This past school year, I served with Rockdale Temple’s Rak Noar class as their Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati fellow. Alongside a very experienced educator, I taught a classroom full of seventh and eighth graders. Engaging with a classroom of B’nai mitzvah–age teens has been a completely new experience for me. As a second-career rabbinic student, and coming from a smaller southern synagogue background, diving into the Rockdale culture was by turns overwhelming and enlightening. Every synagogue has its own culture and shorthand language. Recognizing that and adjusting to it was an important first step. The students and faculty appeared to have been around each other for years. There was a familiarity among groups that I did not feel a part of initially. After a few weeks, however, I saw that my initial perception was overly generic. Of course, not everyone had known each other forever, and I certainly was not the only newcomer. As I reached out, admitting my own shyness and worries to both a few of the newer teachers and some of the students, we made connections that promoted a sense of belonging.
Prior to becoming a rabbinic student, I had several corporate roles, among them corporate trainer. I am completely comfortable sharing information and leading discussions in front of large classrooms and auditoriums. Teaching the students of Rak Noar was completely different. It was smaller and more immediate, and the vulnerabilities of everyone were easier to see. Every Sunday, there were mixed levels of participation and enthusiasm, and, unlike people in the corporate world, these students were not shy about sharing their emotions. You always know if they are engaged. My co-teacher could suggest links between the Mishnah and the students’ daily lives that caused them to open up, extrapolate on those connections, and genuinely engage with the content and each other. Watching this unfold, I learned that sensitivity to the students’ lives outside of Sunday school adds richness to the content we share.
Being handed a curriculum at the beginning of the year was a mixed blessing. The curriculum supplied me with a framework within which to operate and resources from which to draw. Given that I did not feel as deeply versed with mishnah and midrash as I might have liked in order to feel comfortable teaching it, I spent time researching the weekly topics. The additional research also had benefits in my HUC-JIR mishnah and midrash classes.
As I think back on the year, I have almost as many learnings as the minutes invested in preparing for or learning with the students. From the mix of memories from this past year, both high and low points, I pull a common thread: multi-experiential learning was the most engaging for my students. I would not label it multi-tasking! It was more about changing out from a sedentary setting, adding movement and freedom of choice to a set topic. Whether it was teaching about ancient Jewish courts and judges as we decorated gingerbread cookies with custom judge robes in icing, or discussing family and cultural recipe variations while mixing herbs, spices, and other ingredients into pita and roasting it up over an outside fire pit during Boker Balagan, or talking about levels of communication during an intermittently silent marshmallow Tower-of-Babel building class, the students opened up and shared thoughts and commentary while their hands were engaged in a related activity. The barriers to easily sharing thoughts seemed much lower, and the students were less reserved and much more receptive to each other.
This past year has given me a foundation upon which to actively create learning environments for students. This is applicable to any space in which I land. I have fresh experience being the new kid and know I can help others who might be experiencing something similar. I want to design environments in which students of all ages can combine physical action with learning and create positive memories of the time spent there, willingly or otherwise. Every encounter carries with it the possibility of unknown impact. As I engage with the students at my fellowship or the congregants at my student pulpit, I ask the following questions: How do I encourage love of Jewish life and learning? How do I help students feel that they belong where they are, right here and right now? What is the entirety of the message I am transmitting? I know the message is more than just data points about ancient Jewish courts! It includes the space into which the learners enter, the way they are treated, and how self-directed they can be. Being intentional about the time we spend together, scheduled or otherwise, in person or over digital technology, makes a difference in the how we experience that time and what we remember from it. Each of those students will graduate from Sunday school and go on to any number of adventures with their lives. Based on many of the lively discussions we had this past year, I have faith that they will carry forward distinct, happy memories of the Jewish time we spent together, learning.
Edie Yakutis is a second-career rabbinic student based in Cincinnati, who was accepted to HUC-JIR after working with Microsoft Corporation for twenty-three years in a number of customer-facing management roles.