordability is definitely my thing. The problem of affordability has been around for at least twenty years, and while I think we would all agree that we would love every Jewish child to have the opportunity to have a Jewish day school education, regardless of whether or not they can afford it, our system isn't necessarily achieving that goal. There are Jewish children that aren't being born because of the fear of the cost of raising them and educating them. In addition, Jewish day school education is not appealing to a vast majority of Jewish children and families. 

What have you been up to as a HaKaveret designer?

The focus has been on learning. Taking subjects that we think need more insight and seeing what is already out there on those subjects. We chose some of the more interesting areas to look into and we're trying to learn as much as possible so we can be best equipped to come up with good ideas at our next retreat. 

Has anything surprised you?

The main thing that surprised me is how little research there already is. On most topics we're looking at, there's really not a lot of studies that have already been done. 

What does your dream day school look like?

My dream school would consist of three things:

  1. So exciting and so good that everybody would want to go there - even people that don't care about Jewish education. 
  2. A school that really is affordable and accessible to the entire community.
  3. A school that's a great school because its Jewish.

Read more about Jeff Kiderman and AJE in this recent New York Jewish Week article


Response: Teaching Rabbinics Early

Response: Teaching Rabbinics Early

In Rabbi Goldberg’s recent blog post, he argues that, contrary to popular belief, Rabbinics as a study does not require text; it actually begins with the youngest, pre-literate learners in the form of Jewish values, holidays and traditions. He posits that neglecting to acknowledge that these rituals and ideals come from rabbinic understandings and teaching them in a more deliberate manner is doing a disservice to these young students. I agree, and would expand upon that even further.

It’s important to understand that every teacher holds some underlying assumptions, many of which are subconscious and therefore unarticulated. By fostering a growing mindfulness among teachers that Rabbinics is foundational to many Jewish early childhood and early education lessons, it opens the door to a more effective introduction to Judaism.

The Oral Law has its name for a reason, and we as modern teachers can continue that sacred tradition of passing it down without text. Particularly for our younger students, there is an infinite amount to be learned from spoken word, ritual, ethical behavior, attitudes, dress and symbols.

Teachers should also ensure not simply to relay our tradition, but to include the students in it. The more students feel like a link in the 5000-year chain, the more they will connect and feel ownership over Judaism, and with that, an obligation to pass it on. But that alone is not enough - it’s also important at this age for a student to develop a relationship with G-d. It is a teacher’s duty to treat the student as a partner in the study of Rabbinics and help them along their struggle to understand and relate to the Divine. It is this final piece that is crucial to propelling Judaism into the next generation, and it must start at this young age.

Click here to read Rabbi Feld's full response. 

PRESS RELEASE: JEIC Announces Day School Educators' Challenge

PRESS RELEASE: JEIC Announces Day School Educators' Challenge

Chevy Chase, MD (November 30, 2017) - The Jewish Education Innovation Challenge (JEIC), sponsored in part by the Mayberg Foundation, is soliciting proposals to pilot innovative educational models in Jewish day schools. The objective is to identify and fund experimentation with new methodologies that foster and reward student effort and enthusiasm, teacher proficiency, and school effectiveness in creating the next generation of Jews.

To empower educators and administrators to disrupt the status quo, JEIC awards multiple grants up to $50,000 each over two years to programs that represent a paradigm shift in Jewish education. Throughout the grant period, grantees will have access to our educational and research staff to help their pilot programs succeed. Selected programs must be revolutionary, practical, sustainable, accountable and scalable.

Programs must meet the following criteria:

  • Revolutionary: The program should be founded in Torah ideals instead of secular educational models.
  • Sustainable: The program should be practical and designed to thrive over time.
  • Accountable: The program should stay within budget and include measurable results.
  • Scalable: The program should be easily adaptable, so that other schools can replicate its successes.

Grants awarded through the Challenge are open to any Jewish day school (grades 6-12) in the United States and Canada. Eligibility and submission guidelines can be found at the Jewish Education Innovation Challenge website:

The Jewish Education Innovation Challenge (JEIC) is a grantmaking initiative designed to disrupt complacency and encourage innovation in Jewish day school education. By rewarding and collaborating with talented innovators, JEIC seeks to improve the way Jewish values, literacy, practice and belief are transferred to the next generation. The project’s ultimate success will be the creation and implementation of revolutionary, practical educational models that are sustainable, accountable and scalable.

