Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Judaism meets the chaplain – the “House of Inquiry” at the middle

At the rabbinical school I went to, we had a place we called the Beit Midrash/בית מדרש. To the untrained eye, it might have looked something like a library. It had books on bookshelves. It had tables and chairs. But it was anything but a place of silence. In fact, when it was full the sound of study became nothing short of a roar. People had books in front of them, but they were not reading them alone. They read them to each other out loud. People were thinking and analyzing and debating and creating, but the product was not a typed paper, or anything written at all. Instead, people were speaking their thoughts to one another. This was a kind of live-learning that only happened if we were all together. If there was any end product of this collective endeavor, it was within the minds and souls of the participants, not something on paper with the name of a single author on it.

In that Beit Midrash – and in the ones at the other Jewish institutions that nurtured me on my way to becoming a rabbi – I learned to love a particularly Jewish approach to learning. An approach that valued learning being done in groups or pairs, instead of the individual-focused and paper-writing-obsessed model of academia. An approach that might have seemed aimless to the person unfamiliar with it. An approach that upheld, in particular, the seemingly aimless value of Torah Lishma/תורה לשמה, Torah study for its own sake (as opposed to studying to achieve any particular goal). But, it would not quite be accurate to say Torah Lishma has no aim. Its aim is about cultivating something in the individual – transforming him or her to be a better person, one closer to God. One who knows better how to follow God's will. One who knows better how to care for his or her fellows -- something like the aim of learning through personal transformation that we have in chaplaincy education.

This summer – my first leading a chaplaincy education program on my own – I've had a chance to figure out how I can bring the educational and spiritual forms I have learned on my Jewish path to the multi-faith sphere that is Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE).

Last week we hit the middle of our program, a time when many programs do a mid-term review where the students take stock of what learning they have done, where they have been surprised and what they would like to do with the remainder of their time in the program. Many times this is done by each student writing a paper on their own. When I was a summer student, our supervisor asked us to express ourselves artistically by making collages that we shared with the rest of the group.

But I wanted to bring the model of the Beit Midrash – literally the House of Inquiry – into CPE. I decided that our learning should be done out loud and together. I did ask the students to reflect a bit on their own first and gave them some questions to think about. But most of the work was done out loud. We devoted about 25 minutes to each of our five students (mostly young, Protestant seminary students) over the course of one long morning and then spent 30 minutes reflecting on how we had been functioning and developing as a group. The students were very active in asking each other questions and most of the time I was able to do what I like to do most as a group facilitator – just sit back and enjoy how well the group is functioning on its own with only the slightest of interventions from me.

To be honest, it was only upon reflection that I realized how well what I had chosen to do fit the model of the Beit Midrash that I want to bring into CPE. I also realized that another aspect of how I had organized my summer program well reflected the live-learning and collective/group-learning values of the Beit Midrash – I have a minimum of ndividual writing requirements in my program. Most programs set an individual requirement for how many verbatims (detailed written reports on a patient visit) a student needs to write during the unit. Most of those get presented to the full group, but if there's not enough time in the group not all of them get presented. I, however, turned this kind of requirement on its head. I started with a group requirement for the number of verbatim presentations we would do (three a week, more than some other programs), and asked the students to set up a schedule on their own of who would present when. No verbatims would be written and not presented.


Above I mentioned that when I was a summer student, we had done an artistic mid-term evaluation. As a person who personally prefers the written word as a means of expression (I can't even draw a straight line!) I hated this! So, I was surprised to see art playing such a central and effective role in our mid-term evaluation last week. Early in the week, an art therapist at our hospital had come in and done an exercise with our students. He gave them a simple exercise to carry out in clay – create a representation of a wall, of yourself and of the relationship between the two. I was stunned to see how the sculptures the students created reflected so well what I had assessed their learning issues to be. We were able to use the images from these sculptures during our discussions as a springboard for analysis and as metaphors for what the students were experiencing. It was very rich and helped make the mid-term evaluation the great success I believe it was.

I am so proud of my students. They are working so hard to engage the very challenging learning issues that the work of caring for people in an intense hospital environment brings up every day. I hope they find blessing – and much learning – in the weeks remaining!


Gannet Girl said...

You have put your finger right on one of the things I love about CPE, and one of my great disapppointments about (my Protestant)seminary. As an older (ahem) adult I am well accustomed to the action-reflection-action model; that is, after all, how we learn in the real world. As a former teacher in an Orthodox school who became, after some struggle, accustiomed to the Beit Midrash method (which is, in my language, something akin to the Montessori education my children had through 8th grade), I have found much of the traditional seminary mode suffocating and, at my stage of brain development, ineffective. (And I got it when I found myself trying to explain it out loud to one of my rabbi friends, who was amused and baffled that we weren't pulling scripture apart word by word.)

Great reflection.

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