Ten-Fold Model for Educating and Engaging Teens

Jewish Teens Chabad

Photo Credit: Chabad.org

By Yonatan Gordon

We mentioned before that a good teacher learns how to include and engage all his students in the class discussion. Now we can we can begin constructing a complete “engagement” model based on Kabbalah.

The first draft of this ten-fold system was written up privately for a friend just under five years ago. But now that a study called “Effective Strategies to Educating and Engaging Jewish Teens” was recently published by the Jim Joseph Foundation, we have decided to pepper our original draft with some of the observations made there.

Whereas our “Nine Steps Toward Engaging a Community of Readers” approached engagement from the point of view of the nervous system and cognition, this present model focuses on disposition and diversity.  Perhaps no areas of study is as diverse, or extremist prone, as the world of politics.

What follows then is our system for engaging all members of the classroom or community. From the far right, to the far left, the good teacher knows how to involve everyone in the discussion. This ten-fold model (called a partzuf of personae in Kabbalah), will hopefully help us all to navigate the way to engaging today’s youth. Throughout this model, the right represents the desire to stick to guiding principles, whereas the left emphasizes personal expression.

Over time, the educator generally shifts their lesson plan left, except for the first and last stage of the system. This is because the ultimate goal of this system is to allow children to explore their talents and abilities (left), while staying grounded to just and upright principles (right). Seen in its entirety, this model is both progressive and instructive, whereby educators learn how to include both the extreme “right” (conservative) and “left” (liberal) oriented students in the class discussion.

Chochmah / Wisdom (Preferred Outcome: Right):

The study refers to this stage as: “Location, Location, Location: Meeting teens where they go every day, both physically and virtually, helps maximize participation.”

When we speak of this stage as one of “location,” we mean to say that the student should “locate” their inspiration as coming from the teacher himself. Many times, a student could be attempting to receive inspiration from too many sources. While some of these sources are okay, as we have seen, it is all too easy for today’s youth to stray into areas that they shouldn’t.

The meaning of “location” in our present context, also relates to a story about Moses. The Midrash relates that Moses once saw a sheep stray from the flock into the desert. Moshe left the flock and ran after the lost sheep, and returned it to the flock. God chose Moses to lead the Jewish People because he showed this level of personal care. From this we learn how precious every Jew was to Moses. Even a Jew that “ran from the flock” still merited being sought after and returned.

So too, a good educator doesn’t leave any of his students behind to “go astray.” If he discovers that one of them has, he lovingly runs after them, and carries them back nestled in his arms. In technology, they speak a lot about “location-based” devices. Those apps and other gadgets, that read where you are in the world, and suggest location-specific results.

The good teacher then should have a GPS path mapped out to each of his students. While there are many different personalities and dispositions, they each belong, and merit to be included, as part of the flock.

The preferred movement as this stage is right. Although the students may explore the world forward and backward, the student’s homing beacon should always be set on their teacher as a home base.

It is also vital that Jewish educators should instruct their students to view the world through the lens of Jewish thought. At the Wisdom stage, these creative and personal developmental heights are referred to as the “eye of wisdom.”

Binah / Understanding (Preferred Outcome: Left):

The study calls this stage: “Multiple Portals of Entry: An apparent component of successful program scaling is offering multiple portals for entry and flexible engagement structures once inside the system.”

In our model, this all translates to a desire to innovate. For the right-oriented personality, inspiration comes from the past. This is why the rightest may be less prone to innovate, lest it conflict with their guiding principles.

It is because of this that the left-orientation is the preferred outcome at this stage. Even the rightest should be encouraged to be creative and innovate, while being reassured that such actions need not conflict with their guiding principles.

Most technology savvy kids are generally considered leftists at least with regard to innovation. They have already opened their social media accounts, and now they are looking for interesting things to chat with their friends about. Kids want to experience excitement, and what better way to do that then to build on their natural drive for expression. The study mentions some organizations at the end that help kids to express themselves (e.g. a place where schools can upload student-taken photography pictures). But for a Torah educator, this also means encouraging innovations (chiddushim) in Torah learning. The main thing for these teachers is that the kids should be excited about learning Torah. Teaching kids how to properly express their “multiple portals of entry” (i.e. multiple subjects of interest), is an important first step to engaging them in the discussion.

