Rabbi Yigal Sklarin had been spending so much time at The Metropolitan Museum of Art that his young son actually believed his father worked there, and told people as much.
In reality, Rabbi Sklarin works just a few blocks away, at The Ramaz Upper School. But considering that for him, the Met has a kid-in-the-candy shop draw, it would be easy to make such a mistake.
“I will run over there in a driving rain, and race up those steps and just wander the galleries,” he said. “If students don’t see me at school, they figure I’m there. It’s a beautiful distraction.”
Rabbi Sklarin is Director of Inter-Disciplinary Programs and Senior Grade Dean at Ramaz. His titles certainly capture what he does, but fail to describe a Jewish educator who would literally knock down every school wall if he could, and let the world-class cultural offerings of New York City, particularly its museums, flood in.
“I try my best to make Ramaz the most enriching place possible,” he said. “Museums present something real and tangible, allowing us to move away from theory and help students engage deeper and differently.
“I’m beyond passionate about creating connections that bring to life academic studies in the classroom.”
For sure, his passion has morphed into his own particularly stamped pedagogy at Ramaz. It is an approach that is transforming education for students and faculty there and standing as an example of what expansive, imaginative and creatively fueled Jewish education can look like and achieve, especially when stitched with interdisciplinary threads.
So, for example, a Tanakh class visited a Met exhibit, Assyria to Iberia at the Dawn of the Classical Age, and an Assyriologist from Yeshiva University put artifacts into historical context for students. Another class studying 19th and 20th European history attended a Chagall installation at The Jewish Museum, where Rabbi Sklarin discussed iconography and an art teacher described the artist’s technique. And students studying the Holocaust visited the Neue Galerie for an exhibit on artwork stolen from Jews.
“Purposeful and well-designed education outside the classroom simply enhances, deepens and gives life to what is going on inside the classroom,” said Rabbi Sklarin, who received The Covenant Foundation’s 2014 Pomegranate Prize for his promise as an emerging Jewish educator.
Those who know and work with him say Rabbi Sklarin’s unbridled excitement for the knowledge housed in museums and the potential to create partnerships and connections beyond the school’s walls is a theme he consistently restates and reiterates, and that it is infectious.
So often, in fact, was Rabbi Sklarin bringing students and colleagues to the Met’s medieval wing, where Jewish manuscripts are often on view, that he was offered an internship there in 2015, working with the curator to catalog and interpret manuscripts lent by The Jewish Theological Seminary.
And when the museum opened an exhibit, Jerusalem 1000 – 1400, Rabbi Sklarin became a de facto docent, leading hundreds of students from Ramaz and other day schools, teachers, and Jewish communal and educational leaders through it with an expertise born of his own self-described thirst for the acquisition and sharing of knowledge.
In 2015, Sklarin and a colleague from the history department established an interdisciplinary class called “Spaces,” with a curriculum focused on analyzing various topics including biblical sources in relation to sacred spaces, private and public spaces, and even inner space. In addition to trips to museums, galleries, synagogues and even Central Park, Sklarin invited experts from outside of the school, including a cultural anthropologist and a city planner to come and talk with students.
“He finds out what is being offered, educates himself deeply, and gets students excited about what are oftentimes very esoteric areas of knowledge,” said Rabbi Shlomo Stochel, Principal of the Upper School, which enrolls about 400 students. “He has a superior sense of what will stimulate an adolescent’s interests and brings subjects alive in very unique, multi-dimensional and integrated ways. His impact is tremendous.”
His integrative approach has seeped into other areas at Ramaz as well. He has collaborated with administrators to visit and open dialogues with colleagues at other schools in order to learn best practices and efficiencies in organizational set up, for instance, and convinced Ramaz Head of School Rabbi Stochel to teach a senior elective course this coming school term, as opposed to fulfilling only administrative duties.
Despite his passion for creating interdisciplinary models at Ramaz, Rabbi Sklarin described himself as having lived in a “self-scaffolded bubble,” at least until the Pomegranate Prize came along.
His three-year engagement as a Prize recipient, and the exposures and connections attached to it, he said, expanded his view of what Jewish education can look like and also led to creative partnerships with other professionals including some Foundation grant recipients.
With the resources attached to the Prize, Rabbi Sklarin realized a personal and professional dream and spent the summer of 2017 as an intern at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. There, he became familiar with its collections, translated manuscripts, wrote bibliographical content for an exhibit on Maimonides manuscripts, and of course endlessly wandered the galleries to soak it all up.
And during his first summer as a Pomegranate Prize recipient, he traveled throughout Israel meeting with about 20 educators at religious high schools to learn together about best practices for teaching a values-based Talmud curriculum, an approach he believes is lacking in the United States but one that he wants to strengthen at Ramaz.
“My involvement with The Covenant Foundation has nourished the work that I do,” said Rabbi Sklarin, who received his ordination from the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary and a Master’s degree in Modern Jewish History from Yeshiva University, where he is currently a doctoral candidate.
“It is wonderful to know that others see certain things in me enough to want to propel me forward professionally and deepen the good and lasting impact that I want to make.”
By H. Glenn Rosenkrantz, for The Covenant Foundation