Ayeka: Creating Soulful Communities

 Posted by on July 26, 2018 at 2:34 pm  No Responses »  Tagged with:  Categories:
Jul 262018

The AVI CHAI Foundation has been pleased to partner with the Kohelet and Mayberg Foundations during the last year to fund the Ayeka Soulful Education Program in Jewish Day Schools.

Ayeka asks: How can the learning of Jewish knowledge become more than the acquisition of content and information but also affect students’ hearts, souls, and lives? In other words, how can Jewish learning be made not only intellectually challenging and profound, but also personally relevant, meaningful, and even transformative?

Ayeka’s Soulful Education approach teaches faculty a system, replete with educational language and techniques, which will enable teachers to bring the subject matter they are presently teaching into the hearts and lives of their students. Ayeka wants to imbue the content of Jewish learning with ‘heartfelt’ and personalizing elements, to connect students with the power and wisdom of Jewish learning.

As one head of school wrote: “ Ayeka gave us the tools for better learning in class. Faculty and students see the humanity in one another much more frequently.”

Perhaps Ayeka’s greatest impact is in giving staff members a shared term with which to refer to the emotional/spiritual elements of education. As one leader put it, the training “opened up a way of thinking that the teachers knew but didn’t have the language to express. Ayeka has become a shorthand for going beyond content learning alone.”

We are thrilled that Ayeka is now embarking on an approach to creating soulful communities. To learn more about this approach, read this recent post in eJewishPhilanthropy by David Kahn, Chairman of the Board of Ayeka, “Creating Soulful Communities.”

May 072018

The assignment was simple: working in pairs, take a widely circulated ad and instead of using it to sell (fill in the blank with any material good), adapt the ad to create an ad for G-d.

The results were powerful:

Only after we shared our adaptations did we introduce ourselves: including a description of one thing that we have done because of G-d.  As we went around the room, any barriers, or perceived barriers, that exist when a group of individuals meet for the first time (whether gender, religious affiliation, or the grantee-funder dynamic) diminished. Instead, we were twelve colleagues ready to discuss the topic that brought us together that day, namely, how can Jewish day school teachers and teaching help foster Jewish student spiritual development and a relationship with G-d.  My colleague, Holly Cohen, Executive Director of the Kohelet Foundation, had achieved the goal that she set out to accomplish and set the stage for the entire day.  Our barriers were down and we were ready to get to work.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks tells us, “Religion survives because it answers three questions that every reflective person must ask. Who am I? Why am I here? How then shall I live?”  This past Fall, The AVI CHAI, Kohelet, and Mayberg Foundations came together to support three initiatives that explore these existential questions.  By supporting Ayeka, Jewish Learning Institute and Pedagogy of Partnership – each designed to enhance the classroom environment – we hope to strengthen the spiritual impact of Jewish day schools, including the social, emotional, ethical, and spiritual/religious development of students. Through the collaboration, we also hope to provide opportunities for both funders and program providers to deepen our own understandings of this work in a holistic way.

The purpose of this first meeting was for representatives from the three foundations and the three projects to get to know each other and begin to form a learning community.  After the ice-breaker, the day proceeded with several activities, including brief presentations about each project and a critical friends group (  Throughout each activity, there was a feeling in the room that we were onto something unique.  We were there together to tackle and hopefully solve a dilemma that confronts Jewish day schools community-wide.

At the beginning of our work together, we set out just a few indicators of success.  These included: an increased awareness in the field about these program providers and their work in schools, an increased awareness in the field about ways to enhance the “Jewish” in Jewish day school, and more conversations in Jewish day schools about the Divine.

I realized, though, at the conclusion of the initial meeting, that there was something missing from our original thinking. You see, as much as foundation professionals try to work around it, there is an embedded dynamic that exists in our work with our most important partners, our grantees.  The dynamic is that one group has access to the funds and the other group needs those funds, which makes true trust and collaboration (and vulnerability) very difficult.

At this meeting, however, the barriers that often exist between grantees and funders were broken down.  The grantees did not feel like they needed to prove their worth to us.  We were there to approach the challenge together.

So, I would now add another indicator of success to our collaboration, which is in fact a precursor to the original two indicators originally built into the work. Success should also be measured by the extent to which the lines between the foundations and grantees blur and we develop and share insights about what works together.

Apr 302015

By: Galli Aizenmann

Over the last few years, AVI CHAI has been interested in stimulating the development of online Jewish studies offerings for both middle and high school students at day schools.

To that end, we have been funding the work of the Lookstein Virtual Jewish Academy (LVJA), an online school dedicated to providing quality Jewish education to Jewish day school students as well as to select motivated Jewish learners throughout North America.  A project of the Lookstein Center, LVJA (previously known as JOLTT—The Jewish Online Learning, Teaching, and Training Center) has been developing online Jewish studies courses since 2011 and to date has brought these courses to nearly 40 Jewish day school and over 450 Jewish day school students.

By enrolling in a LVJA course, a school accesses an excellent, high-quality course that their students participate in asynchronously. The course is fully delivered by experienced educators who form one part of the LVJA course development team, which is comprised of master educators, academic advisors, educational technologists and multimedia specialists. Students engage in both independent and collaborative coursework through the use of a learning management system (LMS) and web conferencing. LVJA regularly runs multiple cohorts of each of its classes in order to ensure that each school and/or student is able to find a class and instructor that match their level and interests.

An evaluation of these courses – funded by AVI CHAI and conducted by two online learning experts, Rena Palloff and Keith Pratt – found that the course design is sound and rigorous.  Student evaluations, too, were positive. 92.3% of students in one of the courses “strongly agreed” or “agreed” that they “learned more in this course than from other school classes in the same discipline.”

