A Vision for the Visiting Scholar

A Vision for the Visiting Scholar

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Editors' Note: The Orthodox Union's recent statement regarding professional roles for women in Orthodox synagogues has sparked heated debate for the sake of heaven. In the hopes of contributing to that ongoing conversation, Lehrhaus has convened a symposium to reflect upon the statement. Over the course of the next week we will post further installments, so please check back frequently. Each contribution will contain links to the other pieces in the symposium.

Symposium Contributions:  Sara WolkenfeldTzvi SinenskyShmuel WiniarzLeah SarnaRivka Press Schwartz,Matt ReingoldLaura Shaw FrankChaim TwerskiChaim Trachtman,  Shayna GoldbergShaul RobinsonTodd BermanJeffrey FoxElli FischerJeffrey WoolfZev Eleff & Ari Lamm

Matt Reingold

The scholar-in-residence component of congregational culture is an exciting one. Learned thinkers, academics, and teachers provide excellent opportunities to share new and dynamic wisdom. Their roles are very different from the local rabbi. Scholars-in-residence do not, on the whole, develop long-term relationships with members of the community. In most situations, they don’t speak to the halakhic guidelines of particular communities.

They come to teach and entertain. They inspire and then exit stage right. For this reason, many Modern Orthodox rabbis are by and large content with women serving as scholars-in-residence. A close-knit recent rabbinical body assembled by the Orthodox Union made it clear in a larger responsum on women’s leadership within the synagogue sphere that it did not object to women serving as scholars-in-residence at Orthodox synagogues. In the authors’ own words, it is “appropriate for women to assume” a number of “non-clergy” roles, including “serving as a visiting scholar-in-residence.”

The following paper will present a model for how synagogues can approach scholars-in-residence. There are two primary considerations that are addressed. The first revolves around building a cohesive curriculum that creates meaningful learning opportunities that extend over a season or year. The second explores ways that synagogues can become better at creating greater gender parity amongst its cohort of speakers.

Choosing a Scholar-in-Residence
Selecting a scholar-in-residence is no easy task, particularly for otherwise busy volunteer members of adult education committees. It requires coordinating with the congregational rabbis, vetting prospective scholars and arranging travel schedules and lecture topics. It also involves sensitivity to the community. Who do they want to listen to on a Shabbat morning? How might we engage scholars and teachers who could serve as role models for women and men of the shul? How might potential visiting scholars speak to the needs of communities and how do they fulfill a broad curricular mission? No doubt, bright and talented women offer much to these concerns. We should provide space within the yearly calendar for women to be presented as experts in fields as this makes an important statement about the values of the community and the types of role models that it wishes to present.

A Scholar-in-Residence Curriculum
Of course, creating a balanced educational platform involves more than just gender considerations. It is essential to recognize that there are very different interests within a congregation and that there are extremely few scholars who can speak knowledgeably and with confidence about Tanakh, Talmud, Halakhah, Jewish history, politics, and philosophy. Therefore, a community needs to think long and hard about the larger portrait that will be presented over the course of the year, and strive to be as inclusive as possible by bringing in speakers of different expertise and knowledge.

A helpful way to approach this draws from Grant Wiggins’s and Jay McTighe’s educational planning tool Understanding by Design (UbD). The authors write: “Effective curriculum is planned backward from long-term, desired results through a three-stage design process (Desired Results, Evidence, and Learning Plan). This process helps avoid the common problem of activity-oriented teaching in which no clear priorities and purposes are apparent” In the UbD model, educators identify the desired goals and end-products of a year, a unit, and a lesson, and work backwards by designing units and lessons that lead towards fulfilling the end-result goal. Congregations ought to approach scholars-in-residence in a similar vein. This way, lay leaders and rabbis would be better prepared to consider the larger vision of what a year of scholars will look like and how they will all synthesize together. Through this method, consideration would be paid to themes and weekends that link together. It will urge all involved to find speakers and educators that fit into this larger pedagogic framework. By thinking this way, sessions with scholars-in-residence would not be viewed as “one-offs,” but as part of a larger educational program that considers a variety of factors, including gender.

