Yadaim: Progressive Educators, Whole Person Learning and the Call from Within

Whole person learning, also known as holistic education, is based on an educational premise that "each person finds identity, meaning, and purpose in life through connections to the community, to the natural world, and to spiritual values." (See What is Whole Person Learning?)

                          nature kids

Progressive Educators, Whole Person Learning and the Call from Within

Progressive educators have repeatedly left their mark on Jewish education. Jewish educational scholars are both critical of the progressive influence on Jewish education (Kronish, 1982) and understanding of the limitations the Jewish educational context presented to progressive change (Krasner, 2011). Jewish education's focus on both Americanization and Jewish preservation was so pronounced in the beginning of the 20th century, that Jewish schooling purposefully aligned with reforms taking place in American public schools to legitimize the education and institutions providing it (Krasner, 2011; Stern, 2006). Although most progressive change efforts have historically failed, there is indication (in initiatives like JESNA's Whole Person Learning) that a renewed effort is necessary today.

Schools and other educational institutions, both in the general and Jewish worlds, are finding exciting ways to build experiential education into their curriculum; however, this is not enough. Rather than finding ways to integrate experiential education, it is time to build a Jewish school that educates the whole child in the vision of past progressives, who argued for the integration of manual skills into the general curriculum (Montessori, Dewey, Salomon, Pestalozzi), for real life applicability and an organic Jewish community (Sleeper, 1973).

kids cooking

Whole Person Learning (WPL) is applicable to ideas that move beyond a Jewish high school education that is exclusive, highly academic and compartmentalized. Proponents of WPL seek to offer models of education that expand and change the traditionally academic curriculum. Change of this sort is necessary for several reasons. First the student who cannot thrive in such an environment is by default not privy to a Jewish education. As Jewish high schools look to compete with other fine college preparatory schools, they miss the mark by not making themselves available to a wider variety of Jewish students and families. Second, these educational institutions reinforce the narrow spectrum of acceptable life and career paths. Third, by following and copying educational structures and assumptions of the American public school system (Krasner, 2011; Stern, 2006), Jewish education has neglected to truly wrestle with what a Jewish pedagogy could be and how its implementation could take place.

It is time for the Jewish community to address these concerns in innovative ways. One example would be to build a school that offers a new educational model addressing system-wide change within the context of both the American educational system and Jewish education in the United States; a school that rethinks pedagogy, student body, applicability of Jewish education, hands-on work and production, faculty roles, age-based groupings, cognitive and intellectual development, work-based learning and preparation, and the appropriate methods to most effectively meet the needs of students. It is time to directly challenge the dominant image of the Jewish community by educating a generation of young adults who are diverse and well equipped to not just think about the world, but confidently act upon it.

Yadaim Academy of Applied Academics is a new kind of Jewish high school offering a balance in Jewish education by stressing the link between the production of the hands and the stretching of the mind. The Yadaim community will be guided by the following question: How does direct application of knowledge and ideas help me engage in the world, strengthen collaboration, expand my thinking and find new connections to Judaism, humanity and the world? Yadaim challenges and expands the very understanding of what it means to be a Jew in the 21st century by elevating creative activity and allowing all of our members to be productive and essential.


At Yadaim, students will learn concrete skills to participate professionally in a wide array of work within their communities, including green construction, agriculture, welding, textile-making and the fine and culinary arts. Yadaim puts into action the rhetoric of student-centered, holisitic and inclusive education by exciting and instilling a healthy respect for the work of the hands alongside intellectual and cognitive development, fully integrating right and left brain work. Those engaged with Yadaim will affect meaningful change within their communities and beyond by learning and modeling diverse pathways and expressions as they engage in the world as Jews. Informed by Jewish thought and values, Yadaim's applied Jewish education is open to students of all backgrounds and academic abilities, and offers them a full range of career options. It is a thriving year-round, inclusive school community working to redefine Jewish education that is founded on past wisdom yet unencumbered by old assumptions. Most importantly, Yadaim offers a new learning paradigm for Jewish students who may not fit into the traditional structures of our educational system.

