Engaging students in the classroom, particularly post-millennials, is no easy task. In Becoming a Soulful Educator, Rabbi Aryeh Ben David offers teachers an accessible, inspiring guide for connecting with students in a way that will not only help them retain information, but will also touch their souls. Ben David, the founder of Ayeka: Center for Soulful Jewish Education, a former Director of Spiritual Guidance at the Pardes Institute in Jerusalem, and educational consultant for Hillel International, offers his readers his playbook for “plucking the soul strings” of students and providing them with a learning experience that will extend beyond the classroom.
Noting that while many educators might excel at conveying content, and passionately demonstrate their own love for their material, they nonetheless lament their inability to help their students integrate the knowledge they gain from their education into their lives, Ben David seeks to address this issue, one which he admits plagued him throughout many years of his own career. He writes that through discussing one’s own journey as an educator, showing vulnerabilities, and developing relationships with students through a mutual commitment to spiritual growth, a teacher can create a loving, trustful relationship with his or her pupils.
Particularly useful suggestions Ben David offers include utilizing classroom time for “spiritual chavrutot [study partnering],” in which students respond to a prompt that connects what they are learning to their own lives. For example, students, prior to learning the story of Cain and Abel, can and should hear from the teacher about how he or she has struggled with jealousy, be it on the personal or professional level, followed by time for the students to reflect to each other on how they themselves wrestle with jealousy in their own lives. With this emotional preparation, understanding why Cain reacted to the acceptance of Abel’s sacrifice to God suddenly becomes not simply an ancient story of fratricide, but a story that relates to the personal struggles of each and every one of us.
Another helpful tip Ben David offers to help bridge teaching from the classroom to life is through having the students discuss the relationship between the ideas discussed in class and their own circumstances, considering how the knowledge gained can help them grow as people and as Jews.
Ben David’s approach, which he supports with educational methodology as well as spiritual writings from innovative modern Jewish thinkers including Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, is one that will no doubt benefit educators both in formal and informal settings, and serve as a “go to” guide for those looking to take their teaching to a deeper, more personal level, both within themselves and within their students.
Dr. Stu Halpern is Senior Advisor to the Provost of Yeshiva University. He has edited or co-edited 14 books, including Torah and Western Thought: Intellectual Portraits of Orthodoxy and Modernity and Books of the People: Revisiting Classic Works of Jewish Thought, and has lectured in synagogues, Hillels and adult Jewish educational settings across the U.S.