August 19, 2019

Soulful Education program offers students, teachers personal meaning

With thousands of years of history, wisdom and tradition to impart, it’s easy for Jewish schools and educators to sometimes forget to take the time to reflect upon them.

This is a problem that Rabbi Aryeh Ben David, who at the time was working as the rabbinical educational consultant for Hillel International, set out to solve in 2006 when he started Ayeka: Center for Soulful Education. He began to educate teachers and rabbis on how they could help students take their learning to a whole new level — relating to the text and thinking about it in their everyday lives. 

“Students could connect their minds but not their hearts,” said Ben David, who lives in Israel.“We focused on bringing the education to their hearts and into their lives and making it transformational.”

This past November, for the first time, Ben David made a few stops at Los Angeles schools and synagogues to offer his Soulful Education training. Shalhevet High School teachers took part in the full program, while educators and rabbis from Milken Community Schools, American Jewish University (AJU), IKAR, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, Sinai Temple and Temple Beth Am participated in shorter sessions. 

“It was really great that everyone did it at the beginning, when school just started,” Ben David said. “Then, they could really implement the program and tweak it during the year.”  

For a total of 12 hours on a Friday and Sunday, Shalhevet educators dove into the Ayeka curriculum and “learned a methodology for teaching to the souls of our students,” said Rabbi Ari Schwarzberg, a Judaic studies teacher at the Modern Orthodox school. “Ayeka equipped us with an approach and model that will allow us to bolster the rigorous learning in our class and allow it to not only be engaging, but also deeply soulful and affective.” 

The Ayeka training program consists of a 100-page workbook and videos on the Torah, Talmud, Kabbalah and Jewish thinkers. There are also online sessions that teachers can utilize before and after they do the in-person meetings, Ben David said. 

A sample Ayeka lesson plan includes a Torah portion, along with analysis from a rabbi and reflection questions. For Genesis, Chapter 3, in which Adam and Eve hide from God behind a tree in the Garden of Eden, the study guide includes the biblical text and an excerpt from one of Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook’s writings. The guide asks what “trees” people in today’s society tend to hide behind, how life would be different if people emerged from behind their trees and in what ways they could improve their spiritual lives. 

Teachers already are incorporating what they learned into their lessons. Gary Shapiro, a Jewish studies teacher at Milken, said that after hearing the talk, he introduced a lesson about Adam and Eve’s sin to his students with a discussion about what causes people to do harmful or bad things. 

“They generated a long and sophisticated list. Because of Aryeh’s session, I then added a part to the exercise where students had to reflect on something they themselves did wrong in the last month according to their own standards, and what caused this to occur,” he said. “Students seemed very engaged, and participation was high.” 

Miriam Heller Stern, dean of AJU’s Graduate Center for Education, said the experience that Ayeka’s teachings offered education and first- and second-year rabbinical students were invaluable.

“A truly effective educator teaches from a place of self-awareness in relationship to the subject. She cannot expect her students to be transformed by the learning if she does not take the time to herself be transformed by the learning,” she said. “Rabbi Aryeh Ben David’s approach reminds us as educators that we must take the time engage in self-reflection in order to make the learning personal, relational, meaningful.” 

Along with the fact that students are thinking about the text in different ways now, Ben David said that teachers bond after they go through his training. According to Schwarzberg, that’s exactly what happened at Shalhevet. 

“I think we emerged as a much closer and more connected unit, which will make us better professionals,” he said. 

And instead of finishing one lesson and moving on to the next one, Schwarzberg said he and his colleagues are figuring out ways to bring deeper meaning to them. 

“We are processing with students and getting them to thoughtfully consider what they learned on a more personal and spiritual plane. It may sound fluffy or hokey, but because it comes on the heels of substantive learning, there is tremendous value.”