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Giving Students Space to Learn

At Ohr Torah Stone’s Derech Avot Junior High and High School for Boys, students participate in body-mind workshops and in Torah classes in the Israeli Beit Midrash. * The teaching staff participates in yoga classes and empowerment sessions. * Rabbi Yoni Hollander, the principal, explains the rationale behind a different kind of learning space.

Derech Avot 2Upon entering the gates of Ohr Torah Derech Avot Junior High and High School, one immediately senses that this is not a typical school. The learning space is reflected in the physical space, with “talking walls” filled with content and art along the corridors, ninja facilities outside, and more. But more importantly, based on its perception of the role of the school in its students’ lives, Derech Avot is dedicated to providing groundbreaking educational leadership that empowers its students.

The school is a broad community that strives to meet the needs of students who wish to learn in a public Torah-oriented high school without having to attend a boarding school; one that allows its students to remain connected to both the place where they learn and the homes and families from which they come.

The school’s social approach embraces the human mosaic and attaches great importance to heterogeneity, out of a commitment to creating an environment tailored to the individual needs of each student. This has resulted in a vibrant and diverse student body, in which each student is able to grow and develop according to their unique skills and abilities. Derech Avot welcomes students with ambitious spiritual and religious aspirations, outstanding and curious students, as well as those with difficulties who are willing to make an effort and work hard in order to get ahead. This is the key to a healthy, empowering society.

Learning That is Connected to Life

We recently met with Rabbi Yoni Hollander, director of Ohr Torah Derech Avot, for a discussion of the “Learning Space”, education and knowledge.

What is the significance of Derech Avot’s definition as a “Learning Space” rather than as a school, as is the common practice?

דרך אבות“The entire world is currently facing a renewed challenge in the field of education and the transfer of knowledge. In the 21st century, schools must redefine their role beyond the mere transfer of knowledge. At Derech Avot, we have chosen to move beyond the term “school,” which is a more limited place, to an expanse; a full space. Even books no longer serve as the sole learning tool, as in the past. The written law is studied alongside the oral law, and not just in the realm of Jewish studies. The departure from the written word, and the integration of interpersonal encounters accompanied by discourse, is central to our educational process.

It is important to underscore that this terminology defining our environment –”Learning Space, Education and Knowledge” – is of paramount importance and is consistent with all of the activities we undertake with our students.”

How is this unique approach reflected in practice?

“It is of course reflected on the ground on a number of levels, encompassing pedagogical, emotional, educational, and values-based aspects,” explains Rabbi Hollander. “For example, Derech Avot has an Israeli Beit Midrash, which is run under the leadership of the school’s rabbi and pedagogical coordinator.

In the Israeli Beit Midrash, we take some of the regular Jewish studies curriculum, and connect it in interdisciplinary learning with the study of civics. In this way, students are provided with tools for discussion to hold a discourse involving listening and critical thinking from a place of connection, knowledge and familiarity that draws on their roots and on the Jewish bookshelf, engaging them in the Israeli reality as part of a meaningful and relevant learning experience.

Students are thus able to explore current civil issues that draw on Jewish sources and challenge the religious public in Israeli society, such as the observance of Shabbat in the public sphere. After studying the laws of Shabbat and its philosophical and conceptual aspects, students and staff together consider the social and legal implications of public transportation on Shabbat, the opening of places of commerce and culture, and more.

We similarly approached the complex halachic issues surrounding people with disabilities. We learned about an important concept from the Gemara known as dash be’iro – a familiar sight in one’s town – which conveys an important social statement about accepting the other and seeing them as an integral part of our community; we also learned about a concept in the context of the treatment of people with special needs, and we read various responsa that addressed the subject, for example, the question of whether a person with a visual impairment may enter the synagogue with a guide dog. Over the years, there has been a remarkable development of halachic responses on these subjects, which are also influenced by the growing social and personal awareness of the challenges faced by people with disabilities.

After learning the halachic aspects, the students go out to assess the accessibility of public institutions, such as synagogues, restaurants, and businesses in Efrat. Studies are deeply connected to the students’ lives and their current reality and experience.”

