On Engagement, Setting and Pedagogy: Is Experiential Jewish Education Content Light?

[The following article is the first of four responses to the study “Mapping Goals in Experiential Jewish Education”, a study commissioned by the Department of Experiential Jewish Education at Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future, with support from the Jim Joseph Foundation, investigating the role that goals, indicators and outcomes currently play in experiential Jewish education.]

To read the full report “Mapping Goals in Experiential Jewish Education” click here. To read the introduction to this project, click here.

by Dr. Amy L. Sales

The research on goals in experiential Jewish education (EJE) shows a strikingly low priority placed on Jewish subject matter. Let me offer three possible explanations for this finding.

The first concerns the purpose of Jewish education. Simply put, why do we bother to provide Jewish education to our youth? The common answer is that Jewish education intends to build and strengthen Jewish identity. A group identity, such as Jewish identity, is richly complex. Comprised of attitudes, behaviors, and cognitions, it encompasses everything from pride in being Jewish and the centrality of Jewishness is to one’s sense of self, to the individual’s social network and affiliations, beliefs, practices, and the like. In the post-modern era, identity has become even more complex. Today’s youth have multiple, simultaneous identities that shift and change over time, and from one moment or setting to the next. They are bricoleurs who build their identities from bits and pieces acquired from various sources. One might fashion a Jewish identity by piecing together a bit of meditation, yoga, Friday night dinner, freedom seder, eco-kashrut, and feminism, for example. The result is highly individualistic.

In a recent meeting, a camp professional suggested that experiential education has only one goal – that participants return. Such a goal is consistent with the notion of lifelong Jewish learning, and it has practical value. If campers return year after year, we can teach them again and again. However, this single simplistic goal lets educators and educational organizations off the hook as far as content is concerned. They do not have to teach anything (or anything in particular), they just have to get participants to come back.

The rhetoric in Jewish public discourse has recently shifted from “education” to “engagement.” These are distinctive concepts. The former favors substance and cognition; the latter favors process and affect. Education is a modernist idea, structuralist and collective. It begins with the question, “What is an educated Jew? What do students need to learn?” Engagement is post-modern and individualistic. It starts with the question, “Who is this child? What does she need and how do we get her on her path of Jewish learning?” This distinction is deep in Jewish tradition and text. Contrast Abraham, the individual seeker on a literal Jewish journey, with the moment the Jewish people stood together at Sinai and heard the same law at the same time.

It is possible that the current low priority of Jewish subject matter in experiential Jewish education is a result of this shift from education to engagement (from Sinai to Abraham), where individualism is trumping the collective Jewish experience.

The second explanation for this phenomenon concerns the use of setting in defining experiential education. The creators of experiential Jewish education understand it as an approach. However, in its sampling, the research implicitly defines it by setting – Hillel, Moishe House, BBYO, camp, NCSY, museums, and so on. One benefit of the study’s definition is that it sends the message to those who work in these settings that their organization is an educational one and that they are all Jewish educators. In our 2000 study of Jewish overnight camps, we observed rabbis and Jewish educators carrying out the work of Jewish education. Although the camps had a sense that Jewish education was part of their mission, the counselors, with a few exceptions, did not see themselves as Jewish educators. Part of the evolution of Jewish camp between 2000 and 2010 can be seen in the changing expectations of the counselor’s role.

The downside of the study’s definition is a confounding of goals at different levels: those for the movement, the organization, a particular program, or a particular activity; as well as goals for the participants or the educators. Organizations tend to have strategic goals, which often concern marketing, recruitment, and retention. When those are the prevailing goals, return rate becomes paramount and content slips into last place.

The third explanation concerns the question of whether or not experiential Jewish education is a discipline in its own right. I would suggest that EJE is closer to an approach or a pedagogy than a profession. As such, its contribution will be to educational methods and process and not to content. As it evolves, its challenge is not to establish the trappings of a field of practice but rather to explore the confluence of experience – in all of its connotations – with Jewish education – in all of its richness.

Dr. Amy L. Sales is senior research scientist and associate director of the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University, and associate professor in the Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program. Her research focuses on Jewish life and community and has included studies of Jewish education, teen engagement, Jewish summer camps, religious life on college campuses, synagogue change, and other topics. She is the director of JData, a website and database of Jewish education in North America.

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

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  1. Max Socol says

    I am a graduate of YU’s EJE certification program, whose director contributed the original article. Dr. Sales inspired these thoughts:

    “It is possible that the current low priority of Jewish subject matter in experiential Jewish education is a result of this shift from education to engagement (from Sinai to Abraham), where individualism is trumping the collective Jewish experience.”

    I’m not sure that many experiential educators would agree with how Dr. Sales frames this problem. Speaking only for myself, I would not set up a dichotomy between education/collective and engagement/individual. I don’t think that a “collective” is an inherent part of education, and by the same token I would not say that questions of education begin with “what should the students learn?” Education seems to me to begin with experience, and the questions that arise in learners from an experience. These experiences and questions can come in individual or collective settings, though they may be altered by those settings. Or is Dr. Sales suggesting that Abraham is not as much a learner as those at Sinai?