The courses provide an academically rigorous examination of a range of topics to supplement and differentiate day schools’ curricula. This affordable and innovative form of instruction also serves the goal of bringing quality Jewish education to Jewish students everywhere, regardless of geographic location or ideological orientation. One example of the courses available is “The Emergence of Modern Israel,” a popular course developed by David Bernstein, Dean of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies. It is described in the course catalogue: “In this modern Israel history course, students will study the history of modern Israel from the rise of the Zionism movement to the present. Following an exploration of the historical and ideological foundations of Zionism, students will then trace the political and institutional development of the yishuv, the establishment of the State of Israel, and the events of the decades following. Issues discussed will include the evolving Palestinian-Israeli and Arab-Israeli conflict, relationships with world powers, the political system, religion and society, the place of minorities in Israeli society, and the quest for Israeli identity. Through the study of scholarly texts, primary sources, and virtual field trips, students will gain a richer understanding of modern Israeli history and its current position in international politics and the Jewish community.”

LVJA has developed seven new courses and four new mini-courses which will begin in the fall.   Please see the LVJA course catalog for a list of all the courses and contact with any questions or to enroll for the fall.

At AVI CHAI, we believe that the educational opportunities afforded by blended and online learning are an important piece of providing a strong 21st century education to day school students. We are excited that Judaic offerings are being made available as well. We hope that your school is able to take advantage of this opportunity.

Jun 212012

By: Galli Aizenman

Since 2010, AVI CHAI has been working on developing online and blended learning in Jewish day schools. Our interest in this area is both because we believe in the potential for education innovation which exists with this kind of learning and also because the online learning model could offer cost savings to the schools.

Within online learning, one of the areas of great interest to us is stimulating the development of online Judaic studies offering at day schools.  We recently brought together day school professionals and Judaic studies online course providers for a one-day meeting in our office. The purpose of the meeting was to better understand the needs and interests of day schools with respect to online Jewish courses and to see first-hand some Judaic courses being developed. There was a sense of excitement and anticipation, mixed in with a little apprehension, palpable during the meeting.  Excitement at the idea that vendors are developing rich, interactive courses which could supplement or replace the Judaic classes currently offered by day schools and possibly offer cost saving to the schools.  Apprehension because it’s still unclear how day schools will integrate online courses into the school day and the kind of “disruption” they will create.  Here are a few “take-aways” from our own observations and feedback from the participants at the meeting:

  • The field of Judaic online courses is in its infancy and right now there is a disconnect in the market.  There are suppliers and buyers but little meeting of the minds.  The vendors are developing courses based on what they are good at without much input from the schools and without communication with each other, while the schools are trying to understand their own needs in this area.
  • The current field of online Judaic course providers does not have core standards or assessments. These need to be developed if we are to truly enhance the field. Meanwhile, Jewish day schools lack a standardized curriculum for vendors to focus on.
  • There is a need to distinguish between using technology for cost savings and as a way to enhance and supplement learning. At the same time, we need to explore the benefits of technology for both.
  • The needs of newly-forming virtual or blended schools, which are at the revolution phase of online learning, are very different from traditional schools that are trying to supplement an existing curriculum and are at the evolution phase.
  • There was interest in a consortium model approach with teachers from different schools developing online courses to be shared with one another.
  • Online learning may cut costs if schools will be able to serve more students with fewer teachers. However, at this point heads of schools are not finding adequate offerings in the online Jewish studies course market to even begin this process.

We at AVI CHAI will consider these observations as we think about our next steps in helping to develop online Judaic Studies courses.

Jon Mitzmacher, the Head of the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School, wrote a blog post afterwards. In his post, he wrote that even though there are plenty of families who cannot afford his school’s tuition and are choosing public school, there are also plenty of families who can afford their tuition but are choosing to spend it on elite secular independent schools. He makes the point that lowering the tuition is not going to attract those families but that increasing the quality of the school hopefully will. Mitzmacher is making a choice to focus on increasing the quality of the school and not on lowering tuition. Our hope is that schools which embrace online learning will see both an increase in the quality of the school and a lowering of the tuition.

Galli Aizenman is a Program Officer at The AVI CHAI Foundation.

Apr 182011

A recent New York Times article about the quality of online learning highlighted the debate about the possibilities of online learning vs. the importance of face time with a teacher.  Proponents of online learning say that online courses allow schools to offer courses, including makeup, elective and advanced placement classes, when schools are not able to offer such classes.  Opponents say that online learning is motivated by the desire to spend less on teachers and buildings.  They also point out that there is no sound research showing that online courses at the K-12 level are comparable to learning face-to-face with a teacher.

AVI CHAI believes that online learning needs to be watched closely and that we should consider the pros and cons of different approaches (see Leah Meir’s blog on blended learning) and be open to experimentation.

Jewish day schools must adapt to changing technological opportunities in education in order to attract students, minimize costs and  provide a first-rate education.  There are different models for how online learning could be offered in day schools:

1- Day school students could enroll in virtual charter schools and have parts of their general studies education funded by the government, while their Judaic studies would be offered more traditionally.

2- Day schools could offer online courses when it is difficult to find a teacher, or for niche courses for a few students. This might help retain students who might otherwise go to public schools.

AVI CHAI has begun to invest in a number of exciting opportunities in the area of online learning, including the creation of a website, developed by The Jewish Education Project and JESNA which will serve as a portal for Jewish day schools to access information and research about the world of online education.  AVI CHAI is also funding the development of  two courses designed by Tel Aviv University for middle school students in North American day schools which should be up and running for Fall 2011 and a planning grant to allow a new model of a community day school in New Jersey which will incorporate online learning and cost $5,000 a year in tuition.

Please check the blog to read about the various new opportunities in this arena and let us know what you think about them.

Galli Aizenman