Shabbat Shalom! To introduce you to Jewish experiential education I am going to start with a Chinese proverb: “Tell me and I forget, show me and I remember, involve me and I understand.” If I were to lecture to you about Jewish experiential education you might forget about it by the oneg. If I were to show you a promotional video, you may recall it someday. But if I involve you directly, you may learn. So here it goes…
Close your eyes, think of a favorite Jewish memory or moment from your life. It could be at home at a Passover Seder, here at Woodlands unrolling the Torah at Simchat Torah, or around the campfire singing a Debbie Friedman tune. Identify one favorite Jewish moment of yours.
Now, take 30 seconds, transport yourself back to that moment and re-experience it, try to harness the emotions that moment conjures up.
Think about how you felt. What about that moment brings up those emotions? And now the hard part: what did you learn Jewishly in that moment?
Now turn to the person next to you. Share your memory, your emotions, and the Jewish lesson you took from it. Take one minute each.
I wish we had time to hear your memories and what you all learned from them. We would all learn something new by reflecting as a group.
Now you might think your moment was just that, a personal memory. But, it turns out your memory was a moment of serious Jewish learning; although you may not have contextualized it that way initially. By asking you to re-experience it and reflect on it we give it a whole new meaning. Experiences last forever. When we reflect on them, it becomes experiential learning.
We just engaged in Jewish experiential learning. We each had a meaningful experience in a Jewish context AND we just now reflected on that experience to understand the Jewish learning that took place.
Think of it this way: our whole lives are like a text. When we examine the text, challenge it, reflect on it, it turns out we are learning from it. But here is the important piece: because we are connecting emotionally, we become even more engaged in the material. This is the TRUE power of experiential learning.
Jews have been learning this way for centuries. The Passover Seder, fresh in our minds, is a great example. We acted out a historical narrative, engaged in an experience, asked reflective questions (maybe four of them) and therefore learned about our Jewish heritage. Another great example is at Jewish camp. Think about sitting around the campfire. On the surface this seems like just a simple song-session. But, with the right reflection, we may find a deeper lesson about Jewish community. We may discover that we each have a voice to contribute and an obligation as a member of the circle to participate. This simple campfire can lead a profound lesson and lifelong Jewish engagement.
Now there is a difference between experiential learning and experiential education. With experiential learning, the only person involved is you. If, however, your experience is planned and guided by a facilitator, this is experiential education. Experiential education acknowledges the relationship between educator and learner that makes experiential learning meaningful.
For example, I go to Israel, visit the Western Wall and reflect on my experience, that is Jewish experiential learning. I go to Israel on a trip with my Rabbi and she guides me through an experience. She then helps me to reflect through questions and planned exercises. This is Jewish experiential education.
For those familiar with literature on education, you might know of John Dewey, who modernized the educational philosophy originally popularized by Aristotle. Aristotle said, “the things we learn how to do, we learn by doing them.” Dewey stated, “Give the pupils something to do, not something to learn, and the doing is of such a nature as to demand thinking; learning naturally results.”
In Jewish life, we do things that stimulate us emotionally. The artistry of making challah, the joy of the Shabbat dinner table, and the sadness of seeing the Havdalah candle extinguished in the wine. Jewish experiential education aims to provide an intellectual side to this. If we are engaged emotionally, we are more apt to learn intellectually.
Ultimately, this will make us more committed, literate Jews. When we are positively engaged, we begin to love what we are doing. We also grow to love the people we are doing it with.
This is what Jewish experiential education can have the power to do. It can give us a “strong sense of Jewish literacy,” AND permission to love Judaism; strengthening our positive identification with our heritage, religion, and community.
Where can Jewish experiential education happen? Anywhere. Popular discussion over the past ten years often equates experiential education with Jewish camp, youth groups or Israel trips. Basically, educational settings outside the classroom. These settings have fewer walls, are immersive, and make "fun" a priority. As a result, they often facilitate experiential learning with great success. But, as we saw before, all it takes is a guided experience and meaningful reflection. This can even occur in a classroom.
One might say, that every moment is an experience! But, sitting in a classroom or even at a camp, being told information or taught skills through rote repetition, is not experiential learning. Some would call this “classical” or “frontal” education. And this approach is certainly critical in the fabric of Jewish education. But experiential learning, there must be, as I said, guided facilitation, engagement, and meaningful reflection. This is critical to the fabric as well.
So again, we have been engaging in Jewish experiential education throughout our history. The field, however, one that includes academic literature, research, and professional training is new. In 2003 Dr. Barry Chazan wrote a seminal article where he began to codify what he then called informal Jewish education. This was followed with pieces by Dr. Joe Reimer and Dr. David Bryfman, who is now at the Jewish Education Project of New York and Westchester. They are among an emerging cohort of academics and practitioners who are researching and examining how and why Jewish experiential education works. This includes the successes of Jewish camp, youth groups, Hillel, and Israel trips, and how their modes and educational approaches can be applied across the Jewish landscape.
Jewish experiential education can happen any time. But in order to harness these opportunities we need an engaging, trained facilitator, like a Rabbi Mara, Rabbi Billy, Cantor Jonathan, Harriet, Ross, or another.
As a result, the field has begun to create training programs that professionalize the career path of a Jewish experiential educator. Why? Because we want to honor this as a valid educational method and therefore a professional career path. Yes, you can work at Camp Eisner or Crane Lake or for NFTY as an adult career and there is a program that will train you to do just that. There are many talented individuals who want to educate, inspire and innovate in the Jewish world and may not necessarily have the calling to be clergy or a classical educator. That includes me.
This is where my work comes in. In 2010, the Jim Joseph Foundation granted 45 million dollars to HUC, JTS and Yeshiva University to train more and better-trained Jewish educators. Each institution launched several initiatives, many of which include programs that involve cutting-edge training for Jewish experiential educators. Your awesome youth director Ross will soon be a graduate of one of these programs.
At JTS's Davidson School, I coordinate several experiential learning programs, including our new Master’s in Jewish Experiential Education. We enrolled our first full cohort of 11 Masters students this past fall, and are welcoming another full cohort of 12 next fall into the 2 year Masters program. Our program includes targeted course work in pedagogy, Jewish content and leadership skills for the Jewish experiential educator. They also take part in enhanced field-work and internship opportunities to, as Dewey advised, learn by doing. Senior Jewish educators mentor our students through their learning and oversee their field-work. Finally, they learn as a cohort. As we did just a few minutes ago, students share their ideas and challenges and therefore learn from each other.
We at The Davidson School hope to further enhance the field of Jewish education by empowering our students to be transformational leaders and innovative, thoughtful practitioners. In doing so, we aim to professionalize the field. This is what makes my work, relevant, important, and really fun.
“Tell me and I forget, show me and I remember, involve me and I understand.”
If you tell me about Judaism, how amazing a Shabbat Dinner or camp experience can be, I may forget about it. If you show me Judaism, observing a service, hearing a Jewish song, I might recall it someday. If you involve me in Judaism, bring me into the hora, let me eat the matzah, sing at the top of my lungs “Mi Chamocha,” I might just learn, and learn to love it. Thank you and Shabbat Shalom.