HaKaveret Design Team Retreat Launch

HaKaveret Design Team Retreat Launch

Last month, we shared the exciting news about launching HaKaveret: JEIC Team Challenge. HaKaveret will convene a group of ten talented, creative and motivated individuals from around the country to form an innovation design team with a focus on creating a new vision in Jewish education. 

Earlier this month, the design team met for the first time for a three-day retreat in Silver Spring, MD. The ten Designers had the opportunity to meet and get to know each other, as well as hear about their expectations and aspirations for the project.

Facilitated by Lisa Lepson, Executive Director at Joshua Venture Group, the team immediately got to the difficult first tast of defining the problems facing Jewish Day Schools today. The designers discussed a wide range of areas which they felt could significantly impact the quality of Jewish education including:

  • understanding teacher motivations and teacher support
  • board member selection, activity, and its impact on school administration
  • the role of parent involvement in schools
  • student empowerment and emotional development
  • the culture of a school developed by the above areas

Now that the designers have had the opportunity to talk about the problems, they are prepared to begin developing solutions.

With their work cut out for them, the Designers will now break into small teams to tackle these issues head on. Designers left feeling motivated and inspired to create real change. We look forward to sharing more on HaKaveret soon.

HaKaveret: JEIC Team Challenge is operated by Joshua Venture Group and funded jointly by the Mayberg Foundation, Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah and Arnee R. and Walter A. Winshall.

JEIC Grantee Shalhevet in the News

JEIC Grantee Shalhevet in the News

In 2013, JEIC awarded Shalhevet High School $50,000 for their "LaHaV" project. Their goal was to revolutionize how Jewish high school students relate to their heritage by reimagining how to communicate the richness and relevance of Judaic studies. We are proud to report that Shalhevet has been doing just that. As of this academic year, their innovative curriculum is rolling out in three other schools in the United States, as well as one in Melbourne. Recently featured in Jewish Journal, Shalhevet's curriculum is truly inventive. We look forward to their continued success. Click here to read the full Jewish Journal article. 

Teacher Development: It's Not Just Teaching Teachers

Teacher Development: It's Not Just Teaching Teachers

Teacher development is directly linked to teacher retention and effectiveness. So why doesn’t teacher development get the attention it so desperately needs? A misunderstood and difficult topic, teacher development should aim to create culture, not simply teach teachers.

PRESS RELEASE: JEIC Announces New Team Challenge

PRESS RELEASE: JEIC Announces New Team Challenge

The Jewish Education Innovation Challenge announced today that is has launched a new initiative aimed at revitalizing Jewish day schools through reintroducing the dynamic of beneficent experimentation. For the first time, HaKaveret: JEIC Team Challenge will convene a group of talented, creative and motivated individuals from around the country to form an innovation design team with a focus on creating a new vision in Jewish education.

A Courageous Transformation

A Courageous Transformation

JEIC is seeing more and more courageous, innovative educators making strides towards transforming schools. Steve Freedman, the head of school at Hillel Day School of Metropolitan Detroit, is an example of this type of new leader.  

What Does Classroom Success Look Like?

What Does Classroom Success Look Like?

We don’t need to compare our students to each other. We need to compare them to themselves. If everyone has mastered the material, has internalized and connected with it and can take it home with them, then everyone succeeds.

Designing an Inspired Jewish Future

Designing an Inspired Jewish Future

Parents send their children to Jewish day schools in order to instill in them a strong Jewish identity. The theory is that, through the teaching of Jewish subjects, they will achieve an understanding of Jewish tradition, an internalization of Jewish values and a sense of Jewish pride. For decades, we have all assumed that this works. But what if there’s a better way?



Jewish Education Innovation Challenge announced today a new initiative it will launch with the help of three new partners. The new initiative represents the third phase of JEIC’s mission to revolutionize the Jewish day school education system, reigniting a passion for Jewish learning in the next generation.