Da’at / Knowledge (Preferred Outcome: Left):

The study calls this stage “Skin in the Game: Some teens thrive upon opportunities to have a stake in the work, not be passive recipients, which can increase the likelihood and relevance of their involvement.”

The key word here is “relevancy,” because Da’at refers to a desire to integrate and reveal truth in our lives. Whereas the far right of Da’at may indicate extreme censorship and the monitoring of public opinion, the left favors the natural fountain of expression that emerges from the soul

The right then is typically something administration or teacher based. In this approach, not everyone is equal, and there is a hierarchy of knowledge and the ability to instruct. Student involvement at this level comes from a desire to make education accessible to all; an equality of opportunity. These student activists want that everyone should be able to afford a proper education.

The left goes according to something taught by the founder of the Chassidic movement, the Ba’al Shem Tov. He informed us that when Mashiach comes, a new dimension or revelation of the Torah will emerge from the fountain of the soul (the yechida shebenefesh, or highest of five soul levels). The significance of these words is that the Ba’al Shem Tov wanted us to know how a simple Jew interprets the Torah (“the soul of man teaches”).

This preferred left approach then favors an “equality of outcome” over an “equality of opportunity.” A futuristic state where the Torah interpretation coming from every Jew is equally precious. The deciding factor is not then one of prior education, but of a desire to reveal truth in the world. The more effort is expended, the greater the reward will be.

This then relates directly to the “skin in the game” motivation, whereby each educator values the concerted contributions of all their students.

Chessed / Loving-Kindness (Preferred Outcome: Left):

The study calls this “Accepting Teens as They Are: More than anything, teens want to be accepted for who they are.”

Aside from the stopping of injustices (which relates to the next level), this level seems to have been the focus of student activist movements, led by such people as Aaron Swartz and Abbie Hoffman.

Whereas the right is pro-establishment, pro-government or institution, the left seeks to tear down the walls that separate those deemed to be inside the establishment, versus those outside of it.

The right favors the establishment because, after all, it prevents anarchy and unrest. As Ethics of the Fathers states, “Rabbi Chanina the deputy [High] Priest said: Pray for the welfare of the government, for if not for its fear, a person would swallow his fellow live.”  But this fear can also go to far, as with totalitarian dictatorships and oppressive regimes.

Even the right favors a desire to be free, but their approach is to do so within a very specific framework. The greatest example of this “desire to be free” within the proper context, was the story of the giving of the Torah. There every Jew was given the opportunity to actively begin observing the laws of the Torah.

The reason that left appears (at least initially) more secular is primarily because of these anti-establishment, free-thinker tendencies. At first glance, the leftist thinks the laws of the Torah to be another example of strictness or the establishment, rather than something that encourages free expression.

But the lesson we can glean here from the story of the Exodus, is that the enslavement and imprisonment took place in Egypt, not at Mount Sinai. While a willingness to receive the Torah also indicates an acceptance of the yoke of the Torah (kabbalat ol), the intention of this seeming restriction, is one of liberation.

The reason the left is preferred is because when a child feels enslaved and imprisoned, he should escape those boundaries that confine. This comes with the awareness though that through being liberated, our higher self is set free. By giving us the Torah, God is also giving us the power to realize and reveal our latent potential.

It is important to realize, that although the rules of the Torah seem limiting, it is in only in order to reveal our higher selves. How did the Lubavitcher Rebbe respond to the “hippy” generation of the 60s and 70s? He said that it is a sign of a spiritual awakening. So too today, the younger generation of liberation-minded students are really looking for a way to properly experience the Torah, without feeling it to be an example of something that confines,

Gevurah / Might (Preferred Outcome: Left):

The study calls this: “People, People, People: Relationships are central to participants’ positive educational experiences, be it with peers, alumni, staff members or volunteers.”

Probably the most telling example of this in Jewish tradition is pikuach nefesh, saving another’s life. The desire to place people first comes with the realization that the status quo of simply “loving another” doesn’t seem to cut it at times. In truth, the phrase to “love your fellow like yourself” connotes much more than making friendships.

Today, there is not only physical pikuach nefesh (e.g. redeeming a ransomed captive), but also spiritual pikuach nefesh. As there are many spiritual pitfalls, our active involvement to “spiritually save” others in this generation is most crucial.

