Scaling the Lifnai V’lifnim Experience

Written by:
Yehuda Chanales
Access editable doc with student handouts:

Around this time of year three years ago, I had the privilege of leading a group of teachers from Fuchs Mizrachi to Israel for a week to learn from Rav Dov and Yishai Singer. There we learned how to be more aware of our olam p’nimi, inner world, and share it with others. We learned how to slow down, listen before solving problems, and be more trusting and vulnerable. Ultimately, by leaning into the uncertainty of our work as educators, we learned to find Hashem in our lives and invite Him to our work with students. The experience jumpstarted a two year process at Fuchs Mizrachi that worked on bringing that experience to faculty and students alike. 


Starting this year with a transition from Cleveland to Teaneck, I was excited to bring what we had learned to my classes at Maayanot and work with faculty there and humbled by the interest of three additional schools (SAR, Kushner and Oakland HDS) to jump on the bandwagon and work together as they brought components of Lifnai Vlifnim to their schools. The incredible school leaders we were able to work with and the confident investment of our partners at the JEIC gave me hope that we could make a difference, but I still had so many questions. In some ways I felt like I was transitioning to the big league: Could something that worked with a unique faculty in a small “out of town” school work in large NY area schools? For an elementary school on the West Coast? Would teachers and students appreciate the experience? Did I have the tools to properly coach and train schools that I was not working in myself? Would I discover that the learning and language that had been so impactful for me did not really speak to others?


Sharing something you are passionate about with others is both thrilling and scary. Here are a few brief takeaways from this year’s experience:


1] Everybody wants to connect. Teachers want to feel connected with their colleagues; students with their peers; and both teachers and students with each other. More important than any specific topic that were discussed in chaburot across the schools we worked with was the energy people felt when given time to genuinely connect with others. Teachers and students alike noted that this connection led to a deeper understanding of each other. 


2] Making an art a science, while keeping it an art: Lifnai Vlifnim is primarily an experiential program. So much of the learning comes through the experience of people meeting, talking and learning from each other. While the Singers and program staff in Israel have perfected structures, protocols and refined questions that facilitate these experiences, very little of their incredible work has been documented. Working with school leaders who themselves were working with teachers required us to develop more “how to” type guides and “lesson plans” for chaburot and avodot. As someone who loves the bigger picture, more holistic thinking, this work has been both helpful and challenging. Helpful in pushing me, and more importantly my Israeli mentors, to more clearly articulate what we were doing and why we were doing it. Challenging because Lifnai Vlifnim is primarily about shifting the way educators think about themselves, their role in the classroom and what they are asking from students. These cultural changes cannot come only from following scripted lesson plans or guides. While it is a work in progress, we are learning how to balance the art and science of scaling and experience. 


3] Over the course of the year, questions often came up about the relationship between people sharing their own stories and their avodat hashem. What makes this work religious? If all we end up doing is listening to other people’s stories, how will that help us - and our students - learn Torah better, do more mitzvot or daven better? Isn’t this the same as a good SEL program? While a full answer to this question may be the topic of my next post, my weeklong experience at Makor Chaim this year shifted my perspective on this question. I noticed that in Israel - or at least at Makor Chaim - this question never came up. When one’s entire life is part of their Jewish experience then my personal life story can’t possibly be devoid or separate from my religious story. Outside of Israel we live with the dichotomy of our chol and kodesh lives and our religious experience is often relegated to specific times or places. I wonder if bringing some of Lifnai Vlifnim’s Torat Eretz Yisrael to our schools might help us bridge some of that gap. 


I can’t wait to learn more from all of you! Please reach out to let me know what your takeaways were from this year.  

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Please help others by sharing how you used the resource, how you adapted it (link to your own version!) and what worked more or less well. You can also post questions that Lifnai Vlifnim staff or community members will try to respond to.

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