The seventh-graders sat around the tables in the bet midrash — study hall and synagogue — of the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County in New Milford. They were studying from hand-outs of rabbinic texts.
At each table was a guest, a fellow at New York City’s Hadar. Together, the students discussed the texts in front of them in light of questions posed by Rabbi Ethan Tucker, co-founder and rosh yeshiva of Hadar. (See related story.)
“It made me feel that I was on a high level,” said Yael Marans, “because I was studying with someone who chooses to go to a yeshiva and I just go to seventh grade.”
That was a mission accomplished for Rabbi Fred Elias of Schechter, who teaches Judaic studies to the eighth grade and who helped organize the visit.
“We want to demonstrate to our students that studying Torah can be a part of their everyday life even long after they leave Schechter,” he said.
The visit from the Hadar fellows, which took place in November, is part of an ongoing partnership between the two schools which will continue with a visit by Schechter students to Hadar in March.
Most recently, Tucker came to New Milford on Feb. 16. In addition to teaching the school’s seventh- and eighth-graders, he led a workshop for Judaic studies faculty and presented a public class to a full house of 65 adults that evening.
Hadar follows the model of a traditional yeshiva bet midrash study hall, rather than that of a university classroom. Students mainly study texts in pairs, or chevruta. Only a small part of the school day is spent in a lecture.
Schechter has recently similarly transformed its seventh- and eighth-grade Talmud curriculum “from a frontal model,” lecturing, “to the bet midrash approach,” said Elias.
The partnership with Hadar makes sense, said Elias, “because we’re both using an inquiry-based approach to Jewish learning.” In that approach, he said, “we present texts that encourage … the students to ask questions instead of just factual memorization or regurgitating answers on exams.”
“Even though Hadar is not labeled Conservative,” as is Schechter, “it represents many ideals of the Conservative movement: its learning, its ideas of egalitarianism, tefillah — traditional prayer — and social action. We find ourselves quite similar in many respects,” he said.