Rav Johnny Solomon is a teacher at Machon Ma’ayan and Midreshet Torat Chessed, the Director of Educational Content for Jewish Interactive, and a Jewish Education Consultant to numerous organizations both in Israel and the Diaspora.
Over the past three decades the ‘Year in Israel’ has developed into a form of post-high-school, with the primary reason for young Orthodox men and women choosing to attend Yeshiva or Seminary being to know and to grow, ie. to further their Torah knowledge, and to increase their Torah observance.
As numerous studies, such as those conducted by Shalom Berger (1997) and the Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education (2010) show, the ‘Year in Israel’ is highly impactful, with significant proportions of Yeshiva & Seminary graduates indicating measurable increases in almost every area of religious practice.
As a teacher at a women’s seminary I am very interested in the process of religious change among my students, and especially, in the role that teachers play in fostering religious change. However, one particular point made by Steven Eisenberg in his thought-provoking study on ‘Spiritual and Religious Mentoring – The role of Rabbis and Teachers as social supporters amongst Jewish Modern Orthodox High School graduates spending a year of study in Israel’ (2010) particularly struck a chord.
According to Eisenberg, teachers “should recognize the important role that social support plays in the overall religious development of their students” (Eisenberg, 2010, p. 81). He gives examples of how “teachers may invite the students to go on a walk, a hike, or even to cook together on a Thursday night” (Eisenberg, 2010, p. 81), and he then writes that “the long-term impact that these seemingly mundane activities have should not be underestimated” (Eisenberg, 2010, p. 81).
Since one of the institutions where I teach places considerable emphasis on informal student-teacher relationships, I decided to use a case study that I had undertaken as part of my Masters in Jewish Education to explore this topic further. While I learnt many things from my case study, I believe that the following five lessons are worthwhile sharing:
- RELIGIOUS CHANGE & RELIGIOUS COUNSEL: Though it is true that the jewel in the crown of the seminary experience is what is taught in classes, individual conversations where teachers provide religious mentoring and counsel are the medium where most students figure out how to implement what they’ve learnt into their lives. As one interviewee put it, religious change is ‘put into practical terms inside class, and put into perspective outside of class.’
- SOMETIMES WE NEED TO REACH OUT: We often think that we shouldn’t meddle with the religious lives of another unless we are invited to do so, and there is no doubt that uninvited meddling has its limits! But what I learned from my case study is that while some girls will ask for religious counsel, many really appreciate it when a teacher proactively reaches out to them to ask if they want to talk about an idea that was discussed in class.
- RELIGIOUS COUNSEL SHOWS THAT WE CARE: The feedback that I received from the interviews I conducted is that religious change occurs when a student feels valued, and that religious counsel is a way in which for a teacher to acknowledge a student and show that they care. When a teacher speaks to a student outside of the classroom the teacher-student dynamic changes, and this more relaxed conversation is hugely important for religious change.
- NO PLACE LIKE HOME: Religious change is risky and it takes courage, which means that it is most likely to occur in an environment where a student feels at home. So, the more we can do to ensure that students feel at home in seminary the better. In particular, when students come to our houses for Shabbat and are able to relax, these are great opportunities to talk with them and to explore their life choices.
- RELIGIOUS CHANGE IS A PROCESS, NOT A MOMENT: While Yeshivah students may be able to point to a turning-point conversation where they committed themselves to religious change, most Seminary students relate to religious change in terms of a process. Reasons for this may be due to a difference in risk-taking between men and women or the different ways that men and women experience religious struggle. It is for this reason that religious change amongst Seminary students occurs through multiple conversations rather than single conversations. So, while we need to make opportunities to talk with students, we must also make opportunities to follow up with students too.
Religious change by seminary students is most prevalent among students who are receptive and searching for change in settings and environments that support and encourage religious change. These are settings where insightful lessons are taught by teachers who embody what they teach and who are available and willing to speak with students outside of the classroom. Beyond this, other ‘seemingly mundane activities’ involving both teachers and students are also of value since they create a safe, supportive and home-like environment. In contrast to male yeshiva students, not all female seminary students who underwent religious change could point to a singular turning point conversation, thereby highlighting possible differences in how male and female students make decisions in terms of their religious lifestyle. Lastly, in each instance when seminary graduates reflected upon important conversations that occurred in their ‘Year in Israel’ it was the time and attention given to them by their teachers, more than necessarily the content of the conversation, which was the significant factor in nurturing their religious growth & change.