Who is wise? He who learns from every man.
—Pirkei Avot

NYU lecturer and media critic Douglas Rushkoff once noted that the rite of passage into Jewish life—the bar mitzvah—is a big literacy exam. In other cultures, you might need to hunt an animal, make a solo canoe trek, or go to war, but in Judaism, you need to pass a reading test. As Jews, we place a high value not only on literacy, but also on education in general. For some, this value continues to be a motivator, But for others, the value of learning may seem limiting. What is the point of intelligence? To be smart? To earn money? To be right all the time?

This session asks teen boys these questions and takes a look at different types of intelligence. It is guided by the notion of interpersonal and intra-personal intelligence developed by Howard Gardner, a psychologist at the Harvard School of Education, in his book, Multiple Intelligences:

“Interpersonal intelligence is the ability to understand other people: what motivates them, how they work, how to work cooperatively with them… Intra-personal intelligence is a correlative ability, turned inward. It is a capacity to form an accurate, veridical model of oneself and to be able to use that model to operate effectively in life.” (Page 9)

The session begins with our attitudes about intelligence in general and leads into an exercise about empathy—the role that careful listening can play in gaining both interpersonal and intra-personal intelligence.


  • For guys to think critically about what it means to be “smart” and to expand their ideas about different types of intelligence.
  • For guys to have an opportunity to reflect on the academic stress that they are under and to think about the difference between the Jewish value of “knowledge” and the ability to do well on tests.
  • For guys to learn about interpersonal intelligence through a structured “chevruta” format that teaches empathetic listening.

Physical Activities

#1 Gator!

Use tape to create a grid on the floor. A grid that is 10 blocks by 6 blocks is good for a group of 10 to 12 people. Each box should be 1 foot by 1 foot so that a player can stand totally inside the grid—please see example below.

  1. Draw the same grid on a piece of paper.
  2. Create a path on your paper from one end of the grid to the other by marking boxes that are adjacent or diagonal to each other. The path cannot go backwards.

Keep the path out of sight of the players.

The task for the guys is to find their way along your path successfully.

  1. Divide the group into two teams.
  2. Instruct the group members that they cannot communicate with each other verbally or nonverbally during the exercise. They must be silent and cannot write notes, make maps, or place any objects in the grid.
  3. Tell them that the goal is for the group to figure out the path through the grid and for everyone in consecutive order to walk the path correctly.
  4. The first person steps into the grid. When he steps into a box that is on the correct path, call out “Rock!” and let him continue. If he steps into a block that is not on the path, say, “Gator!” At this time, the player must step out of the grid and go to the end of the line.
  5. The next person in line then steps into the first box and tries the same way to determine the correct path.
  6. If some players have made it through and one person steps into a wrong grid even by mistake, everyone who has made it through has to go back to the beginning and go block by block again.
  7. The teams will travel through the path only one person at a time.
  8. Each person individually on the team must show knowledge of the complete path for the team to succeed.

Example of grid for Gator! (path should not be visible to players).

Screen Shot 2015-07-17 at 12.12.40 PM

#2 Stepping Stones

Stepping Stones has a number of variations, but it is basically a method of inspiring the group to interact with one another to solve a spatial puzzle. Here’s an easy version: Divide the group number by half and pass out that many pieces of paper. Have the group line up on one wall of a large room and then tell the guys to cross the room by stepping on the pieces of paper. Time them and try to set a record.

You can find a quick video guide here: (http://youtu.be/R28c-S4f8aM)


#3 Minnows and Octopi

Minnows and Octopi is a variation of the game Minnows and Sharks, which is often played in swimming pools. Minnows try to run across the room from one side to the other without being tagged. One person tries to tag. When he tags, the tagee links arms with him. The last person to get out is the winner and gets to be the tagger. It can also be played with the first tagger blindfolded.

You can find a quick video guide here: (https://youtu.be/gazA9MRVg04)


#4 Championship Rocks Papers Scissors

This is essentially the same as the classic, Rocks, Papers, Scissors (also known as Roshambo in some parts) but with a few additions. Instead of just playing with one person, Championship Rocks Papers Scissors is a tournament. Here is the set up:

  1. Each person in the group is paired up. After introducing themselves, they play three rounds of Rocks Papers Scissors and the winner is the best of three (i.e., the first to win two games).
  2. Once a winner has been determined, the winner seeks another winner to play in the next round.
  3. The loser then becomes the personal cheering squad for the winner.
  4. In each successive round, the winners play the winners and the cheering squads merge until only two people are left. Half the room is rooting for one person and half the rooms is rooting for the other. You play until a champion is crowned.
  5. Check out this video of “how to win at Rock, Paper, Scissors”: (https://youtu.be/AnRYS02tvRA)

Wrap-up for all physical activities:

Ask the guys:

  • Why did we do this?
  • What do we learn from this?
  • What did it feel like when __________?

