October 17, 2018

Shalhevet curriculum breaks the mold

The clock read 7:31 a.m.

“Uh, oh!” Noam Weissman, the principal of Shalhevet High School, called as he looked down the spiral staircase that spans the height of the school. 

A student at the bottom of the stairs broke into a run: At 7:32 a.m., the doors to the Hashkama (Early) Minyan are shut and locked, not by any teacher’s mandate, but according to a charter written and signed by students.

The latecomer barely made it, slipping into the standing-room-only prayer hall with less than a minute to go.

Engaging students in their own education is at the center of a makeover of Shalhevet’s Jewish studies curriculum over the past eight years engineered by Weissman and his college roommate, Rabbi David Stein. 

“All we’re saying is, ‘You invest yourself in the experience,’ ” Weissman said, standing outside the prayer hall.

The students who showed up at dawn — 35 minutes before classes begin — are clearly buying whatever Weissman and Stein are selling them. And now, so are other Jewish schools.

Though developed at Shalhevet, the curriculum they wrote — called LaHav, an acronym for Leadership through Halachic Values that also means, in Hebrew, a blade of grass — is run by the two men, and has now outgrown the Fairfax Avenue high school. As of the current academic year, LaHav is rolling out in three other Jewish schools in the United States, as well as one in Melbourne. 

In addition, Shalhevet is partnering with AMIT — a network of 110 religious Zionist schools, youth villages and programs in Israel — to incorporate some elements of Weissman and Stein’s curriculum into its classrooms. In January, Weissman traveled to Israel to workshop the coursework for 10 AMIT principals, and in March, more than a dozen AMIT principals came to the United States for another training seminar.

As far as the two can tell, their effort is something of a first.

Although Jewish studies curricula exist, they usually consist of vocabulary words, some texts and a list of basic skills to teach, Weissman said. What’s still lacking, though, is a coherent method of teaching that builds from year to year, much like a math or history curriculum. Instead, Judaic studies classes tend to involve flipping through source books, translating the Hebrew and reading some commentary. 

“That’s not called a curriculum,” he said. “That’s called reading the Gemara.”

So eight years ago, when Weissman, now 30, first came to Shalhevet on a yearlong Yeshiva University teaching fellowship, he decided he wanted to try a different method for his 11th-grade Talmud class.

He approached his supervisor to explain: He wanted to teach Talmud by organizing classes around big ideas, philosophical questions — to imagine lessons as discussions rather than lectures. Instead of marching through holy books page by page, he hoped to arm students with analytical tools that could serve them outside the classroom. 

And he remembers how the supervisor, whom he declined to name, told him, “If you weren’t in this fellowship, I would put you on a plane back to New York.”

But the then-head of school decided to humor him, so Weissman began drafting lesson plans and discussion prompts in a way that would stick in students’ minds and encourage them to apply their learning outside the classroom to situations in their everyday lives. The idea was to write a curriculum that aligns with Shalhevet’s vision: “To create religious Zionists and menschy Jews,” he said.

He called Stein, who was still studying for his ordination in New York, to bounce ideas off him and get help with source material. 

The method seemed to be working.

“The kids were on fire,” Weissman said. “The kids wanted to learn more.”

The students weren’t the only ones who were sold.

“A couple months in,” Stein, 31, said, “I called him and said, ‘Noam, this is really important. Let’s do this.’ ”

Later that day, Weissman called back: The administration had asked him to expand the curriculum into a broader program. The school-wide curriculum they eventually developed begins with training in traditional text analysis but moves on to broader topics such as women in Judaism and rabbinic authority. Texts are chosen to illuminate these larger ideas, and students are meant to learn halachic decision-making rather than merely memorizing passages and Jewish laws.

Five years ago, when Rabbi Ari Segal joined Shalhevet as head of school, LaHav was still in its infancy, Segal said. 

Segal described his leadership style as identifying talent and letting it run wild. And there was little reason not to try LaHav school-wide: Shalhevet was hemorrhaging students and money, with $18 million in debt and a value proposition to the community that was unclear, Segal said.

“I saw what [Weissman] could do and I thought it had potential to really transform the school,” he said.

Now, five years later, Weissman is the school’s principal, Stein is a teacher there and LaHav is the entire Judaic studies curriculum at Shalhevet. 

Classes tend to focus on big questions.

During a recent class, Stein, a thin, charismatic teacher with salt-and-pepper hair and piercing blue eyes, had the students look at a number of different translations of a text they had produced during a class he had missed. The lesson, he said, was: “When we try to figure it out on our own, it gets a little messy.”

He asked the class, “What do we do in a world with no clear answers?”

For subscribing schools, LaHav lesson plans include teacher’s guides, discussion questions, sources and tests, but also allow educators to upload their own sources and tweak the instructional methods. The result is a Jewish classroom environment that differs from most others.

“Most schools — and certainly schools that I’ve been involved in — teach per volume: ‘This year we’re going to be teaching this book, we’re going to be teaching Talmud, this masechet [tractate],’ ” said Rabbi David Block, who teaches Talmud, Tanakh and Jewish history at Shalhevet.

By contrast, he said, the Shalhevet curriculum asks students to try to “see how different pieces of that experience, or different pieces of the literary corpus, really relate to each other, and really create this beautiful tapestry.”

At the heart of LaHav’s approach is a critical attitude toward Jewish texts that bucks any top-down understanding of halachah.

For instance, in October 2015, when the Rabbinical Council of America voted to approve a policy against the ordination, recognition and hiring of female rabbis in Orthodox congregations, the school gathered together all its upperclassmen to examine the ruling and craft responses based on their knowledge of text and tradition.

“It was saying, ‘Let’s take it away from, you know, the ether, away from just an intellectual exercise and say, ‘Here are real issues facing Jews today, here and now,’ ” said Noey Jacobson, a Tanakh and tefilah [prayer] teacher at Shalhevet.

“We said, ‘OK, this is everything that we’ve learned so far: Does it follow this? Does it go against that?’ ” 11th-grader Rosie Wolkind said. “ ‘What power do these rabbis have to make that decision?’ ”

For her, it was a revelatory moment: “This is something that’s happening right now,” she said. “And that’s something that happened thousands of years ago, and we’re just applying that.”

After a few years of using the curriculum at Shalhevet, Stein and Weissman began discussing LaHav at education conferences, and word started to spread about their program. So they set out to find a way to export the coursework to other schools, while recognizing that the same instructional methods won’t work in every classroom.

“The last thing we wanted is to send someone a box of books and say, ‘Call us at the end of the year if you want to re-order,’ ” Stein said. “At the same time, we didn’t want to dictate what works for each school.”

The answer to that predicament — the collaborative environment of LaHav’s website, lahavlearning.com, where participating teachers can upload their own material — enables teachers to cleave to a general lesson plan while adding their unique touch, thus tailoring it to the culture of any given school. 

Weissman noted that he and Stein owe a great deal to a permissive attitude in the school that allowed them to conduct what some would consider a radical experiment on Shalhevet’s students. 

He emphasized that LaHav is not the be-all and end-all of Jewish education — just an approach that has worked well for them. 

“This is not the answer to an incredible Gemara experience,” Weissman said. “But in our experience, it is an answer.”