Following the Heart – the BodyMind Center

As part of the holistic approach taken by the Derech Avot educational staff toward their role in the broader aspects of their students’ lives, beyond pedagogy and a commitment to completing studies towards a matriculation certificate, a body-mind center called “El Halev” has been established in the educational space.

This initiative was spearheaded by Ohr Torah Stone President and Rosh HaYeshiva, Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Brander, who saw the extensive educational activity at Derech Avot and sought to add yet another layer.

The thought leadership team that convened sought to establish a body-mind center as part of the study day that would empower both the development and strengthening of the physical domains in direct interface with the students’ mental and emotional well-being.

Students’ participation in the El Halev center, which operates under the leadership of Shulamit Mor Yosef, is optional. All the activities in the center, which are elective, take place during the school day. Impressively, about half of the students take advantage of the wide range of activities available at the body-mind center, including martial arts, dog training, carpentry, music groups, yoga classes, mindfulness classes, a fitness room, a basketball team, a running team, discourse groups, and a masculinity space for high schoolers to discuss the various aspects of adolescence and the challenges it presents.

Rabbi Hollander explains: “One of the discussion groups is for students whose parents are divorced. It is inspiring to see the students sitting, sharing, listening and being aware of their emotional side. This is the center’s special strength.”

As part of its holistic approach, Derech Avot believes that the educational and knowledge spaces should speak the same language to both faculty and students; belief in empowering the students also means belief in empowering the faculty. That is why some of the resources are dedicated to the teachers’ well-being too, such as separate yoga groups for male and female teachers, mindfulness classes, study groups dealing with halachic and conceptual issues, and more. By orienting the entire school staff towards the same goal and speaking the same language, a strong connection is forged between the students and teachers, who consider one another full partners.

In the evenings, the El Halev center holds groups for parental empowerment using the “Eicha” method, which strengthens parental authority and provides the parents of the students with tools to address the challenges they face in raising children.

Still, it is impossible to ignore the matter of educational achievements when discussing education.

חבלים דרך אבות“Of course. We consider the cultivation of personal excellence among the students and optimally addressing their high educational and intellectual level to be an integral part of our educational mission.  This year, we even won the Israeli Religious Educational System National Award for Excellence in Education,” explains Rabbi Hollander.

“By virtue of being excellent students who are an example to their friends, they have the responsibility of being ethical, moral and society-oriented students. Our concept of excellence is based on excellence on the one hand, and on unlocking potential through dedication and hard work, on the other. Tal Luria, our excellence coordinator, works to tailor an individual program for each student. He identifies these students, builds a personal program for them, and mentors them throughout their school years.”

Derech Avot offers a variety of excellence programs outside the school – through programs offered by the Ministry of Education and in the private sector, and inside the school – in the cultivation of learning groups from different class levels, the mentoring of outstanding students, and matching outstanding teachers with outstanding students who share common interests.

This year, the Spotlight program was operated for the first time – a unique annual program for outstanding students in grades 8-10. As part of the program, the students are identified based on their grades, participate in several enrichment and team-building sessions and take part in an individual research project. Depending on the research topics, the students work with teachers from the school or with parents or other family members who have an affinity to the research field.

An Educational Community Open to All

Excellence programs in an expansive educational space whose gates are open to all who wish to join are not a simple matter. Guided by the ideological approach of Rabbi Hollander and his partners in this vision and practice, Yisrael Avital, principal of the middle school, and Yossi Raz, principal of the high school, Derech Avot is designed as a broad community open to all who wish to take part in it. To succeed in this, Derech Avot accommodates a wide range of students’ preferences and abilities.

Students studying toward an academic degree in scientific subjects are educated alongside students on the spectrum, students seeking further Torah enrichment and students challenged by the academic theoretical subjects. Derech Avot offers a variety of study tracks to ensure that each student finds their perfect fit. At the same time, the students enjoy a shared social experience, including field trips, seminars and hikes. Groupings by achievement level and a wide variety of study tracks further enhance the educational experience.

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