Jewish Education “in a Café, Under a Tree, or in a Dorm”

by Renee Rubin Ross

In some ways, newly hired educators Jordan Magidson, Jessica Shimberg, and Zac Johnson each fit the expected profile for a Jewish educator. Magidson, who started work as a Nadiv Educator at URJ Camp Kalsman and Temple de Hirsch Sinai, completed a Master’s in Jewish Education from Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles. Rabbi Shimberg, currently Associate Director for Jewish Life and Learning at University of Maryland Hillel, received rabbinic ordination at Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. Rabbi Johnson, currently a Director of Jewish Enrichment in BBYO’s Western regions, is an alumnus of the Shalom Hartman Institute and Yeshivat Hadar’s summer program.

But these educators’ traditional credentials belie changes occurring in the training and hiring of experiential Jewish educators. Since evaluation has demonstrated the effectiveness of immersive Jewish learning experiences and the value of a more personalized Judaism, organizations are increasingly seeking to engage young adults in this manner. As a result, more experiential education positions offer teachers the opportunity to create meaningful Jewish experiences outside of the classroom.

This spring, Jim Joseph Foundation professionals watched closely as the Foundation for Jewish CampHillel and BBYO conducted job searches for fourteen new experiential Jewish educator positions funded by the Foundation: six Nadiv educators who pivot between working at a Jewish camp during the summer and a day or synagogue school the remainder of the year; five Hillel Senior Jewish Educators (SJE) who utilize existing social networks to engage Jewish students in meaningful learning experiences on college campuses; and three Directors of Jewish Enrichment who are strengthening Jewish learning in BBYO.  The recruitment and hiring practices for these positions offer important lessons about the future of experiential education and experiential educators.

Firstly, the sheer number of new experiential educator positions around the country is noteworthy. Organizations are making strategic decisions with an understanding that experiential educators provide a unique skill-set that results in positive outcomes. And the organizations in question see these positions existing for the long-term. In each case, while the Jim Joseph Foundation provided the seed funding to launch the position, the host organization is expected to raise the necessary funds to sustain the position. This type of framework suggests that being an experiential educator presents an increasingly viable job opportunity, and a career path.

Secondly, the hiring process for these positions placed a high priority on different competencies and skills than were previously expected of educators. Jennifer Zwilling, Associate Vice President at Hillel explained that qualified candidates needed not only a deep knowledge of Jewish texts, but also “clinical, pastoral training and community organizing.” She notes that “these things were not the hallmarks of seminary training ten years ago,” and she has therefore explained to education institutions that graduates need to have these competencies.

Understanding the importance of hiring individuals with these skills, BBYO used a behavior profile to help identify the best candidates to fill its Director of Jewish Enrichment Positions. The profile assessed whether a candidate had the capabilities to relate to and inspire others, communicate effectively, create innovative ideas and programs, and act with honor and character.  Similar to Hillel’s search for Senior Jewish Educators, BBYO sought individuals who not only had deep knowledge of Jewish tradition and texts, but who also exhibited a high level of emotional intelligence.

The organizations selected candidates from what proved to be a substantive pool of qualified applicants – a total of 322 educators applied for the 14 positions, with 41 applying for more than one position. Not surprisingly, the organizations’ experiences throughout the hiring process varied as a result of geography (positions in the New York area and California had a higher number of applicants) and organizational differences. BBYO, for example, found it most challenging to find appropriate candidates for the Director of Jewish Enrichment positions, possibly because it has never before utilized regional Jewish educators.

In contrast, Hillel and FJC reported more potential candidates, perhaps because camps, day schools, and Hillels have long had roles for educators on their staffs. An added advantage for Hillel is that the SJE position has existed for four years. Thus, interested candidates could meet current SJEs to learn more about the position.

Jordan, Jessica, and Zac may have arrived at their jobs with traditional credentials, but their work involves a new and increasingly effective type of educational engagement with Jewish teens and young adults. They provide high quality experiential learning in a variety of settings for myriad learners, be they youth group members, campers, Jewish college students getting together on campus, or day school or supplementary school students. They are Jewish teachers who often leave behind the confines of a classroom to engage young people in a more personalized Judaism that can be adapted for almost any environment – in a café, under a tree, or in a dorm.

The hiring of these experiential educators suggests that a different kind of educator – one who innovatively combines knowledge of Jewish text, strong teaching ability, and experience building communities and relating to others – is in demand now more than ever before. Creating and filling more of these positions may have great promise for the future of Jewish education.

Renee Rubin Ross, Ph.D., is a Program Officer for the Jim Joseph Foundation, which seeks to foster compelling, effective Jewish learning experiences for young North American Jews. Established in 2006, the Jim Joseph Foundation has awarded $265 million in grants to engage, educate, and inspire young Jewish minds to discover the joy of living vibrant Jewish lives.

cross-posted at Jim Joseph Foundation Blog

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  1. says

    Renee, thank you for this article. Being intimately involved with the hiring process from the BBYO end, I can agree that it was eye opening. We were impressed with the range of credentials and the mix of experience and training that our candidates shared. You captured the challenge well – we wanted lots of attributes in our final hires, a mix which was hard to nail. We thank the Foundation for giving us the time to extend our search until we found just the right three people, including Rabbi Zac Johnson, who we are very excited to be working with.

  2. says

    Rachel, thanks for the comment. We were appreciative of BBYO’s openness during and after the hiring process, which allowed us learn from your experiences and consider them in the context of other experiential educator hires.
    In my article, I focus on the qualifications and experiences of these new hires, and the challenge of finding candidates with the right mix of skills. Of course, now that these new hires are getting into their work, other interesting questions have emerged: What kind of mentoring and support do they need? What are appropriate professional development experiences? How can the Jewish education field as a whole support this work? Good stuff, and again, we at the Jim Joseph Foundation are privileged to work on this in partnership with BBYO, Hillel and FJC.

  3. says

    With the growth in demand for Jewish experiential educators, we need to be thinking seriously about how we develop the profession. It would be interesting to hear more about the kinds of training and experience the large numbers of applicants to these positions had. JJF has committed itself to supporting the development of training programs in Jewish experiential education – thank you! Yet, those programs are still quite new. What skills, training and experience were BBYO, Hillel and Nadiv looking for and how did the individuals hired develop or acquire those?

  4. says

    Our nurturing of experiential education over the past 13 years has been a profound process and this article is entirely in keeping with what we see at AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps about the importance of experiential Jewish learning.

    So glad to have new partners in this effort! Kol Hakavod/all honor on developing a cohesive process to cultivate these positions and to all those who recognize the need to continue working on the development, mentoring and training of these leaders.