Prison Reform and Arei Miklat: A PBL Approach to High School Talmud Study

By: Sarah Gordon
from Ma'ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls

Real-World Learning

Subject(s) of entry:
Gemara, Philosophy/ Values/ Ethics/ Hashkafa

Experiential Education, IBL - inquiry based learning, PBL - project based learning, 21st Century Skills

Grade(s) to which this was taught:
10, 12, High school

Grade(s) for which this will be useful:
10, 12, High school

A PBL approach to Talmud study can help students connect values from the text to their own lives in an authentic way, irrespective of how practical (or impractical) the cases in the Gemara. In this unit, students used their knowledge of Masekhet Makkot and Arei Miklat to research solutions for problems with the American prison system.

Entry Narrative

Prison Reform and Arei Miklat:

A PBL Approach to High School Talmud Study

Entry for Kohelet Prize

Sarah Gordon, Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School

I. The Problem:

“How is what we’re learning relevant to MY life? Why should I care about anything that we are learning – none of these laws are relevant or practical!”

These were some of the questions I heard often from my students when teaching high school Talmud.

Answering this question was difficult at first, as I was teaching the first chapter of Masechet Makkot which mainly deals with the laws of edim zommemim, a complicated system discussing when and how different groups of witnesses can perjure each other. I found that my students struggled with the text material and could not see how what they were learning could be meaningful to their lives outside of the classroom.

II. Concerns:

I wanted to switch the way that I taught Talmud, but certain hesitations were holding me back.

  • I wanted to make the text meaningful and relevant to my students without sacrificing the rigor and skills-based learning prided upon by Ma’ayanot, which strives to produce graduates ready and able to learn Talmud independently. I had concerns about how much of a Project Based Learning approach could be applied to a Judaic Studies class with specific Talmud skills benchmarks.
  • I did not want to lose valuable class time and fall behind other classes in covering ground in the Gemara.
  • There is a certain value present in Torah study where its study is supposed to be “lishmah”, for its own sake and not predicated on practicality. This is also an important affective goal to impart to my students. I wanted my approach to focus on meaning and values, irrespective of practicality.

III. The Experiment:

I decided to experiment with overhauling and reframing my approach to teaching Talmud, incorporating ideas from two areas.

    1. Whenever possible, I looked for opportunities to insert modified Project Based Learning into the curriculum. The elements of inquiry-based learning, student voice and choice and researching authentic real world problems would allow students to make connections from their Talmud study to topics that had meaning and relevance for them. I realized that for learning to be personally meaningful, it did not have to be practical but had to involve values which were important and meaningful to the students. It was irrelevant that Masekhet Makkot did not contain many practical Halakhic topics, as the students would connect much more to value-based subjects such as defining personal responsibly and using the subject of Arei Miklat (cities of refuge) to solve problems in the American prison system.  A modified version of PBL would also not take away from text-based Talmud study and skill building.
    2. I found validation for my approach (and the class time it would take) in the writings of Rav Shagar (R’ Shimon Gershon Rosenberg), specifically in his book “B’Torato Yehage: Limmud Gemara Kibakashat Elokim” where he criticizes the style of Talmud study based on analytical questions which ignores “the questions of meaning” young men and women are searching for when looking for ways religious texts can inform their lives. For example, instead of focusing the study of Masekhet Kiddushin on questions such as the three ways a woman can be acquired, the class should discuss how the values found in the text can inform their future marriages (see more on the thought of Rav Shagar here and here).

IV. PBL and Talmud: Arei Miklat and Prison Reform:

This PBL unit on Arei Miklat and Prison Reform came after spending a few weeks learning sections of Masekhet Makkot about Arei Miklat in the traditional, rigorous way, focusing on Gemara skills, vocabulary and content. I framed these units with students by sharing that they would soon be applying their Gemara knowledge to solve issues with the American prison system. Periodically throughout our learning, I would ask the students to connect what we were discussing back to what they knew at that point about prisons (for example: What are the goals of Arei Miklat and how might those differ from the goals of prisons? Are the goals rehabilitation, protection or punitive?). Students were also tested on this material in order to ensure skills and content benchmarks were being met. This ensured that the PBL learning would not come at the expense of Gemara skills.

