Jewish Learning Instructors: Students For A Day

by Dvora Lakein - Chabad Lubavitch World Headquarters

June 29, 2009

( For one full day, the teachers became students. Clad in their distinctive black hats and suits, they listened attentively, raised their hands to ask questions, and passed the occasional note (via text-messaging, of course).

The Rohr Jewish Learning Institute’s 11th Annual Conference convened Wednesday at Polytechnic University in Downtown Brooklyn. Approximately 330 JLI instructors from around the world came to explore upcoming course objectives, discuss marketing strategies, and improve their teaching techniques. It was the rabbis’ turn to sit on the other side of the desk. 

The conference presented in-depth analyses of the upcoming classes and how best to teach them. Soulquest, exploring the soul’s journey before, during, and after life, will open the next semester. The six-week course schedule includes discussions on the soul’s origins, its purpose in the world, where it goes after life, and reincarnation. It is, presenters promised Wednesday’s audience, “hands down the most promising course to attract new students and double worldwide enrollment.”

“I have wanted to teach this for the past six years,” divulges Rabbi Sholom Lew of Glendale, Arizona. “I am excited that they have finally created it.” Lew has been teaching JLI courses in Arizona for seven years. He came in especially for the conference, as he does annually, to “get some inspiration, pick up skills, and make our JLI chapter the best it can be.” He has a core class of 20 students each semester, but believes that Soulquest will be particularly appealing as discovery of the soul is the “basis of Judaism.”

Soulquest, agrees Rabbi Levi Sudak of Edgware, will help people understand a fundamental tenet. “We don’t die,” he insists. “We transcend. If we can successfully show people that this world is just a corridor to the next, and what we accomplish here is preparation for the great chamber to follow, then we are doing everyone a tremendous favor.”

Though Sudak has taught Torah classes in his London community for the past 23 years, next season will be his first with JLI. The professionalism and meticulousness of the courses, “gives a different perspective on learning,” he says. “When people see so many different topics available, they ask themselves, why not? JLI answers the need of the UK market.” 

To the delight of the participants, international leadership consultant Michael Brandwein presented Wednesday’s keynote address. Using magic tricks and amusing anecdotes, Brandwein introduced the season’s second course, Portraits in Leadership, a thorough look at the lives of six sages of the Mishnaic era. “If we merely present portraits and qualities we like,” he said, “we miss the opportunity to tell people what these leaders actually did.” Brandwein turned to the first class, a discussion on the great Hillel’s humility, to explore the reasons and outcome of his admirable trait. 

“We must make the transition from qualities to conduct,” he implored the audience, “this will give them accessibility to success.”

The course is more about the lessons of leadership and how individuals can tap into their own features to accomplish change, than the leaders themselves. “We worked hard to differentiate the individual characteristics of each leader,” explains Dr. Chana Silberstein, JLI’s Curriculum Specialist. “Leaders are not interchangeable. We chose their particular qualities and emphasized how they changed their world.” 

Each seat in the Pfizer Auditorium came equipped with a personal remote for audience members to interact with the speaker on stage. At various points they voted on the origin of leadership (92 percent believe it can be learned); what topics most appeal to instructors (55 percent prefer Chassidic philosophy); and how many teachers utilize Facebook for marketing (23 percent, with two percent claiming no knowledge of the popular site). 

Things heated up when the new marketing campaigns for the two courses were unveiled, and promptly picked apart. Tossing aside their Blackberries, the rabbis eagerly voted on their most liked and disliked options, calling out suggestions and loudly comparing the worth of each ad. What people ultimately open in their emails, receive in a postcard, or view on flash ads, is the end-result of a long, often cantankerous, process.

“This year we have achieved intelligent marketing so that there will be no rift between expectations and the material presented in each course,” states Rabbi Levi Kaplan, who develops and teaches courses for JLI.

“Right now leadership is a hot-button issue,” he says. “We are going to debunk myths about leadership, replace the ‘wow factor’ with the ‘how factor.’ We have learned how to be leaders; now we can help our students become leaders themselves.”

Lew concurs. “Now I won’t be the only person in my community leading. Others will be able to help.” 

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