Possible answers:

Learning from others’ failures
Learning from your own failures
Thinking strategically

Cognitive Activities

#1 Trigger Questions

  • What is the difference between being smart and being a know-it all?
  • What is the difference between being smart and being a smart-ass?
  • A friend told me: “If you don’t get into an Ivy League school you are a failure.” Is there any truth to that?
  • What does it mean to be wise? How is being wise different from being smart? Who is the wisest person you know? Why?

#2 The Academic Reality

Have guys spread out across the room according to an Agree/Disagree spectrum on:

Pretty much everybody in school cheats.

Girls do better in school than guys.

Only smart people get straight A’s.

Performance on standardized tests should be an important factor in college admissions.

It is more important to really learn a subject than to get a good grade.

If you want straight A’s, you have to kiss-up to teachers.

There are some subjects that guys are not very good at.

Schools should abolish grades and just have pass or fail.


  • What kind of intellectual skills does your school value?

Potential responses:

The ability to do well on tests

The ability to listen to teachers

The ability to be organized about homework assignments

Clips to facilitate conversations about cheating:

Spies Like Us: (https://youtu.be/gk5R9GmIsAs)


Indian students receiving help from family members outside of school building:


Canon ad – kids cheating on exam: (https://youtu.be/kJTzCS1UOKY)

Long clip from movie “The Emperor’s Club”: (https://vimeo.com/52897314)

Other resources on cheating:

Eli H. Newberger M.D.“Why Do Students Cheat?”, (6 December 2003) http://www.school-for-champions.com/character/newberger_cheating2.htm

Kathy Slobogin. CNN “Survey: Many students say cheating’s OK” Confessed cheater: ‘What’s important is getting ahead’: http://edition.cnn.com/2002/fyi/teachers.ednews/04/05/highschool.cheating/

#3 Ethics Scenario

Your teacher asks everyone in class to read a short story and gives everyone a link to an online quiz that generates five detailed questions to answer events in the story. The story is boring, but you stay up late and read it, and take the quiz. A guy in your class who you used to be friends with texts you in the morning and says: “I only read the first page. Call me now and tell me the answers as I take the quiz.” Do you help him?

#4 World’s Smartest Man Game

One person is appointed the “Judge.” Everyone gets three cards: two to keep, one to trade. Give them three rounds of trading.


Can remember sections of books

Can remember images

Can draw anything

Can excel at any sport

Can find his way out of any forest

Can deal with little kids

Can sense others’ emotions

Can help people who are hyper to calm down

Can explain complex math problems

Can explain philosophical theories

Can learn any language

Can understand people’s emotions

Can win any political argument

Can fix any machine

Can invent things

Can write bestselling novels

#5 Assess Your Intelligence

The purpose of this exercise is to:

  1. Make the case that intelligence is more expansive than mathematical and verbal skills (as measured in school) and includes the independently measureable multiple intelligences as described by Howard Gardner (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theory_of_multiple_intelligences).
  2. For guys to reflect on their areas of relative strengths and weaknesses and to appreciate the strengths and weaknesses of themselves and their peers.
  3. To recognize that “academic smart” is one facet of intelligence

Take an online “multiple intelligence quiz” such as one of these: http://www.edutopia.org/multiple-intelligences-assessment




A more intensive process may be found here:


After taking the self-assessment, debrief:

  1. Do you think the assessment was accurate? Why or why not?
  2. What surprised you about the results? What do you take away from this?
  3. When we see people through the lens of multiple intelligences, do we think a bout ourselves or others differently? Why or why not?
  4. Which intelligences are most important to be successful? Happy? Admired? Respected?

#5 Jewish Text Study

Ben Zoma said: “Who is Wise? He who learns from all men, as it is written.” —Psalm 119.

“If you see a crowd of men, repeat the line, ‘Blessed is the One who is wuse and mysterious,’ for just as the features of no two men are alike, the thoughts of no two men are alike.”—Tosefta Berakhot 7, 2.