I tried to incorporate many elements of Project Based Learning into this assignment, as defined by the Buck Institute for Education, including starting off with a driving question, allowing for student voice and choice about their topic, providing time for sustained inquiry and asking questions, choosing a topic that would allow for authenticity and real-world learning, allowing time for critique and revision, having students publicly present their projects in front of experts and allowing time for reflection.

1. Driving Question: Students were presented with the driving question of “How might our knowledge of Arei Miklat help us solve problems with the American prison system”?  This led to an animated class discussion where students came up with their own questions on this topic, connecting what they were learning in Makkot to real-world issues and including “should the United States have different categories of accidents and prisons similar to what is found in Makkot?” and “How might the concept of hiyuta (a certain quality of life must be maintained in the Ir Miklat according to Makkot 10a) work with the concept of solitary confinement?”

I was happy to see how engaged and excited the students were when asking their questions. This was a topic that interested them and about which they wanted to find out more. I could also see how students were drawing connections between what they had learned in Gemara about Arei Miklat and what they wanted to know about the American prison system.

2. Sustained Inquiry/Authenticity: Students watched excerpts about issues from the documentary “13th” on Netflix and heard a guest lecture from Rabbi Ari Hart about his experiences volunteering in prisons. The ensuing class discussions led to many more questions by students and increased the level of buy-in to the project.

3. Student Voice and Choice/Critique & Revision: Students were given a timeline of how the project would work. Each group researched their questions until they decided on a topic – allowing for in-depth inquiry. I handed out resources including articles, websites and podcasts to help them with research and different options to choose from (one group decided to research a topic they thought of on their own about the treatment of women in prisons). I also had periodic check-ins with each group to provide guidance on their projects and give feedback.

4. Public Presentations: I invited a range of teachers to watch the presentations and ask questions to students at the end. I specifically chose teachers with a Judaic Studies background who also taught American History or Government or who were lawyers so that they would qualify as quasi-experts on this topic. After each presentation, the other students in the class and the guest teachers asked questions of the students presenting. Many students felt this was the most enjoyable part of the project, when they were able to act as experts in the front of the room and answer questions on the topic they had chosen.


For specific examples of student presentations, please see here, here and here.

V. Student Reflections:

I had the students fill out a google form reflecting on their experience. I asked questions such as “What was the most important thing you learned in this project?”, “What do you wish you had spent more time on or done differently,” “What was the most enjoyable part of this project,” “How could the teacher change this project to make it better next time?”

I was happy to hear feedback from students about how they now found the Gemara relevant. Many felt very invested in their topics and wanted to find out more about issues in the prison system.

When asked what was the most important thing learned in the project, students shared:

        • Sarah: “That the moral lessons that can be learned from Gemara can be applied to real life situations/ problems.”
        • Cayla: “That Gemara relates to real life.”
        • Mia: “We should try to fix the prison system based off of the Ir Miklat because that was a very organized and fair system.”
        • Danit: “That the American prison system is very similar to the ערי מקלט.“

When asked what was the most enjoyable part of the project, students shared:

        • Yael: “Connecting what we are learning in class with issues of today.”
        • Mia: “Learning about how the prison system works, not only from mine but also other people’s projects.“
        • Ronit: “It was a truly great assignment that pushed me to further investigate  and understand the problems within our prison system. Creativity played a big role in this project which is very important. I got to relate two separate topics and it forced me to understand things in a different perspective.“
        • Sarah: “I really like the presentation factor/ answering questions. Being able to defend my idea and truly explain it to others made me feel as if I had done a good job.”
        • Hannah: “I feel like I am more knowledgeable in the American prison system than I was before the project.“
        • Adira: “I think that the topic for me was most enjoyable and therefore the entire project was enjoyable for me.”

VI. Personal Reflections:

Overall, I was very happy with switching my method of teaching Talmud. The Prison Reform project animated the classroom and had even the most skeptical of students sharing how meaningful and relevant they now found Gemara class. Incorporating select PBL units did not take away from the intensity of the class or the skills being imparted and added engagement and excitement of the students more than made up for the missed class time.