This is why when we speak of “putting people first,” we mean primarily to reach people where they are currently at. No matter what their interest, we should be able to engage them in a thought-provoking discussion of how their interests relate to Jewish thought.

While this seems very similar to the “multiple channels of creative expression” mentioned in the Binah stage (and indeed, Gevurah extends from Binah in the Sefirotic Tree of Life), the emphasis here is on the active task of saving another, instead of the channels of expression themselves.

In order to ingrain this stage more firmly in our consciousness, we will now bring a story of the Chofetz Chaim (as heard from Shimon Waronker, who heard the story from the late Rabbi Gutnick obm):

The Chafetz Chayim traveled to a certain town, and as was his habit, would befriend and teach the local Jews that he met. As he came upon a Jewish-owned inn, he saw through the window a gruff Jewish man, without a kippah, smearing butter on his roll, then some meat, and subsequently, stuffed his mouth with his meal (editor note: a mixture of meat and milk, which is forbidden by Jewish law).

The Jewish inn-keeper seeing the Chofetz Chaim looking on at this man, begged him not to talk to him. He told the Chofetz Chayim that this man was abducted as an infant by the Russian army, and suffered terribly for many years

Undaunted, the Chofetz Chaim walked inside and up to the man. The man said strongly that he wanted the rabbi to know that notwithstanding all the years of torture and suffering, he was always proud to be a Jew.

The Chofetz Chayim then asked if he could shake his hand, and when he did, asked if when he goes up to Heaven, if this man could do the kindness to plead that God have mercy on the Chofetz Chaim.

This man became a devoted follower. This story was recounted by this gruff man’s son, who studied in the same Yeshiva as Rabbi Gutnick.

Tiferet / Beauty:

The study calls this stage: “Quality Amidst Growth: We have seen that core content combined with appropriate training and oversight can facilitate quality control over a large scale.”

The real question at this stage is whether the student has a desire to change or not. If there is, than any troublesome behavior can be rehabilitated. If there isn’t, then no matter how good the educator is, ultimately the potential to change is vested in the student. The “quality amidst growth” stage first indicates the Chesed stage, counter-culture tendencies that drive a student to carve out their own path. The “core content,” however, lies in the ability of an educator to instill Jewish concepts within the ambitions of their students. This most relates to the present Tiferet stage.

While the right says that some things can change with effort, the left is more optimistic regarding the ability of a person to completely transform themselves. The Ba’al Shem Tov was a firm believer in personal change and growth. As with the story of the Chofetz Chaim above, and so many from Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev, sometimes it just takes a favorable and caring eye to make all the difference.

Tiferet relates to an educator’s empathy, care, concern and attentiveness for their students. At this stage, educators should keep in mind to both “accept who their students are” (Chesed) and “put their students first” (Gevurah).

Netzach (Victory) /Hod (Acknowledgement) – (Preferred Outcome: Left):

Many times Netzach and Hod are included together as a pair, and so we decided to mention them together here as well. First let’s once again bring the two quotes from the study:

Netzach: “The Business of Doing Business: Any effort that is going to be fiscally sustainable over the long term, regardless of cost per capita, needs a viable business model that articulates how it will develop the financial resources to enable it to do the work over the long term.”

Hod: “Build for scale from day one: Scale is important for expanding reach and potential outcomes.”

The difference here between Netzach and Hod here is basically the difference between the administrative (Netzach) and student (Hod) based system. While the student may not consider the financial viability of the program itself, the administration has no choice but to keep practical monetary considerations in mind. While the outpouring of the first three emotive stages (Chesed, Gevurah and Tiferet) are in some ways unbounded, Netzach and Hod are referred to as the two cups of a measuring scale. They represent the settling and grounding of the emotions into reality.

Netzach is also related to education, and the drive to spread the content behind the grassroots efforts to greater numbers of people. On the flip side, Hod represents Economics, or the passive trust in the health of the system as a whole. Education requires a proper balance between inspiration and integration; whereas economics is based on a balance between risk and profit.

Although the goal of business is to always gain profit, the ability to take risks is the ability to survive losses. The interplay between profits and losses represents the balance of the relative victory (profit) and acknowledgment (loss) in the sefirah of acknowledgment.

