Teaching through Personal Stories: Congregational Rabbis and Teaching Adults

Fall, 2013

Source: Journal of Jewish Education, Volume 79, Issue 4, pages 432-452


As educators, synagogue rabbis frequently devote a great deal of time to teaching adults. Yet little empirical research exists about what they do. This study describes and analyzes the teaching of three congregational rabbis who have excellent reputations as teachers of adults. In particular, it focuses on how these rabbis incorporate personal stories into their teaching and examines the ways that sharing such stories is integral to their teaching approaches. Rabbis who use stories in their teaching potentially occupy a crucial place in the Jewish identity development of their adult learners. This study offers rabbinical seminaries recommendations for how to incorporate the results of the research into their curriculum.

Implications for Practice


Among the most significant implications derived from this research are the following observations:

  • Rabbis must be comfortable drawing upon their own personal experiences, and be able to reflect on them as part of how they teach adults. They need to learn how to synthesize experience and reflection and transmit that synthesis via storytelling to their learners in intentional ways that illuminate the particular subject of study.
  • Rabbis need to teach so that they facilitate the adult learners’ ability to delve into their personal experiences and share them in story form; the ability to hear the stories of their learners serves as a trigger for deeper exploration, both personal and communal, of the various topics that the rabbis teach.
  • Rabbis need to have a basic understanding of the dynamics of adult development and the concerns that age cohorts and gender differences present in the context of their teaching. The use of story is a powerful means toward situating developmental concerns within a broader and deeper framework. Knowing something about developmental theories can also help the rabbis see that the kinds of questions their adult learners pose may be related to these developmental phases.

These suggestions point to a sophisticated skill for rabbis, one that moves well beyond subject matter expertise alone. Rather than a hit or miss or haphazard introduction of personal experiences into their teaching, if rabbis seek to prioritize certain kinds of stories, then they require a heightened reflective capacity related to their own life-story. This includes being able to sift through their experiences, and distilling how those experiences may apply to their teaching, in order to determine the best ways to bring these stories to their learners. They must model that process for their learners so that the latter, in turn, will see how to make sense of their experiences in the context of Jewish education. While some rabbis may succeed in doing these things through trial and error over time, many more would certainly benefit from a comprehensive focus in rabbinical school on the relationship of personal experience, identity, and development to teaching adults.

Updated: Nov. 28, 2013