“Rabbi Tarfon and the Elders were once reclining in the upper story of Nithza’s house, in Lod, when this question was posed to them: ‘Which is greater, study or action?’ Rabbi Tarfon answered, saying: ‘Action is greater.’ Rabbi Akiva answered, saying: ‘Study is greater.’ All the rest agreed with Akiva that study is greater than action because it leads to action.”—Talmud, Kiddushin 40b.

“Teach your tongue to say, “I do not know’ and you will progress.”—Maimonides (12th Century Jewish philosopher and physician).

“Imagination is more important than knowledge.”—Albert Einstein.

“I am the wisest man alive for I know one thing; and that is that I know nothing.” – Socrates

Questions about these texts:

  • What does the Jewish traditions say about learning?
  • Who do we need to learn from?
  • What is the purpose of learning?
  • Why does everyone in the text agree it that study is greater than action?
  • What does it mean to teach your tongue to say, “I do not know”?
  • What is special about imagination that Einstein would say that it is more important than knowledge?

Emotive Activities

There are numerous activities for “Active Listening,” but we suggest the one below as a good way to guide the guys. Here’s a script:

We are going to try a different kind of wisdom—the art of listening. Everyone pick a partner and decide who will speak first and who will listen first.

Let’s have one pair volunteer to be first and show the group what I mean.

When I ask a question or give a prompt, the speaker will speak for one minute.

Keep talking, even if you don’t know what to say.

Listener—listen with your ears. You don’t need to stare into each other’s eyes to read his soul. If you look at him, do not react to what he’s saying. Just have a gentle smile on your face. Never say, “uh, huh,” or correct the speaker. Don’t laugh every three seconds. Just listen.

OK—Talker—tell a true story from your life entitled: “When I was on vacation…”

Listener—give a recap that starts with: “You said that…”

Now Listener asks: “Is there something I missed?”

Talker says: “No,” or “yes,” and fills in detail.

Now Listener says: “I imagine that you felt…”

Talker says: “That’s right,” or corrects.

Prompts for storytelling:

Tell a story about a person in your life who is very wise.

Tell a story about a time when you felt stupid.

Tell a story about feeling uncomfortable in a Jewish setting.

Tell a story about having tension between you and a teacher.

Tell a story about not wanting people to know that you were Jewish.

Tell a story about something that was hard to learn.

Tell a story about a good Jewish experience you had with your family.

Tell a story about trying to please someone.

A Folktale on Wisdom

A young man wanted to know the meaning of life. So he traveled a thousand miles on foot to meet the wisest rebbe in the world.  

The wise rebbe was very busy. There were long lines of people waiting to ask him questions. He made a rule that he would answer one question at a time.

“What is the meaning of life?” the young man asked.

“Develop understanding.” the rebbe said.

The young man thought about that answer but didn’t know what it meant, so he went back and waited in line.

“How do you develop understanding?” the young man asked.

“Attain wisdom.” the wise rebbe said.

The young man thought about that answer but didn’t know what it meant, so he went back and waited in line.

“How do you attain wisdom?” the young man asked.

“Good judgement.” the rebbe answered.  

The young man thought about that answer but didn’t know what it meant, so he went back and waited in line.

“But how do you know what is good judgment?” the young man asked.

The Rabbi laughed and replied, “Bad judgment.”

Closing Ritual

One key element of wisdom is connection to the natural world and an awareness of the natural cycles. Jewish men have been marking the cycles of the moon for centuries through a ceremony called Kiddush Levanah. You can find an explanation of the ritual by Rabbi Steve Greenberg at www.clal.org/ss9.html.

Kiddush Levanah

Opening chant:

Hallelu shemesh v’yaray-ach,
Hallelu kol kochvai or.
Sun and moon!
Hallelu! All the lights of the night sky!

from Psalm 148:3

Lift heels or jump

Recite or chant the following phrase while lifting heels to extend your body towards the moon:

Baruch yotzreich,
Baruch oseech,
Baruch koneich,
Baruch boreach.
Blessed is Your Formation,
Blessed is Your Doing,
Blessed is Your Holding,
Blessed is Your Creation.

Have each guy greet one another with: “Shalom Aleichem/Aleichem Shalom.”

If the will is there, end with a circle dance to David Melech.

We dig the classic tune:

and the Carlebach version: