Why did God create me? Why do we have to keep Shabbat? Do my tefillot really matter? If God is so loving, why is there so much suffering?
These are questions often left unanswered in many Jewish high schools. Until recently.
Thanks to Kivun, a two-year-long Jewish philosophy curriculum designed for tenth and eleventh grades, students in Jewish schools throughout the US and beyond are delving into classical works on Jewish thought, exploring these and other hashkafic topics in a systematic way. Through guided discovery of sources and classroom discussions, Kivun (Hebrew for compass) encourages students to ask questions, aimed at providing them with a profound understanding of Judaism and a deep, personal connection to Hashem and Torah.
Rebbetzin Leah Kohn, founder of the program and director of the Jewish Renaissance Center, a Manhattan-based educational venue for women, realized the need for such an initiative some years ago. Because of her expertise in outreach, she was getting phone calls from Jewish day school educators on a fairly regular basis. “Teachers would send high school girls who had questions to me,” says Rebbetzin Kohn. “I realized they didn’t know how to handle the questions. These young women were not looking to [leave the derech haTorah], but they were thinking individuals and they wanted answers.”
Jewish schools tend to stress mastering skills and accumulating knowledge, and can at times overlook the need to teach the fundamentals of Jewish thought. “Students know the commentators; they know how to translate a Ramban, but when it comes to the basics—What does it mean to be a chosen people? What does bechirah chofshit really mean? —they can’t answer,” says Rebbetzin Kohn. “These are not provocative questions; they’re fundamental questions.”
And teachers, although committed to and passionate about teaching Yahadut, are not always equipped to provide the in-depth answers students are seeking. Rebbetzin Kohn set out to fill this gap.
“Usually when people speak about the need to teach emunah, it’s in response to those going off the derech,” says Rebbetzin Kohn. “The point is to provide students with a foundation that makes Yiddishkeit precious to them. Otherwise, what will be left for the next generation? Just a set of rules.”
The Kivun curriculum is comprised of thirteen units covering a broad range of topics including the purpose of Creation, the role of the Jewish people in the world, reward and punishment, and Olam Haba. Each unit, which includes a student workbook and teacher source material, culls from classic Jewish philosophical sources including the Ramchal’s Derech Hashem, Rav Eliyahu Dessler’s Michtav M’Eliyahu, Rav Elchanan Wasserman’s Ma’amar al Emunah, the Netivot Shalom, the Maharal, Meshech Chochmah and other works. In June, Rebbetzin Kohn arranges a five-day teacher-training seminar to help educators prepare for the upcoming school year.
Currently taught in forty-five high schools throughout the world, the curriculum is found in schools across the Orthodox spectrum. Since it was founded in 2013, Kivun has trained teachers worldwide, exposing hundreds of educators to the program. While currently the program is used in all-girls’ schools, Rebbetzin Kohn has begun marketing the curriculum to boys’ yeshivot.
“Even the students who aren’t the most intellectually or religiously oriented tell me, ‘I loved what we learned. I shared it with my mother,’” says Leah Lustiger, an eleventh-grade teacher at Bnos Leah Prospect Park Yeshiva in Brooklyn, who taught the program this past year to her class. “It’s not a lecture where students are scribbling notes the whole time. It’s something they’re excited about.”
Bayla Sheva Brenner is an award-winning freelance writer and a regular contributor to Jewish Action.