As the excitement recedes from the recent Chanukat Habayit for our new global headquarters at 40 Rector Street in Manhattan, and as we welcome the festival of Chanukah, I’ve been giving some thought to the root at the heart of those words, chet, nun, chof; lechanech: to educate, initiate, establish, dedicate. And this has led me to think about my own initiation, education, and experiencing of learning. Allow me to share my journey.
As early as I can remember, my curiosity led me to act first and seek to understand later. I jumped out of the crib at ten months, climbed on the stove and played with the knobs at fifteen months, dove off a seventeen- foot-high diving board at barely three years old, rode my bicycle down a steep hill into a wall at six, and so on. Although my mother wasn’t pleased by this search for sensory input and concrete experiences—often ending in emergency room visits—experiential learning has always been at the core of my educational process. In Thoreau’s framing, knowledge consists of physical learning like the “sweet edge dividing you through the heart and marrow.”
A shift in high school transformed my learning. Our teachers endeavored to make us think, to get us to hypothesize and delve into the abstract, leaving me overwhelmed: how was I to learn to work with all of this new data? As Ken Robinson explains, education should be about helping the learner uncover passions and interests, while matching them with skills development to help students find their element. So I had to learn to care about it, to become an emotional learner, to experience it as a passion.
But from whence the passion for learning? There was the high school math teacher who would regale us with his stories; the history teacher with her animated retelling of events and stories of others; and, in the summer, NCSY counselors with their stories of inspiration. The constant throughout was my parents, their modeling of curiosity and love of learning, my father teaching from the pulpit and at the dining room table on Shabbat afternoon; my mother at the university rostrum, and successfully pursuing her doctorate after we were mostly already out of the house. It was my parents’ focus on us—on me—that resonated when I encountered two graduate students with a similar approach who led courses I took in college. These students spent time helping me find my own voice and story, my own history and philosophy.
Perhaps my parents’ encouragement informs my readiness, and possibly over- eagerness, in sharing my own stories in these pages and when I speak publicly. My hope is that it not seem self-focused or self-centered; rather, I wish to model the effect of their approach which prepared me for the deepest learning I would then engage in, with rebbeim and older chavrutot in yeshivah who added inspiration through words of Torah to the other elements of my learning approach. All of these aspects— experiential learning, curiosity for others’ stories, and the development of my own personal engagement with the material—led me to find my passion and to pursue supervisors, mentors and colleagues at work who possess the same approach and ability. I’ve been blessed for many years with an abundance of learning experiences thanks to them.
With that in mind, the last several months have afforded me the opportunity to “know” the OU by experiencing the OU—through its programs, as well as its people, be they laypeople, professionals, participants or community members. Just a small sampling includes:
– Spending Shabbat, together with my family, with 166 Yavneh leadership fellows from fifty-one university campuses;
– Joining Yachad’s IVDU schools for a training, where faculty
and leadership engaged in professional development;
– Participating in OU Israel’s Shabbat Gibbush, a team-building weekend of learning and inspiration for all its Israel-based professionals;
– Recording a yearlong cycle in our All Parsha app on the writings of my father, z”l, based on the Netziv’s Haamek Davar. I feel blessed to have accomplished this with the guidance and support of our All Torah team, and of course, our wonderful listeners.
I continue to grow through these and other experiences across the various programs and projects. Indeed, my ongoing experience at the OU consists of working with mission- oriented, passionate professionals who are motivated to grow and learn and influence the diverse and expanding populations we serve. At the heart of this experience has been the mentorship, guidance, Torah and—perhaps best of all—the stories that our president, Moishe Bane, has shared with me over the last few years of his six-year tenure, which will sadly soon reach its conclusion. His impact has been immeasurable, both for my own learning as well as for the direction of the OU, during his tenure and as we launch the organization forward.
As Chanukah begins, may we utilize the opportunity to understand how we each learn so that we might rededicate and re-initiate ourselves into Torah learning. This, then, is how I learn. How about you? How do you learn?
Rabbi Dr. Josh Joseph is OU Executive Vice President/Chief Operating Officer.