Each year, the New York-based Covenant Foundation offers its Pomegranate award to several early-career Jewish educators.
This year, one of the five winners was Aryeh Laufer, who is head of STEM at the Idea School in Tenafly.
Mr. Laufer, 26, came to the Idea School in 2017, when he was still an undergraduate at Yeshiva College, where he majored in psychology and minored in Jewish studies.
Back then, the Idea School still was a dream.
“He was with us an intern the summer before we opened the school,” Tikvah Wiener of Teaneck, the school’s founder and head, said. “I remember sitting in my dining room with him and planning.”
Mr. Laufer had reached out to Ms. Wiener after taking a course at YU’s Azrieli School of Education in project-based learning — the Idea School’s educational focus— and finding himself compelled by that kind of education.
“I had been very frustrated by my own college experience being about textbooks and tests,” Mr. Laufer said. “My favorite courses were when I did experiments or did a presentation that was interesting to me. I started to realize more and more that my own high school educational experience was so limited. I was very excited to see what Tikvah was creating.”
After graduation, he joined the Idea School in its inaugural year.
“I had all these ideas about what Jewish education was and what I’d like to impart,” he said. “That all broke down very fast once I met the students. Whatever ideas you have about what you want to teach are all nice and good, until you run up against meeting students where they’re at.”
His first class put the students front and center. Dubbed an “inquiry beit midrash,” it started with the students’ questions about Judaism. His job as the faculty member in the room was to help the students explore their interests and curiosity about their religion. The beit midrash “was really successful in bringing students to a place of having more interest in Judaism,” he said.
In the second year of the Idea School, Mr. Laufer helped students plan a food truck.
“It’s still one of the projects students remember most fondly, because they knew they were part of a community and their learning mattered,” he said. “Even if you teach the exact same content and skills, it’s a fundamentally different thing if instead of studying a curriculum that someone decided we need to learn, you learn the laws of kashrut because how else are you going to operate a kosher food truck.”
Unfortunately, the food truck never happened. It had been scheduled to start operations in April of 2020; covid arrived in March and the school shut down in-person classes.
When the school reopened for in-person classes that fall, for the 2020-2021 school year, Mr. Laufer had another chance to experiment with student-led education. He ran a “democratic classroom, where students worked for 40 minutes to create their projects as a class,” he said. “The rule was that the students had to produce something of value to display. In all decisions pertaining to the class, students and teachers each got one vote. One student created a computer from scratch. One created a book about video games. One created his own board game. I didn’t teach any of it — I helped facilitate it, put them in touch with people who could help them.
“In the second half of the year, the class decided to do a create a video game together as a group project. They had to learn how to work together as a group. Which decisions should they have everyone agree to? They learned that if they always needed everyone’s approval for every decision, they’re not going to make progress. They really learned how to talk with each other in respectful ways, how to respect each other and figure out when to make a decision to move forward.
“When the students faced the decision of what the main storyline of the video game would be, there were two extreme positions. They spent 30 minutes hashing it out. At the end, they all agreed it was a better game for having done that and incorporated everyone’s ideas.”
This year, Mr. Laufer is co-teaching a course in applied physics. Its focus: Creating safer and better football helmets. “We’re trying to affect the world through working through real-world projects,” he said. He also teaches engineering and is co-teaching an Israel education course, “where students are going to create an exhibit representing their understanding of Israel. They’re looking at unexplored narratives, beyond what you get from the classic political sphere.”
Mr. Laufer grew up in Lawrence, one of Long Island’s Five Towns, and his own high school education was traditional. He was valedictorian at the Yeshiva of Far Rockaway in Queens, where the curriculum stressed Talmud study. Extracurricular learning — museum trips and travel with his grandparents — had a big impact on him.
One of his grandfathers, Rabbi Daniel Laufer, was a physicist at Bell Labs; the other, Rabbi Israel Singer, led the World Jewish Congress for two decades.
In his application for the Covenant Foundation’s Pomegranate Prize, Mr. Laufer said, he wrote about his desire to continue exploring the idea of a democratic beit midrash.
“I hope to create a network of people to explore the implications of this inquiry space and democratic learning space,” he said “What does it look like when our students are not just learning about the debates between Hillel and Shammai, but when we’re asking out students to engage in Jewish debates? What would it be like to enter into our history of arguments and tradition and ask them to have a voice in how Judaism is practiced nowadays?
“If we don’t meet the young Jewish people where they’re at, and if we don’t find it within us to learn to trust them, the more we will lose the students who are best equipped to meet this new world. If we want our students to trust us, that there’s wisdom in our heritage and our Jewish experience throughout the ages, we also need to find it within us to learn to trust them that there’s value and knowledge in the new.”
Ms. Wiener said she was “deeply honored and grateful” that the Covenant Foundation recognized Mr. Laufer.
She praised Mr. Laufer for being a learner, and for being empathetic.
“Learning is always key for any teacher, particularly in this kind of educational model, where you can be in a situation where you don’t know how to do one aspect of your project,” she said.
“When you’re doing project-based learning with a whole student approach, you have to have deep empathy for everything the student is bringing to the table,” she continued. “If a student is going through a difficult phase and that student is bringing that to the classroom, Aryeh is incredibly sensitive to that.
“That also makes him very successful as a teacher.”