This then explain why the left is preferred. Aside from the left motivation to place students (Hod) before the administration (Netzach), the Hod awareness also fosters the willingness to take risks. This also relates back to our “putting people first” explanation at the Gevurah stage. Sometimes, in order to interest another Jewish soul, even the administration should be willing to concede to activities that don’t at first seem financially feasible. Such was the case throughout history where large sums of money were unstintingly raised in order to pay the ransom of kidnapped captives.

Yesod / Foundation (Preferred Outcome: Left):

In the study, this stage corresponds to “Know Your Goals and Consider Your Metrics: We firmly believe that the articulation of such goals and accompanying metrics, coupled by a culture of accountability around them, leads to better programming and, ultimately, to stronger outcomes and impact.”

Yesod relates to the desire in the soul to be productive, and express creativity. The consideration of the right is that a person’s activities should bear fruit, or be worthwhile. The rightest is most concerned that instead of wasting time and energies, they are involving themselves in those things that will yield abiding results.

While the leftest also doesn’t want to expend themselves in frivolous pursuits, it comes with the understanding that some new initiatives don’t “take off.” The left then has a greater willingness to start new things, or to serve as a extension of Hod, which is a willingness to accept losses.

The left-oriented person understands that in order to be successful, there may be projects along the way that never get off the ground. But as everything in life is an experience, this person also appreciates that each of these “failed” projects, were also invaluable learning tools.

In a school setting, the best scenario is when the right-oriented person, learns, and works together, from the innovative tendencies of his left-oriented friend.

Malchut / Kingdom (Preferred Outcome: Right):

When viewing this model, a person could ask the question how after so many “lefts,” we could end by suggesting that the final outcome is “right”?

The answer is to start viewing these two extreme points of left and right as existing on a circle, instead of a line. As is explained in Kabbalah, the far left is actually the first to touch or meet up with the far right. This is also true in a political sense. Although we may not yet understand this fully, it will be those who classified themselves as “far left,” who will be the first to embrace the “far right.”

First, let us again quote from the study:

“Concluding Thoughts: Drawing upon the learnings from the program models included in this scan, we believe that there are new opportunities that can be explored specifically in the Jewish teen education and engagement space. Given this report’s focus on community-based approaches specifically, it will be critical to apply the lessons and implications from this research to the unique contexts of individual communities—thinking about their composition, needs, individual and collective interests, existing infrastructures, etc. Armed with the information generated by this research and with a comprehensive knowledge of those communities, we believe that national and local funders will be well positioned to partner with community-based stakeholders to consider new approaches to working in the teen sphere, with the ultimate goal of forwarding and deepening Jewish teens’ journeys.”

In order to better the community, most vital is to first recognize what guiding principles the community stands for. The reason the final outcome of this model is right, is because the students’ ambitions need to eventually settle in order to be efficacious. Whereas the right-oriented nature of the Chochmah stage focuses on staying grounded in the thoughts and directives of the educators, our focus now is on the community as a whole. Now that we have successfully inspired a group of students, what does this movement stand for?

The connection between Chochmah and Malchut then relates to the foremost dynamic that connects teachers with their students. While the teacher conveys the concepts (i.e. the head of the community), it is up to the students to become the “foot soldiers.” A healthy community, like a fully functioning organism, recognizes each part of the body as vitally important to its overall health. While the teacher may be the head of his community of students, beginning and spurring new ideas, these thoughts would remain in the air if not for the students acting upon them.

In politics, this approach is generally seen as the difference between right monarchies or capitalism, and left democracies or socialism. As we explained, the left favors independence and free-thinking. But even the most left-minded person recognizes that there are specific leaders who they have received inspiration from. The test then is whether they see themselves as a student of that leader, or merely as someone who takes inspiration from a variety of sources.

In order to bring about order, and effect lasting change for the good, communities should convey clear messages to the public of what they stand for. Whereas in a tumultuous society, truths are not well defined, in a rectified community, a group’s mission and purpose is something abundantly clear for all to see.

The fact that kids generally favor the left for eight of these ten qualities (from Binah through Yesod), shows their innate curiosity and free-thinking nature. The role of an educator then is to bring a clear and compelling context to these ambitions. For Jewish educators, this means conveying the vast benefits of a life lived in accordance with mitzvah observance and Torah learning.

Freely adapted from a class from Harav Yitzchak Ginsburgh, delivered in California about five years ago,  pertaining to the future of politics.

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