Kevah: Core Principles

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With the goal of maintaining high standards for our work as Kevah Educators, as well as developing a shared language with which we might reflect upon that work together, we offer these “core principles” which are essential to Kevah’s educational model. While part of Kevah’s strength as a dynamic organization is that our accomplished team of educators, by design, represents a diverse set of styles and backgrounds, there are a set of basic qualities that we consistently observe in excellent teachers which we believe should carry across Kevah’s educator network.

1. Professionalism

Your work as a Kevah Educator begins not just when you start teaching, but the moment you walk in the room. Remember that you represent our organization—and more important, the texts you teach—with your every action and encounter with the group, so please strive to maintain the highest level of professionalism.

Examples:

  • Always show up to the group session on time (preferably 5-10 minutes early).
  • Dress can be casual, but should never be sloppy.
  • Try to be as friendly as possible to group participants in the minutes before the class.
  • Source sheets should be clean and attractive.
  • Never use your phone during a lesson.
  • No need to linger too long after the class, but do be prepared to take a few comments or questions afterwards.

 

2. Accessibility

For the most part, our group participants have a high level of general education but are not well-versed in classical Jewish text study. One of the critical tasks of a Kevah Educator—indeed, one of Kevah’s main goals as an organization—is to create an easy path to access and understand the material. This means a Kevah Educator needs to pay constant attention to both the technical barriers that may prove challenging as well as the feelings of comfort and security that are essential for participants to be able to engage.  In general, it is good practice to presume that at least someone in the room knows next to nothing about Jewish tradition and try to provide quick explanations for anything in the texts that may be difficult to understand without a larger frame of reference.

Examples:

  • Start with introductions if there are new members, and then perhaps begin with a general question that anyone in the group could answer intelligently.
  • Give sufficient background information for any text or thinker you introduce.
  • Do not use a Hebrew word without translating it for the group, and be quick to translate Hebrew words that participants may use.
  • Be careful not to introduce a traditional Jewish concept or text with phrases like, “Now, everyone knows that...”

 

3. Flow

We have found that one element essential to successful teaching in Kevah Groups is that the whole experience of the class has a certain “flow.” By this we mean that the subject of the class is clear, that entry into and exit from the topic feels natural and comfortable, and that the time exploring the theme has an arc that lends the feeling of having taken a journey with a fairly clear beginning, middle, and end.

Examples:

  • For the most part, a class should have some kind of “opening.” * Rather than diving right into the text or an extended explanation of your intentions for the class, start with some form of “set induction”: a general question, a story, or an insight for consideration.
  • Movement into and between texts should be thoughtful and deliberate. Participants should have a sense of why they are being asked to look at the next text and what they are being asked to look for, rather than simply being told, for example, “OK, next text.”
  • Finally, the class should also have some kind of “closing.” It is important that participants leave feeling like they arrived somewhere and have something to take from their experience. This could be a final thought, a quote, a summary of the discussion, or some question that points to the next level of the conversation.

(*Note: Of course, classes which move directly through one particular text, week after week, will be less in need of ‘openings’ and ‘closings.’)

 

4. Conversation

There are many ways to teach and to learn, but Kevah is committed to what we call a “conversational educational model.” We want group members to be active participants in their own learning, and that means we want to hear from them and to encourage them to articulate their attempts to understand and interpret Jewish texts. In other words, Kevah Groups are not frontal presentations where learners passively and silently absorb information, but are open discussions where the educator acts as the authoritative expert as well as the facilitator of the group’s conversation.

Examples:

  • Learning in Kevah Groups is usually question-driven. The educator seeks to have participants offer their interpretations, rather than simply offering his or her own.
  • The educator should strive for equal participation amongst group members, and be mindful of participants who talk disproportionately more or less than others.
  • While a class is a conversation, it is a focused conversation that centers around text. Part of the educator’s job is to steer the conversation, to bring participants into dialogue with one another and with the text, and to gently cut off tangents or polemics.

 

5. Authenticity

The Kevah Group is a space for sharing, but it is not merely a time for open-ended group processing. Our mission as an organization, and our job as Kevah Educators, is to introduce people to the richness of classical Jewish texts and the unique joy of Torah study as a practice. With that in mind, all of our groups should be centered around text study. We certainly encourage the harmonious merger of text with other learning modalities—such as music, meditation, art, and professional skill-building—but please remember that ultimately, in Kevah, you are a teacher of Torah texts.

Examples:

  • Text study should take up the majority—not necessarily all, but the majority—of the group’s class time.
  • Texts should be drawn from the canon of traditional Jewish study.
  • Part of your goal should be to place texts in the context of the larger world of Jewish learning, and thereby give participants a stronger sense of how what they are studying fits into the building of their Jewish knowledge base.

 

6. Meaning and Pluralism

Finally, Kevah’s educational philosophy is premised on the assumption that people have a fundamental need for meaning and that the study of Torah is a uniquely potent meaning-making experience. We also believe that meaning is something each individual makes for his or herself. Therefore, we are committed to providing learning environments that neither insist on a singular meaning to the text, nor operate on an assumption that the text is essentially meaningless, and merely an object of intellectual or historical curiosity. We strive to maintain an open space where a multiplicity of meanings is possible and valid—an approach we believe is faithful to the tradition of Jewish learning. This is what we mean when we say that we are a pluralistic organization, and these are also the limits of our pluralism.

Examples:

  • Our educators may often reference traditional dogma and/or critical academic perspectives, but they do not promote either of these approaches.
  • Kevah is therefore not likely to run a group whose topic is, “The Torah is God’s Truth,” nor one whose topic is, “Critical Scholarship on the Hebrew Bible.”
  • Similarly, our educators should be careful not to use language like, “Because the Rabbis are always right!” nor language like, “Because the Rabbis were sexist idiots!”

 

We know that much of this will seem intuitive to you, and that most of you naturally incorporate these principles and practices into your teaching.  We intend it as both an articulation of what Kevah Educators are already doing so well, and a reminder of the kind of things that we can sometimes overlook. If you have questions or need guidance on what we mean by any of this, please don’t hesitate to ask.