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Essence is key

by Danielle Natelson |Nov 22, 2016|Comments

Leah Kahn, Berkeley Hillel's Rabbi Martin Ballonoff Memorial Senior Jewish Educator, received one of this year's Pomegranate Awards, given annually by the Covenant Foundation to those with "tremendous promise, focused leadership and willingness to take risks in their burgeoning careers."

Danielle Natelson, a third-year Ezra Fellow at Hillel at UCLA, shared some thoughts about her experience being mentored by Leah as part of the Ezra Fellowship.



danielle_natelsonThere’s no doubt that when it comes to education, essence is key. It’s essential to have a vision of what you intend for learners to know, feel, and do as a result of their learning. Ensuring that content is relevant and stimulating is a tall order in and of itself, and in particular when it comes to Jewish education, I find that the pressure to hit the mark is even higher. There’s no worse feeling as an educator than boring your students. That said, while I’ve always valued the importance of exploring great content with my students, I have only recently begun to appreciate the tremendous work necessary to delivering that content in a way that achieves the desired outcomes. I’ve come to learn -- sometimes the hard way -- that even the most dynamic texts, ideas and values that our tradition has to offer can fall flat when they aren’t executed well educationally. If we want our students to indulge in the beauty of a Picasso or Mona Lisa of Jewish texts, we have to use the best paint brushes and canvases.

As an Ezra Fellow, I’m fortunate enough to learn from one of the greatest educators in our field, and this past September I had the opportunity to visit her campus and watch her in action. As a fellow field professional, I’m honored to be her colleague. As an emerging educator, I’m proud to call her my mentor. And as someone who appreciates art in many forms, I am inspired by the way in which she masters education as a craft, one in which both her final product and her process are the result of a dedicated practice. It was fitting that my visit came during the month of Elul, a time in which our tradition invites us to engage in a practice of self-reflection and refinement in preparation for a new year. A psalm we recite daily during this season seemingly hones in on one request -- to dwell in the house of God all the days of our lives. That said, the verse actually continues to name two more seemingly additional requests -- to behold the pleasantness of God and to visit in God’s sanctuary. So it's not one thing we want but three. Upon closer read though I came to appreciate that the realization of the first request is the conduit to achieving the other two. In order to behold the pleasantness of God and visit in God's sanctuary we need the proper place to dwell. We need the infrastructure, the environment, a certain set of conditions for those experiences to take place. In the month of Elul we’re preparing for the experience we anticipate with the High Holidays. In essence were asking for and working to create the ideal environment for a certain experience to transpire. We know what we want to feel, know, and do, and we invest in the process of getting there.

As I spent time learning from my mentor I worked to develop the framework for teaching, the stage I want to set for my learners to thrive. From thinking about how a physical space is created, participants welcomed and data captured, to the transitions between texts, and the modalities for learner participation and content presentation, I left my visit with concrete tools for creating an ideal learning environment that helps me achieve my goals as an educator. I left with an appreciation for being a practitioner of education, someone who dedicated time and thoughtfulness to the prep as much as to the final product. I left with the realization that my work needed more keva, more form and structure, in order for the kavana of my work, the essence, to shine at the fullest of its capacity and potential.

As I entered into the season of repentance and reflection, I was also aware of the start of a new season as an educator, and inspired to think of Psalm 27 through that lens as well. One thing I ask of my professional development as an educator -- the discipline to create thoughtful environments for learning, to achieve my goals as an educator and inspire a lifelong appetite for Jewish learning.


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