    As a practical matter, we might want to focus on collective educational experiences as the most effective way to reach Jews in need of learning. I can get behind that. But I suggest caution when making broad statements about “learners today,” or about the nature of “engagement” as fundamentally “post-modern.” I do not think that a balanced view of Diaspora Jewish history bears out the assumptions made about these matters. Can we really claim that this is the first generation of Jews whose identity is a patchwork of influences? Isn’t the entire story of our tribe fundamentally such a patchwork? Does that mean we were post-modern before we even got to modernity? We must be very far ahead of the curve!

    Rather than privileging engagement over content, I believe what EJE practitioners are attempting is to revitalize what is really a very old current in Jewish education, namely the inevitable transformation that our traditions undergo when they encounter a new generation of Jews. Again speaking only for myself, I think that the division between approach and content is an artificial one, illuminating in some contexts but stultifying in others.

    The plain facts are there for all to see: Judaism in the 21st century looks quite different from Judaism in the 20th century, or the 19th, or the 18th, etc. The tradition is always undergoing transformation, and this transformation is driven by members of the tribe and no one else. EJE practitioners at their best are trying to connect Jews to this process of transformation–and yes, part of that is privileging (at times) an individual’s perspective over the current tradition. But this is not because the tradition is not a priority. Rather, EJE practitioners realize that a tradition’s vibrancy is a function of the passion of its adherents. The more radical among us perhaps want to see Judaism transformed in certain key ways. But even small-c conservative practitioners understand, I think, that real learning doesn’t happen without real engagement, no matter how good the content is.

    The chance to critique, reinterpret, and re-prioritize Judaism is part of what it means to experience and learn from Judaism. It will not do to erect a fence around “content,” by which I take Dr. Sales to mean cultural literacy, and then insist that Jewish learning take place in the “look but don’t touch” section.

    If EJE practitioners seem more focused on technique and setting than content, I submit this is because they have recognized that technique and setting are the places where educators can best encourage learners to experience and take ownership of their own tradition. I happen to agree with this viewpoint, and I suspect that EJE practitioners will make quite a serious impact on Jewish content, perhaps not by themselves but indirectly through the learners they connect to the tradition.

  2. Eliezer Sneiderman says

    Not only is Jewish Experiential Education a discipline in its own right, Jewish Experiential Ed. Is the only form of Jewish education that provides a solution to the demographic problems facing today’s Jewish community.

    Lack of clear content goals should not be seen as Experiential Education’s failing. Dr. Sale’s research should not be surprising. To expect Experiential Educators to focus on content would be like expecting the Yankees to score more touchdowns. While both baseball and football are sports, they follow different basic assumptions and rules.

    “Education” like sports, refers to a variety of different pursuits, each with its own philosophy and epistemology. According to Michael Schiro, Experiential Education falls into “Learner Centered Theory”. Measuring content transmission is a “Scholar Academic “ endeavor. To judge one philosophy of education with a metric suited to another is unfair.

    Dr. Sales is right. There is much Experiential Education that is merely technique and method. This type of Experiential Ed is not backed by philosophy or outlook. It is just the hot method of the day designed to interest students and attract participants. But, true Experiential Education carries with it assumptions on how student’s minds work. Experiential Educators believe that students construct their own meaning. This happens regardless of the method of instruction. According to the Learner Centered theory Students decide for themselves what elements they find useful and important. They have freedom and ultimately control over their own education.

    Learner Centered theory says that in order for content to be retained it must be valuable and useful. If a student does not use the knowledge in their daily lives, they will lose it. From this perspective there is no such thing as “content retention”. Most material presented in formal instruction is forgotten within 60 days.

    Experiential Educators have a rich knowledge base. They are experts in group dynamics and interpersonal dialogue. They push students past their “Zone of Proximal Development” and model desired behaviors. Experiential Educators provide opportunities for participants to reflect on their experiences and design new ones. Within Experiential Education itself there are a variety of theories and methodologies. For a survey, I suggest Jay Roberts, “Beyond Learning by Doing”.

    Experiential Education is a method that matches today’s postmodern hyper-individualized identities. With a learner centered focus, one does not need to worry about essentialist definitions.

    When the community can arrive at an agreed upon definition for what constitutes an educated Jew we can begin measuring content. In the meantime, I am happy to be called a Jewish Experiential Professional.

  3. Caitlin Brazner says

    I find myself conflicted in reading this article. While I agree with certain points of Dr. Sales’ article, I also must disagree with others.

    Dr. Sales states above: “…a camp professional suggested that experiential education has only one goal – that participants return… this single simplistic goal lets educators and educational organizations off the hook as far as content is concerned. They do not have to teach anything (or anything in particular), they just have to get participants to come back.”

    I must say I disagree with this characterization of experiential education. I do agree that participants returning and building Jewish identity is central to experiential education. However, I don’t think one can divorce content from the process quite as much as Sales suggests. As someone who works full time in a synagogue that places a premium on experiential education, I’ve yet to be allowed to craft a lesson plan where I don’t still have to think about my learning goals and the content of my lesson. While I do agree that less of a premium is put on the content, I do still feel that content is important. After all, we are called “experiential educators”- our goal is to provide experience and an education. I would argue it’s possible to do both.