By Anna Serviansky
“It only took 2 weeks to completely change the way I thought about leadership,
Judaism, friendship, humanity, and social justice.”
Emily K., JustCity 2016 participant
Some may wonder how two weeks could possibly be enough time to change someone’s life. Those of us who work in what I call immersive Jewish education will tell you that indeed two weeks is more than enough time to make a sustainable transformation.
The JustCity Leadership Institute is a two week program for high school students housed at JTS. As a graduate student at the Davidson School of Jewish Education, part of the third and final cohort of the Experiential Education Initiative, I had the privilege of designing the original curriculum for JustCity. Just two summers later, I have the even greater honor of directing the program from where I sit as Assistant Dean of List College.
I have always believed that there can be no greater education than fully living and breathing Judaism, showing our learners the full possibility and value that Judaism and Jewish community offers. Experiential education, the philosophy behind this immersive experience, can be effective no matter whether the learner is a child, adolescent or adult, and so long as the program is intentionally designed, the participant can leave feeling as though he or she has been utterly changed and seeing the world through a different perspective.
Just this month, I watched in amazement as a group of teenagers, from unaffiliated to modern Orthodox backgrounds, gathered for two weeks of learning and leading in a pluralistic environment. By the end of the very first day, they were all excited and engaged with what they would be doing over the summer. And, by the program’s end, there was sadness that the beautiful community they lived in, the deep conversations they facilitated and the leadership opportunities they exercised would need to be taken out of their cohort and brought to the outside world. Yet, time and again, the students shared that they felt transformed, that they felt they could make a change in this world.
So what might you ask goes into creating an experience that is so powerful that it changes your life? Drawing on my degree and learning from the William Davidson School of Education, conversations with colleagues at the Mandel Center’s Conference on Transformative Jewish Education and years of experience working for immersive programs, here is my list of what is essential for a two week program to make a lasting impact.
1. Selective and Small Cohort
The most essential part of creating an impactful experience is the building of a cohort. The cohort itself must be selective. Not everyone will be a good fit for the mission of the program. Adding a degree of selectivity empowers participants to feel the privilege of the opportunity and inspires them to apply what they learn upon their return. Selectivity goes hand in hand with creating a manageable size. A cohort cannot reasonably exceed 25 persons to be effective because a significant part of the experience is creating space to allow all participants to learn from one another by getting to know each other intimately. Accordingly, the smaller the group, the more powerful the conversation, the more opportunity to learn from differing opinions and the more closely participants will relate to one another following the program.
2. Immersive Environment
Participants must be taken out of their ordinary environment. Retreat, camp-like settings, and in our case, a university environment complete with living in JTS residence halls, dining in the JTS cafeteria and living near Columbia University and Barnard College, create a heightened ability to connect, removing participants every day stresses and interferences and placing them in a situation where the learning is elevated because of the environment. Further, this environment is 24/7, meant to be lived day in and day out. In this new environment, there are new places to learn about and new people to learn from, including the important relationships built with teachers, counselors and staff. In this technological age, participants obviously have contact with their friends and families, but they are put in a new place where they can imagine a different world, where they can see Jewish values and community in a way that is different from how their lives at home operate. This is part of the modeling that educators establish. At JustCity, our staff not only personally models how to lead and take action, but also, how to build a pluralistic, thought-provoking community that can only happen because students are away from their usual settings and are fully immersed in the experience.
3. Listening Norms and Reflection
Transformative experiences occur when this selective cohort can converse freely to better understand what they are learning. Participants must create expectations for the level of privacy they will have with respect to their remarks, encouraging them to explore new ideas safely, free of judgment and with opportunity to change their minds on one subject or another as they challenge one another and flesh out their own thinking. This power to learn they can respectfully agree or disagree and remain friends is crucial not only to their current time at JustCity, but also to their ability to listen and participate in difficult conversations in their leadership positions when they return home. Equally important is providing space for participants to reflect, a key component of experiential education, where learners have time to discuss what they experience in the program and how it relates to them. Each night at JustCity, we have participant facilitated community time where students discuss the learning they did in and out of the classroom, what questions they have, and what they take away from the experience. In experiential education, reflection is the foundation for enabling the learning to truly transform someone and remain embedded in participants long after the program itself ends.
4. Connecting Text Directly to Field Learning
The JustCity curriculum works because we directly link Jewish text learning to field learning to demonstrate the relevance that Judaism has for framing current issues in our world. For example, we spend the morning learning Jewish texts on our obligation vis a vis the environment, and then, we take a “toxic tour” of Harlem learning from our friends at Harlem Brotherhood SisterSol about the environmental stressors that have been placed in certain neighborhoods. Similarly, we study our economic responsibilities as Jews and take action with Truah to promote fair labor practices. This type of connected, intentional learning happens each day, making the issues and material relevant to our teenagers. Connect text to real life responsibility, and students will learn and apply the textual background for years to come. Our students learn from top thought leaders on social justice, not only in the Jewish community, but also outside of the Jewish community. Giving them this access to well-regarded organizations and thinkers is again empowering because the quality is so high, showing learners how they too can effectively and intelligently make change.
5. Empowering Participants to Take Skills and Learning Home
Experiential education and transformative moments are successful when the participant radically adjusts his or her own thinking or actions and is compelled to incorporate their learning at home. Our students are given concrete leadership skills in facilitating, marketing, pitching and more. At JustCity, we coach our students, through our partnership with PresenTense, to come up with social justice action projects informed by the Jewish learning and field learning they experience in New York City that they want to implement in their communities at home. The students learn how to become changemakers and to take action on the issues they care so deeply about.
At the end of the summer, we assess our programmatic goals. Among many other questions in our extensive evaluation, our students answer the question of how JustCity transformed them and how will they lead change at home. We hear two messages repeatedly: (1) they feel more confident and (2) they realize that teenagers can make a difference. We have provided them not only with a skill set but with the tools to lead.
With all of the above essential factors in place, we are not surprised anymore when students such as Sarah G., JustCity 2016 participant, say: “It [JustCity] is life changing!”
Anna Serviansky works at JTS as Assistant Dean of Undergraduate and Graduate Studies and Director of the JustCity Leadership Institute.