Imagine a group of students, two freshman, two sophomores, one junior working as an assistant advisor, working together guided by a faculty advisor with the goal of growing several varieties of tomato. Working together they begin to compile a list of essential questions that draw from a range of disciplines, mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, literature, history and Judaism. Here is an example of the questions the students will discover:

  • What soil conditions and composition are necessary for each variety?
  • What elements are necessary for natural pest management and what are their interactions with various pests found around tomatoes?
  • How does the history and immigration pattern of the tomato affect cuisine development in various cultures?
  • Where in both secular and Jewish literature are nightshades, Solanaceae, discussed?
  • How does Jewish agricultural law affect the health of the soil, the harvest and the community?
  • What is both the history and current development of irrigation technology (with a keen eye on Israel, a leader in the field)?
  • How do seed costs, energy costs, man hours and projected revenue factor in to pricing structures of the produce?

The students meet with faculty from each of these disciplines to refine the questions and gain a deeper understanding of how each of these areas expands their understanding of the process they must undertake. The team determines individual and group responsibilities and sets out for the following three to six months to complete the project. Throughout the entire process students will be working on several writing styles to express and present their ideas, information found and data collected. They will practice scientific writing, prose and creative writing, reporting of secondary data and also how to report on primary data collection. The students are charged with the learning in these areas as well as growing the tomatoes on the farm. The project culminates with a presentation and workshop for the rest of the school community as well as an objective measure of whether they succeeded in growing tomatoes. This powerful combination provides an important balance between the learning acquired and the complex variables involved in a successful harvest. Now imagine that each of these students is working on three projects at a time, with various groups in various skill areas. When you walk into the school you see students working in groups, individually, with faculty or student mentors, sitting, reading, writing, digging, dancing, measuring, cooking, painting. This is a dynamic and exciting environment that embraces each student and supports his or her learning journey.

kids planting tree

Employing this methodology, Yadaim Academy fits into a larger vision of the world and its needs in the twenty-first century. With a focus on a variety of emerging skills, education needs to prepare students in a new, different and holistic way. Pat Bassett, President of the National Association of Independent Schools, lists the necessary skills for success in the 21st century: (1) character (self-discipline, empathy, integrity, resilience, and courage); (2) creativity and entrepreneurial spirit; (3) real-world problem-solving (analysis and synthesis); (4) public speaking/communications; (5) teaming; and (6) leadership. The intersection of Yadaim's pedagogical methodology, its commitment to an inclusive community and its focus on production ensures that Yadaim graduates will develop these crucial skills and thrive. In this future world the holistic approach of Yadaim will shift from alternative to normative.

The call for Whole Person Learning that comes from within the Jewish community is poignant and much needed at this juncture. It is a call for excellence in education which extends into a vision of inclusivity for diverse learners and allows for multiple access points to Jewish learning and life. Reflecting the ideology of Whole Person Learning, Yadaim Academy of Applied Academics is uniquely positioned to address the individual student's learning needs while allowing for multiple modalities of learning and expression.

Andrea RC Kasper, MJEd Hebrew College and an Ed.D. Student in Jewish Educational Leadership at Northeastern University, lives in Skagastrond, Iceland with her husband and two children. Since winning the Jewish Futures competition in 2011 she has spent endless hours connecting and networking for Yadaim (to be founded in the United States) and was honored to be part of ROI 2012 in June. She is passionate about making Jewish education in accessible to diverse learners while instilling a healthy respect for work. When not studying she is choreographing, teaching dance, yoga and pilates. She loves to spend time with her family exploring the world.

Krasner, J. (2011). The Benderly Boys and American Jewish Education. Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press.

Kronish, R. (1982). John Dewey's Influence on Jewish Educators: the Case of Alexander M. Dushkin. Teachers College Record, 83(3), 419-433.

Sleeper, J. (1973). A Radical View of Jewish Culture. In D. Sidorsky (Ed.), The Future of the Jewish Community in America. new York, NY: The American Jewish Committee.

Stern, M. (2006). "A Dream Not Quite True:" Reassessing the Benderly Era in Jewish Education. Journal of Jewish Education, 70(3), 16-26.


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