I would do a few things differently next time. Firstly, I would not have different groups research the same topic and if a topic is already chosen by one group, I would have the other group research something else. Some of the later presentations did not get as much of an enthusiastic debate during their Q & A because students had already exhausted this topic with other presenters.

I also found that some groups were much better presenters than others. I would devote more class time to discussing and modeling what goes into a successful presentation, specifically how to use powerpoint in an effective way. Some groups put too much information and text onto the powerpoints and then read straight from the slides instead of speaking to the class.

Due to time constraints, I was not able to complete the last part of the project, where students would meet with their local member of government to lobby for specific change in prison reform based on what they had researched for this project. I had wanted to reach out to the office of NJ Senator Corey Booker, who has advocated for legislation on this issue and arrange a meeting for my students with one of his aids, but simply ran out of time. I would definitely institute this as part of the project for next year as it provides an important opportunity to educate about lobbying and civic engagement. As well, according to David A. Kolb’s experiential learning cycle, it is important to provide students with opportunities for active experimentation after a learning experience where they can take action in new environments. Providing opportunities to create change and lobby for prison reform would be an important part of an authentic, real world learning experience.

VII. Moving Forward:

I have experimented with other similar PBL units in my teaching of Masekhet Makkot and Masekhet Kiddushin in order to provide spaces in the curriculum for students to discuss the values that arise from the texts and how they can apply these values in their personal lives. This is a work in progress and each year I hope to add more units in this style that focus on meaning and values that can be drawn out of the texts of Gemara being taught. I hope this reframing of my approach to teaching Talmud will help students see the relevance of the texts they are studying, irrespective of their practicality.

Other units have included:

  • Personal Responsibility and Safety Campaigns: Students began their study of the second chapter of Masekhet Makkot with the driving question of “What makes something an accident? Is an accident ever truly an accident?” and an accompanying class discussion. After learning the sections in Mashekhet Makkot about the different categories of accidents (shogeg – accidental, karov l’mezid – negligence, ones – not at fault), students were asked to identify a safety issue in Ma’ayanot and come up with a safety campaign they would run to solve that problem. Groups presented to the executive director of Ma’ayanot, who shared her comments and then chose a winning presentation of the most compelling issue and solution. Students commented how due to this project, they found themselves referencing the Gemara categories of accidents when they saw themselves or peers doing any actions that could result in someone getting hurt.
  • Civil Marriage in Israel: Students began their study of Masekhet Kiddushin with the driving question of “How can our study of the requirements of a Halakhic wedding help us solve the issue of civil marriage in Israel?” Students were struggling with the formulaic and gendered topics in Kiddushin and many resented spending more class time reinforcing stereotypes and expectations of marriage. The students were very connected and engaged with Israel topics and became excited about learning the Gemara texts when the topic was reframed to address civil marriage in Israel. Students had many questions about Israel serving as both a democratic and Jewish State and were excited about researching the different sides of the debate over civil marriage. After learning the relevant sections of Gemara in Kiddushin, students looked at responsa of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and modern day articles on this topic in Israel from representatives of Tzohar, the Rabbanut and Itim (resources and articles for this unit were shared with me by Rabbi Jonny Gordon of Kohelet Yeshiva in Philadelphia). Students were then asked to write their own responsa both as a religious authority in Israel and as a member of Knesset, advocating their religious and political solutions to specific situations of Israelis unable to marry. After this unit, students would often share news articles on these topics with me, excited to show me that they were still following these issues in the news. I felt much less resistance to teaching Kiddushin from the class when it was framed through a current-events lens.
  • Shelikhut in Real Life: After spending a semester learning the topic of agency/Shelikhut in Masekhet Kiddushin, students were given voice and choice in choosing new areas to find relevant and applicable examples of Shelikhut, from pop culture to Tanakh to law and history. This allowed students to find the relevance of Shelikhut in areas of study that were personally meaningful to them, leading to more excitement and engagement with learning Gemara.


Entrant Bio(s)

Sarah Gordon is the Director of Student Activities and Experiential Education at Ma'ayanot Yeshiva High School where she also teaches Talmud and Israel Engagement and Advocacy.