The Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote that “we are closer to God when we are asking questions than when we think we have the answers.”
That outlook seems to aptly describe the way that Joey Eisman has gone about pursuing his career.
As an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, Eisman majored in neuroscience and planned on attending medical school. But after graduating, he decided to spend a year in Latvia as a youth professional for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC).
There he made two related discoveries.
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The first was that he loved working with teens through the medium of experiential education, focusing on the development of character, identity and community. “I found that when you take the time to dig deep into a young person they will not only miraculously surprise you, but also inform you about things you might not have otherwise considered,” says Eisman, who in May received his master’s degree from TC’s Program in Cognitive Science in Education.
Somewhat to his own surprise, Eisman also came to appreciate how Jewish education could aid in that process. “Before, I thought Judaism had a very narrow scope of its definition of what it meant to be a Jew,” he recalled in an interview he did in 2017 with Washington Jewish Week. “But in Europe, I saw that even the people who may not have been identifiable as Jewish based on my previous definitions were just as engaged in making sure that the old traditions were meaningful.” Those traditions, he now feels, are quite expansive. “So often we try to find something new, but what is really cool is the opportunity to find something that already exists and make it relevant. Judaism is not just a religion, it’s not just a people, it’s not just a lifestyle, it’s not just a set of values. It’s all of those things.”
My area of interest is preparing the next generation for not only the labor force but also how to become self-aware functioning adults — soft skills that more schools and organizations are identifying as a priority.
— Joey Eisman
In 2012, Eisman returned stateside to work with BBYO (formerly the B’nai Brith Youth Organization), which builds the identity of Jewish teens through leadership and service programs offered by local fraternity- and sorority-like chapters. He received the 2015 Faculty Advisor of the Year Award from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), secured a 2016 ConnectGens Fellowship from The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and ultimately became BBYO’s Senior Program Manager for Global Engagement.
In short, he seemed fully launched in a successful career. So why step away from it to pursue a degree in Cognitive Science?
For Eisman, the answer was social and emotional learning (SEL) — the process through which children and adults come to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.
“SEL processes leverage age-old wisdom with modern data to enhance the context in which our students grow,” he wrote in 2019 in e-Jewish Philanthropy, in an article he co-authored with fellow TC Cognitive Science doctoral student Josh Sterling Friedman and Jeffrey S. Kress, a professor at Jewish Theological Seminary. “The connection to Jewish education is clear. SEL is associated with meaningful classroom success, enactment of positive communal behaviors, and academic achievement. If you are in the Jewish education space… think of SEL not as another task to spend time on, but the lens through which all tasks ought to be viewed through.”
Yet in the same way that his year abroad opened Eisman to the possibilities of Jewish education, his time at TC seems to have provided him with a broader context for thinking about SEL.
“It represents the other side of the coin of current educational models such as STEAM [the collective discipline that encompasses science, technology, engineering, the arts and mathematics],” he says. “A young person can be trained in computer skills. But my area of interest is developing flexibility, emotional self-awareness and helping young people become team players. It is preparing the next generation for not only the labor force but also how to become self-aware functioning adults – soft skills that more schools and organizations are identifying as a priority.”
At TC, Eisman has sought to strengthen the scientific foundation for SEL. His master’s thesis, titled “The Proper Perspective: Analysis of Pronouns on Empathy in a Perspective-Taking Task,” investigated the potential of “point of view tasks” — for example, employing different gender pronouns in stories such as that of a person becoming homeless — to change readers’ baseline empathy levels. At the same time, TC helped him hone his ideas on experiential education and expand his practical experience — for example, by serving as an intern for I Am, We Are, a camp in South Africa.
“I still work in the Jewish space, but I’m trying to use my skills and privilege for marginalized populations,” he says.
Meanwhile, he also became deeply involved in the TC community. During his final year, he served as a TC Student Ambassador, leading potential students and their families on campus tours. And he’s become a key member of the interdisciplinary Media and Social Change Lab (MASCLab), one of the College’s most popular intellectual gathering points, which encourages students from all departments to tell stories on evolving digital platforms. Through MASCLab, Eisman has participated in the creation of LAMBOOZLED!, a teaching game to help students learn to recognize “fake news,” which will be marketed by Teachers College Press this coming fall.
The upshot of all this varied but interrelated work is that this fall, Eisman will enter a Ph.D. program in Educational Psychology at Temple University. Where his path will take him after that remains an open question. But for Eisman, in any endeavor, asking new questions is clearly the point.
— Steve Giegerich