Formalizing the Informal

If experiential Jewish education can become an independent field, with uniform goals, uniform outcomes and uniform indicators, will it lose its enormous impact? Can we learn to work with pre-determined goals without losing the magic of personal self-exploration?

An introduction to four responses to the study “Mapping Goals in Experiential Jewish Education”

by Shuki Taylor

A year and a half ago, YU Center for the Jewish Future launched a study “Mapping Goals in Experiential Jewish Education”. The study asked how practitioners, working in the field of experiential Jewish education, view and communicate the goals of their work.

We learned that while often there is an extreme lack in uniformity in how organizations understand, communicate and state goals, there is indeed uniformity in what practitioners seek to accomplish, primarily in the area of personal meaning making (e.g. helping students to see Judaism as personally relevant and meaningful or helping students engage in Jewish life at their own motivation and on their own terms)

The lack of uniformity in how practitioners understand and communicate goals on the one hand, and the uniformity in the actual goals that they have stem in my mind from a conflict which is inherent to the goals of experiential Jewish education.

It is the conflict of whether the process of personal meaning making, which accounts for the success of experiential Jewish education, can in fact be boxed and packaged? Can it be – using language many of us are asked to use – logic modeled? Can we mold the process of personal meaning making?

There is a known difference between cooking and baking.

Baking is a science. Bakers need to be extremely accurate. The types of ingredients that they use, the measurements, the way they are mixed and the temperature that they require, are all specific and measured. Follow the instructions – and you will receive a perfect result.

Cooks, on the other hand, are artists at work. They intuitively know which spices to add at which point, how high to make the flame and when to turn it off. They intuitively know which foods go with which herbs, and they know what type a flow a meal should have. It just “feels” and literally tastes right to them.

Bakers use measurements that guide them to success. Cooks use their gut and their intuition.

In our study we found cooks and bakers. Bakers who have come up with a recipe, with a uniform list of ingredients and a set of instructions for how to “bake” the perfect ‘aha’ and transformative moments.

We also found artists: We know that some of the greatest successes of experiential Jewish educators stem from their charisma and creativity; their gut and their intuition; the magic that they create; the aha moments that they produce. They can’t explain exactly how it works, but they implicitly know that it does.

Here then is the challenge of experiential Jewish education – an approach that seeks to create personal meaning: Can it be turned into something formulaic? If it can, should it? And if it does – is there a price to be paid?

With these big questions in mind, we turned to four distinguished academics from a variety of disciplines and asked them to respond to our study. We asked them to tell us how they understand the findings; what we should be looking for next, and if there is room for more research – what should it be.

Over the next four weeks, will publish these responses, which, in order of publication, include responses from Dr. Amy Sales, Associate Director of the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University; Dr. David Pelcovitz, Straus Chair in Psychology and Education at Yeshiva University’s Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education; Dr. Carmen Hendricks, Dean of Yeshiva University School of Social Work; and Dr. David Bryfman, Chief Learning Officer at the Jewish Education Project.

The final study will be published along with these responses, and it is our hope that collectively these pieces will provide the YU Certificate Program in Experiential Jewish Education, and the field at large, with a road map for the future of EJE.

Shuki Taylor is Director of Experiential Jewish Education at Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future.

The deadline for applications for Cohort IV of the YU Certificate Program in Experiential Jewish Education is February 17, 2014.

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  1. Melissa Werbow says

    I’ve been thinking about this question in a slightly different context. Ron Wolfson claims that congregational work is all about building relationships. I would argue that much of the success of EJE also comes from the relationships that are formed in more informal settings between learners and teachers and among learners themselves. I’m wondering how we quantify and measure relationship building work. How would someone who’s job is “building relationships” define job success when that success – whether congregants feel close to them – is largely intangible?

  2. says

    Thanks, Shuki, for this – as we can expect from your program, a valuable and provocative contribution to the field.

    I wonder if we can promote goal setting without making the goals uniform – that is, if more of us be both bakers and cooks without moving toward exactly the same goals.

    Goal-setting – and goal-following, or designing strategies to aim to achieve goals – allows us to focus resources on specific, desired ends, making it more likely that we’ll achieve our ends.

    But that doesn’t mean that our goals all have to be the same – only that the field of experiential education will be more rigorous, more lean and deep, and more generative if goal-setting and goal-following become common practices.

    Melissa’s comment about relationships is a wonderful question and speaks to why, in my mind, we’ve been reluctant to adopt goal-setting and goal-following as common practices in this field: We think what we do is magical and cannot be captured. But goal-setting in, say, Melissa’s relationship-building as example, can be as straight-forward as something like this: All constituents (campers, youth group participants, college students) will have three friends within this setting (ie within their camp unit, or their youth group, or their Hillel community) to whom they would turn with their deepest questions. We can measure this by asking participants, Do you have friends in this community to whom you would turn with your deepest questions? How many friends? We don’t need to define “deepest questions,” and we don’t need to study what happens in those relationships (although it would be wonderful if we did). More than measurement is the import of this goal for strategy: If this is an explicit goal, some organizations would likely be much more focused on helping participants build deep relationships than they otherwise are.

    I hope that YU’s work will propel us into greater conversations about why goal-setting and goal-following can be helpful, not harmful, and about how they can manifest in our experiential work. Thanks, Shuki!

  3. says

    Hi Melissa and Beth,

    Thank you for your thoughts.

    I hope that my article did not advocate for one approach over the other, but rather set the tone for the conflict that I believe is inherent to EJE. I believe that the practice of EJE is to work within that conflict: the space it creates and the tensions that it provides. I hope that there is no ‘one answer’.

    On the one hand, I think that EJE, as a field dedicated to transformation and growth of personal and collective identity, must be lucid. There is a key idea in our practice that we must never forget – the fact that while as educators we can control what we teach, we can never control (or attempt to control) what our students learn.

    This might be relevant to all education, but it specifically relevant to EJE, which is personalized in its nature, and is, as Dr. Barry Chazan writes, a field in which the subject is the learner. In his response to our study that you – Beth – so richly wrote – a response that will appear on this website in a few weeks, Dr. David Bryfman stresses the challenge of having predetermined outcomes in EJE for this exact reason.

    This perspective speaks to what you – Melissa – raise. Can we enter relationships which we deem as authentic, with a goal in mind? Doesn’t having a goal make the relationship inauthentic? The suggestion that Beth made is great because it speaks to structure: let’s make sure that each learner has three relationships that matter. Can the same be applied to the content of the relationship, and not only to its structure?

    On the other hand, if we – the experiential Jewish educators – are to grow and deepen our practice and its impact, can we do so without clear goals and outcomes? I don’t think so. In the YU Certificate Program in Experiential Jewish Education we work tirelessly to create, adopt and share language, theory and conceptual frameworks that will help us further the practice of EJE. The ‘cook’ strategy just doesn’t work if we are to sustain, grow and develop. We need clear goal posts. We need structure and we need a language that will articulate our dreams, our vision, and yes… our outcomes.

    At the end of the day, I believe that in order to live within the confines of this conflict, and to allow for the tension to be productive, what is required is an authenticity of practice, of ‘knowing thyself’.

    If we are putting on our “baker” hat – if we’re working towards specific outcomes, we must not give our learners the opposite impression. And if we’re prepared to work like cooks, to walk into our educational settings and be open to any type of outcome that may occur, we need to accept that the end result may be completely different to what we want it to be – – even if it is a 180 degree opposite of what we want.

    There are hybrids and syntheses between these two approached. But they should never be confused one with the other.