Becoming a teacher wasn’t part of his plan. He figured he would finish rabbinical school, be hired as an associate rabbi at a synagogue, and see where that went.
But when Michael Bitton was asked to consider a Judaic Studies teaching position at Magen David Yeshivah High School in Brooklyn, he figured that with a young family to support, it would be a smart move - at least temporarily.
That was in 2011. Now, just six years later, Rabbi Bitton has emerged as a pioneering educator who is not only transforming Magen David into a laboratory for 21st century Jewish education, but is also working to shift mindsets and remake classrooms across the community.
“King Solomon, the great teacher, said that we must educate children in line with their ways,” said Rabbi Bitton, who received The Covenant Foundation’s 2014 Pomegranate Prize for his promise and impact as an emerging Jewish educator.
“That means we must reach and teach them in ways that are most engaging, exciting and stimulating, in ways that are most meaningful and that bring Jewish text, traditions and laws to life.”
A fierce advocate for educational approaches and methods that are multidimensional, Rabbi Bitton has fully embraced technology and digitally driven pedagogies such as Project Based Learning (PBL), Blended Learning, Flipped Classrooms, and others that are slowly emerging along the Jewish educational spectrum.
“Traditional, frontal teaching reaches those in the middle, but other students get lost or just float through,” said Rabbi Bitton, who graduated from Kollel Ohel Torah Rabbinical College and is now a Doctoral student at the Azrieli Graduate School of Education at Yeshiva University.
“More creative approaches allow more fluidity in teaching and learning. We have to be honest with ourselves. Just testing and testing without opportunities for creativity doesn’t allow our students to thrive or our community to grow. So we must adapt.”
Rabbi Bitton’s identity as an innovative educator with passion for new pedagogies took hold as he prepared for his first term in his new position at Magen David. Doing some Internet research on ways to enhance his classes, he discovered open source content on early generation technology-infused approaches, and this rookie educator developed a vision for Jewish education and found himself on fertile ground to develop it.
“Magen David embraces the idea of taking risks,” said Rabbi Saul Zucker, former principal of the Modern Orthodox school that enrolls about 400 students, most of Syrian descent. “At the beginning of his tenure, Michael came to me and said he wanted to take a look at the world of educational technology and see how it could be adapted to what is going on in more traditional settings.
“We gave our blessing and the return on that investment is one that I can’t even describe. More important than Michael’s passion is his contagious enthusiasm for exploring pathways we didn’t look at previously. He is a maverick with the right ideas at the right time, and epitomizes the exciting pathway of education.”
Rabbi Bitton’s influence is now deeply rooted at the school, where technology-based approaches are the rule, rather than the exception, and his catalyzing role has been formalized in his title, Director of Education and Technology.
He partners with Judaic and General Studies faculty to develop digitally driven curricula, coaches first-year teachers in pedagogies such as PBL, and coordinates training for faculty, parents and students in the use of technology to advance learning.
But his influence as practitioner and educational change maker extends well beyond the walls of Magen David. The school has become a destination for other educators and administrators studying best practices with an eye toward adapting them, and Rabbi Bitton is an increasingly familiar face at workshops, conferences and teacher development trainings across the country.
He served as an online instructor at Yeshiva University, teaching a class on educational technology and creating innovation plans for educators. In addition, he is a presenter and facilitator for the I.D.E.A. Schools Network – which has reached well over 1,000 educators since its founding three years ago - training teachers in PBL and other educational models at its popular Summer Sandbox professional development series and other programs.
“Michael is at the center of the innovation space of Jewish education,” said Tikvah Wiener, Co-founder and Director of the I.D.E.A. Schools Network. “He is committed to using innovation to enhance and strengthen student engagement and his voice is respected.”
During his three-year engagement as a Pomegranate Prize recipient, Rabbi Bitton has used the platform and resources associated with the award to immerse himself even deeper into the study of emerging pedagogies - not only for his own practice, but to better teach educators at Magen David and beyond.
He participated in a one-year program at the High Tech High Schools in San Diego, a leading charter school nationally known for PBL in the classroom, which brought teachers together both in-person and virtually to learn new and best practices. He also attended the Tanakh Study Conference at Herzog College in Gush Etzion, Israel, which attracts thousands of educators, scholars, rabbis and students each year to absorb new interpretations and teaching methods.
“If it wasn’t for the Pomegranate Prize, and for the real and deep respect for emerging talent by The Covenant Foundation, it’s doubtful that I would have had these exposures and the opportunity for such professional and personal growth,” said Rabbi Bitton.
This self-proclaimed “accidental” Jewish educator recognizes that there is an inherent tension within the Jewish community between the comforts of tradition and the promise of change.
“We get worried about mixing things up, especially in a community like ours that is so tied to tradition,” Rabbi Bitton said. “We don’t want to lose the meaning of the values and wisdom we seek to impart.
“But in our purest tradition, we are a searching, interpretive people, and 21st century teaching must be true to that heritage. We must make our classrooms fun, real and engaging, and ultimately more innovative and meaningful, to allow students to thrive.”
By H. Glenn Rosenkrantz, for The Covenant Foundation