Area rabbi wants to give religious teaching a shot in the arm

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Jewish educators need to tackle difficult theological questions and give tests even when their students give them flak, asserts Rabbi Daniel Kohn.

Drawing on five years of experience as a teacher in Jewish high schools, the associate rabbi and educator at Conservative Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon has written a new book on methods for improving religious instruction.

"Whenever there's any type of hostility or challenges I've seen teachers choke up, get threatened," said Kohn, whose book is titled "Practical Pedagogy for the Jewish Classroom: Classroom Management, Instruction, and Curriculum Development."

"My approach was not to deny the questions, but to encourage them. Hostility was a way of expressing their interest, their excitement. It just came out in an age-appropriate way as hostility. Teenagers have to understand that nobody knows it all," he said recently.

Within Jewish tradition, he said, there's never going to be just one answer.

"Learning to live with tension and ambiguity is a challenging and exciting approach that excites teenagers about Jewish life. Many teachers prefer to skip and dance around personal beliefs, theology," he said.

"It's not the job of a Jewish teacher to teach what you believe. It is their job to help the students study the tradition for themselves so they can make their own informed decision."

Kohn compares this approach to that of American history teachers who give their students information enabling them to become informed voters, instead of teaching a particular political philosophy.

As a teacher in Jewish high schools in Philadelphia and Long Island, Kohn assigned his students research papers on topics such as Jews as the "chosen people," sin and transgression in the Jewish tradition, and the status of women in the Bible.

Kohn said teachers need to both challenge students and hold them responsible. Part of that responsibility includes taking tests. Some Jewish educators believe that testing students will turn them off to Judaism. Kohn passionately disagrees.

"My feeling is that if you don't challenge children, they're going get bored and they're going to get turned off and it's not going to excite them," he said. "The way to excite them is to hold them responsible." That tactic "works in their general studies. It can and will work in their Jewish studies."

Students must be held responsible for their general behavior as well, he asserts. Kohn tells his students: "How you behave is your own business. You have free will. But you must be prepared to deal with the consequences of your behavior."

His philosophy is based on the Jewish idea of teshuvah, or repentance.

"The whole Jewish understanding of teshuvah is you return to the right path. You temporarily departed from the right path, and it's always possible to return."

Values, he added, can't be taught.

"They can only be modeled and demonstrated. Teachers have to model it and students have to be held accountable for their actions."

His idea for "Practical Pedagogy" came out of the increased attention to Jewish education after the 1990 National Jewish Population Study revealed increasing assimilation, alienation and intermarriage within the American Jewish community.

"In the mad rush toward providing greater education for the community, not as much time has been spent on figuring out how to spend [the designated funds] and how best to develop Jewish education."

In the book, Kohn identifies three areas that need addressing: classroom management, the caliber of teachers and the quality of curricula.

The 36-year-old Kohn's own religious education in St. Louis was not a model he wants to replicate.

"My parents dropped me at Sunday school and then went out to get a coffee and a bagel and picked me up two hours later. They demonstrated to me that Jewish education is for little kids, not us adults," he said.

"That sends a powerful message. Parents have to demonstrate their commitment to Jewish life. If kids don't see it at home, it's not going to be effective. Kids are learning hypocrisy."

Kohn, who works with junior high and high school students at Kol Shofar, loves the challenge and rewards of teaching.

"Every time I think I've got a subject down and I teach it in a class, I realize I know nothing. It says in Pirke Avot [Ethics of the Fathers], 'Who is the most wise? Whoever learns from everyone.' I love that excitement of constantly learning myself."