In order to make use of UbD, a synagogue must first determine a goal for its educational plan. For instance, if a synagogue wants to raise awareness about mental health issues in the community, the pedagogical goal could be: “by the end of the year, congregants have a deeper understanding of the multi-facetedness of mental health, develop greater sympathy for those who are suffering, and recognize that Jewish texts offer many insights into understanding and combating mental illness. From there, the education committee needs to build a series of programsmaking use of clergy, local educators, and scholars-in-residence, to present a portrait of mental illness that explores biblical, rabbinic, medieval, and modern texts. As well, educators could approach the topic using different disciplinespastoral, psychiatric, historical, biblical. By beginning with the end-goals in mind, a comprehensive program can be built that targets different aspects of the topic.

Women as Scholars-in-Residence
Notwithstanding, gender is a crucial factor for Modern Orthodox communities. Providing access to female educators models a more inclusive approach to education that considers all members of the congregation as having value. It also normalizes women as educated members in the community and reflects what most congregants experience on a daily basiswomen educators in day schools, seminaries, and colleges. It demonstrates to the community that there is a halakhically legitimate place for women to assume leadership roles within our community. While this level of inclusion might not be sufficient for all, it is imperative that a baseline be established. It is therefore encouraging that the OU endorsed this very meaningful community experience. By subscribing to the position that is expressed in the OU document and by continuously reevaluating the ways in which women are both seen and heard, communities take a stance that they are trying to do better than they did before.

Still, there is much work to be done. Despite the encouraging endorsement of the OU’s rabbinical guides, it is apparent that many North American congregations do not aggressively seek out women to serve as scholars-in-residence. I don’t have a definitive answer for why this is. Perhaps it is because there is an association with speaking from the pulpit as a rabbi’s job. Perhaps it is out of a fear that having a female speaking from the pulpit will alienate certain members of the community and push congregants to other synagogues on those days. Perhaps it is because they do not know qualified female educators.

It is incumbent on the synagogue’s leadership—rabbi, president, and board—to set the tone and achieve gender balance with guest speakers a matter of synagogue policy. Having something in writing that commits to diversity will ensure that it does happen and not allow individual board members or volunteer chairs to either intentionally or unintentionally avoid inclusivity. Putting it in writing and committing it to be part of the synagogue’s bylaws also compels the congregation to really establish inclusivity as a matter of policy that extends long past when the rabbi has retired.

From a practical perspective, gender needs to be something that is on the radar of the people who are planning programs. Whether a synagogue needs to establish a board position and committee that looks at gender parity will depend on the individual needs of each synagogue, but there needs to be a few people—ideally both men and women—who have the chance to be part of conversations with the mandate of thinking through gender issues.

An astute reader might have noticed that the UbD program about mental health presented above could be achieved by making use solely of male educators. This is true because UbD does not focus on the educator but on the content. UbD can help a synagogue frame a season or a year but will likely still not solve the problem of ensuring gender balance. Instead, a community needs to recognize that some considerations, like gender, transcend specific pedagogic considerations. Behind UbD exists an even further value system that involves thinking about how we even make decisions about what our goals are and what we want to achieve in our education. In schools, one of the ways these decisions are made is by hiring educators that share commonalities (certain basic qualifications, content knowledge) but also differences as these differences will help strengthen a school and a department by introducing diverse voices to the conversation. As well, these differences also provide educators for different types of students and their learning needs. Anyone who has ever been in a classroom knows that no teacher is a good fit for every student. The same is true for a synagogue. Ensuring that females are present is not a pedagogical choice; rather, it needs to be a foundational value that ensures that the needs of all learners are being met. Weaving gender considerations into the value system of the synagogue’s educational vision, and not just specific programming models, shows that leadership for female learners is a core value that transcends all programming. This type of inclusivity sends a clear message that this is a synagogue that appreciates the contributions that all members, regardless of gender, can make within the boundaries of Halakhah that the community establishes.

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