Teaching to Learn: Developing Faith Through Engagement With Modern/Contemporary Jewish Thinkers

By: Rabbi Marc J. Belgrad
from Rochelle Zell Jewish High School

Development of Critical and / or Creative Thinking

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

IBL - inquiry based learning

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

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

My students complete a year-long exploration of Jewish faith & Modern Jewish Thought by teaching an essay written by a modern thinker. Each student-teacher summarizes the thesis & provides supporting ideas & illustrations. Likewise, s/he articulates a personal response, appropriating ideas in which s/he believes and explaining his/her reasoning.

Entry Narrative


Modern Jews find themselves challenged. We live in a culture that is dominated by secular and scientific thought, as well as a materialist philosophy and way of living. In light of that, establishing a strong Jewish faith is exceptionally difficult.

Faith and spirituality develop in different ways, both experientially and intellectually. My senior-year course, The Quest for Meaning in Modern/Contemporary Jewish Thought, focuses on the intellectual dimension but also contains affective pieces of learning. I engage students in an exploration of modern Jewish ideas and the students’ own, personal faith. I encourage students to challenge ideas and assumptions – both traditional and their own – in the construction of a faith-stance that is, at the same time, both personal and Jewish, critical and faithful.

During the first two-thirds of the year, we focus on distinct topics: spirituality, faith and doubt; free will; b’rit (covenant); theodicy; science and religion; Jewish ethics. The students’ final assignment is the construction of a statement of personal faith, conveyed via video recording. This project builds on the year’s learning and also precedes that final assignment as a preparation for it: Project Description

For the project, I have collected a variety of articles/chapters by a variety of modern/contemporary Jewish thinkers: Bibliography. They are diverse by virtue of gender, denomination, geographic place of origin and the time period during which they wrote. I continue to refine the project, in particular adding and deleting articles in order to keep variety and relevance.

Students consistently have enjoyed success. I measure that by several measures. First, they have understood the thinkers and their ideas. Second, they have utilized the worksheet and our meeting to craft a well-organized, intelligent, engaging lesson plan. Third, they have taught with clarity and ingenuity and have gained a sense of mastery and accomplishment that they convey to me. Finally, they often utilize their learning (from their own teaching) when they create their final video statement of faith. Additionally, I receive consistent positive feedback about their enjoyment of the project and how important it is to them.

Personally, I have taken great pride in this project – and in my students – as I am able to minimize my involvement and maximize the students’ skills, intellect and self-reliance. Their success and pride has been greatly rewarding to me as their teacher.


In preparation to teach, students:

  • read one essay/chapter critically and empathically
  • analyze the ideas and logic of the material
  • identify ramifications for Jewish faith
  • synthesize their learning through the appropriation or rejection of ideas
  • organize their thoughts for 50-minute presentation
  • design and execute creative lesson plans by which to engage fellow students

When not teaching, students:

  • read and annotate/highlight articles/chapters for understanding
  • participate actively in classroom dialogue
  • write responses to select articles/chapters, identifying ideas that aid in development of their own faith

Key Steps for Teacher-Presenters

  • I assign articles/chapters to each student-teacher. As often as possible, my choices are based on my understanding of the student’s needs, strengths and faith
  • Student-teachers read their article/chapter and utilize the Worksheet to organize their learning for presentation. Some of this is done during class time so that I am available to answer questions.
  • Each student-teacher meets individually with me to review their worksheet and to assure their understanding of the material and their readiness to teach. Likewise, we discuss teaching strategies to maximize the engagement of fellow students and identify exercises/modes that highlight key ideas.
  • Student-teachers teach a full class session, typically 50 minutes long, utilizing all of the material in the worksheets. Beyond the content, a key element is eliciting the active participation of fellow students.

Projects for (non-presenting) Students

  • Students read and annotate/highlight the articles/chapters for credit. They may choose an exemption from two.
  • Students are expected to participate regularly and frequently in each learning session and receive a grade for their contributions.
  • After each one-third of the total presentations, students are expected to write a brief response to one of the thinkers presented. The particular thinker is chosen by the student. The students write two out of the three responses, by their own choice. This is the Essay Description & Rubric.

My Role as Teacher

  • I assign the reading material to maximize each student’s interest, learning and success. I schedule presentations with a sensitivity to student needs.
  • I establish an Evaluation Rubric that is clear and detailed to maximize the students’ understanding of my expectations. It recapitulates the worksheet.
  • I meet individually with each student to review his/her worksheet preparation. During that meeting I ensure that the student understands the material correctly. We also strategize methods for teaching the material in ways that engage.
  • During the class presentation, I typically do not participate unless directly asked to or if there is a mistaken understanding that needs correction. Instead, I take notes that I later will share with the student in my evaluation of the project.
  • At the end of the class, I provide positive feedback to the teacher-student to acknowledge his/her success and to identify features that other students might emulate.
  • During the presentation, I enter detailed written feedback into the rubric, including reference to particular ideas and quotations utilized by the student. I am then able to share the information – and the grade – with the student shortly after the presentation.

Entrant Bio(s)

Rabbi Marc J. Belgrad, creator of Getting to God, is a Reform rabbi with over forty years’ experience in creating successful learning programs, transformative retreats and inspiring worship services. His lifelong passion has been the exploration of the possibilities, meanings and realities of Jewish faith. In a rare combination, he brings both intellectual knowledge of Jewish theology and a passionate, faithful commitment to the Jewish tradition as a path towards finding the God of our tradition.

Rabbi Belgrad holds a B.A. from Washington University in Philosophy and Judaic Studies – magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa – and received his M.A.H.L. and ordination from the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion. In 2011, he was awarded the degree of Doctor of Divinity, honoris causa, by H.U.C.- J.I.R with special notice of his creativity.

Having served congregations in New York, Memphis and Buffalo Grove, IL, as well as on the faculty of O.S.R.U.I., he has served proudly and with joy and passion as a member of the faculty at Rochelle Zell Jewish High School in Deerfield, IL. There he teaches Modern Jewish Thought, Tanakh (Bible) and Jewish History. He also organizes the Multi-Media Minyan and adds his guitar and voice to school-wide worship services.

Rabbi Belgrad has brought together a thoughtful and engaging group of people to form a new spiritual community, B’Chavana - now in its 8th year - which is dedicated to building an environment that is both nurturing and challenging to its members in their path of spiritual growth and in service to the world.