Even the best teachers appreciate learning new teaching strategies. Or having their own ideas reinforced. Or meeting colleagues from around the country. So it’s no surprise then that the Bergen County yeshiva high school teachers who attended the recent YHShare conference spoke so highly of the experience.
Shifra Schapiro, a Judaic studies instructor at Teaneck’s Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls, not only participated in the conference but arranged for other teachers from Ma’ayanot to be there too. “We decided that we should all go, not have one person go and report back,” she said.
The experience was extremely valuable, Ms. Schapiro said. “We had the opportunity to network with other teachers, from Los Angeles and Chicago, as well as this area. We got to hear about cutting-edge tools from educators who strive every day to improve the way we teach and reach our students.”
Ms. Schapiro intends to keep the interchange going. “I made a connection with someone from Chicago to follow up something we discussed at the conference,” she said.
More than 100 educators representing modern Orthodox high schools from across the United States participated in YHShare, the inaugural conference of yeshiva high school Judaic studies teachers. The two-day conference — designed to facilitate the sharing of innovative pedagogic and curricular ideas — was organized by the Torah Educators Network, a new organization for Jewish educators throughout the country. The first day, which focused on Bible and Jewish philosophy, was held at the Frisch School in Paramus. Day 2 concentrated on Talmud and Jewish history and was based at the Torah Academy of Bergen County in Teaneck.
“Teachers in yeshiva high school classrooms across the country are facing the exact same challenges, and there’s a teacher somewhere who has a creative solution,” the Torah Educators Network’s founder, Rabbi Perry Tirschwell, said. “There must be a venue for those teachers to learn from each other — hence the name ‘YHShare.’”
“I think there have been other attempts to do this, but most of them were arranged by teachers,” Ms. Schapiro said. “It’s hard to sustain an organization and teach at the same time.” Earlier efforts also included “one-offs, or meetings not open to everyone,” she added. “This one was far-reaching and national. It was great. I learned so many things, such as strategies around teaching commentary and how teaching the basics of Judaism to students might be more important in this generation than in previous years.”
Ms. Schapiro already is doing research on this and some of the other topics introduced in TABC teacher Rabbi Howard Jachter’s session, “Teaching Emunah to Modern Orthodox High School Students.” “We need to bring in the basics,” she said. “We can’t assume students know them.”
She also learned about internet resources and gained a new insight into how they can be used, Ms. Schapiro said. She was stimulated by a session on commentary, which asked “why we teach commentary, and what is our goal for teaching a particular commentary.” Nothing she heard surprised her, “but it was a reinforcement, a strengthening and recharging of things.”
Sessions included a good deal of give and take, “and I think the overall tone was one of unity, a desire to achieve the same goals,” she said. Since it is hard for teachers to get away too often, she feels an ongoing online connection would be worthwhile. “I think they’re working on that,” Ms. Schapiro noted.
While the conference was successful in touching on issues that arise in the individual classroom, she suggested that a session on using Torah in relation to social issues, or “how to address students with different challenges using the Torah as a guide,” might be useful. “ Can we contribute to what guidance counselors are doing?” she asked.
Rabbi Jachter is the rabbi of Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck, and is a dayan on the beth din of Elizabeth, where he serves as a get administrator. He also is the author of “Reason To Believe: Rational Explanations of Orthodox Jewish Faith.”
“The goal of the conference was to grow together and become more effective in reaching out to students,” Rabbi Jachter said. His session, which drew about 50 teachers, tried to impart the message that “students will ask questions, and teachers better know how to answer them. We have to fortify teachers with the knowledge they need.” He commended Rabbi Tirschwell on convening a gathering devoted to “styles, strategies, and materials that high school students will find compelling.” If students do not enjoy learning, he said, then it will not be effective.
Rabbi Jachter, who has been teaching for 30 years, said “it never becomes easy — you have to work hard” to find ways to make material meaningful to students. As for borrowing techniques from the outside world, he said, “If it’s useful, we use it.” Some things, however, cannot be integrated into an Orthodox education. “It goes back to Abraham,” he said. “We are not polytheistic [and cannot] accept what is unacceptable. It’s like a semi-permeable membrane. We let in the good but filter out the bad.”
One thing he tried to get across was that “if students are willing to sit down and discuss something at great length, teachers need to be prepared to answer their questions, at length, on belief,” Rabbi Jachter said. “But they also have to be able to provide a sound bite, like Hillel did, when asked to teach the Torah while [the questioner] was standing on one foot.”
During a panel discussion on the “Teacher’s Great Balancing Act: Rigor, Relationships & Religious Growth,” a group of educational leaders answered questions about building a culture of religious growth in the classroom and examining the relationship between academic goals and religious growth. The panel, moderated by Rabbi Dovid Bashevkin, the director of education at International NCSY, included several local religious leaders. Participants included the principal of the Frisch School, Rabbi Eli Ciner; the principal of Ma’ayanot, Rivka Kahan; and the head of school at TABC, Rabbi