What Exactly Is Experiential Jewish Education?

At Camp Shalom in Los Angeles in January, our YU Certificate Program in Experiential Jewish Education cohort split into 4 groups. Throughout the week, each group had 45 minutes to teach the laws and values of shemita – and each using a different educational ideology.  Here, one group used Color War to talk about the values of shemita through sensory education. (Yes, we are sorting through trash.)

At Camp Shalom in Los Angeles in January, our YU Certificate Program in Experiential Jewish Education cohort split into 4 groups. Throughout the week, each group had 45 minutes to teach the laws and values of shemita – and each using a different educational ideology. Here, one group used Color War to talk about the values of shemita through sensory education. (Yes, we are sorting through trash.)

This is the first in a series of articles highlighting the scope of best practices in experiential Jewish education.

by Carolyn Gerecht

This year, studying in the Pardes Center for Jewish Educators’ Program for Experiential Jewish Education (PEEP) and Yeshiva University’s Certificate Program in Experiential Jewish Education, I’ve been fortunate to have had many, many opportunities to answer the question, “What exactly is Experiential Jewish Education?

Typically, I respond in a couple of short sentences. “Most people think of it as the kind of Jewish education that happens ‘outside the classroom’ – youth groups, Hillels, summer camps, that kind of thing. But it’s really sort of an emerging educational philosophy that cares about the experience of the learner and deliberately structures learning environments…” But by then, I’ve probably already lost you (and understandably so).

In one workshop, our cohort practiced “Imagineering” by making posters together. We sorted through old magazines and newspapers to create posters, and asked questions like “What are the obstacles to creativity? What enhances creativity?”

In one workshop, our cohort practiced “Imagineering” by making posters together. We sorted through old magazines and newspapers to create posters, and asked questions like “What are the obstacles to creativity? What enhances creativity?”

Experiential Jewish Education is the process of teaching Jewish life, and Jewish values, by building meaningful Jewish experiences – creating programs that combine traditional methods of text study, learning, and service, with physical and emotional interaction between learners.

That might mean learners experience directly the warmth of a Shabbat dinner together. They might participate in a mock Beit Knesset voting on enacting a Jewish law as a national law. They might build a real eruv. Learners form extremely close relationships with each other, and with outgoing, knowledgeable role model/educators. Experiential Jewish education works to inspire learners to embrace meaningful Jewish lives.

The Pardes Center for Jewish Educators (PCJE) took a trip this fall to Tzippori, in the north of Israel, once a center of Jewish religious and cultural life. Connecting our own individual narratives to collective Jewish history is an important component of experiential Jewish education.

The Pardes Center for Jewish Educators (PCJE) took a trip this fall to Tzippori, in the north of Israel, once a center of Jewish religious and cultural life. Connecting our own individual narratives to collective Jewish history is an important component of experiential Jewish education.

Before I share a little bit about what I’ve learned this year, at Pardes and YU, it’s important to preempt:

  1. Many Jewish organizations and educators around the world have been practicing experiential Jewish education skillfully for decades. It is definitely not a “new thing.” However, the recent standardization of the field – the creation of a shared professional language; professional development opportunities designed especially for experiential Jewish educators; an explosion of academic articles on the topic; and beyond – is extremely exciting for the future of Jewish education.
  2. Experiential Jewish Education does not happen exclusively outside the classroom. Dr. Barry Chazan, who directs the Master of Arts in Jewish Professional Studies Program at Spertus, and who has written extensively about experiential Jewish education for many years, stresses that experiential education is in fact an approach – not just a list of educational settings. In other words, experiential Jewish education doesn’t happen only at summer camp. Many day school and Hebrew School teachers study and practice these techniques in a classroom.

Additionally, I have also learned this year that Experiential Jewish Education…

  • Strives to promote personal growth and Jewish learning in a structured, yet fun educational environment
  • Takes place in an environment where “spontaneous” learning is allowed to occur – educators create and seize upon “teachable moments”
  • Is immersive – creates a “world” around the learner
  • Uses multiple senses to educate and excite (sight, sound, taste, touch, smell; in addition to light, temperature, pace, volume, etc.)
  • Carefully sets the stage for a positive learning experience, offers time for reflection, and seeks constant feedback from the learner
  • Deliberately elicits the learners’ emotions in order to enhance, and deepen, their learning experience
  • Values the questions over the answers
  • Strives to relate Jewish text, stories, songs, and collective history to the learners’ own personal narratives
  • Focuses on the group experience – the educator builds a sense of culture, trust, familiarity, and community amongst the group of learners; and the experience thrives from group dynamics
  • Views Jewish education as values-driven
  • Wants each learner to take away something different from the learning experience, rather than a specific, predetermined objective
  • Connects the learning experience to the learners’ future experiences – asks learners, “How can this value be applied in the future?”
  • Questions and challenges the learners’ beliefs, and offers an educational experience and opportunity to re-evaluate them
  • Leaves the participant “wanting more”

An experiential Jewish educator

  • Embodies the Jewish values that they teach – the integrity of the role model is absolutely vital to his/her success
  • Is open, warm, enthusiastic, and knowledgeable
  • Comfortably engages students in structured, and organic, conversations about Israel
  • Is Jewishly literate – familiar with classical Jewish texts, practices, holidays and ritual
  • Has a knack for getting people to talk about themselves and their journeys
  • Asks good questions
  • Selectively shares stories about his/her own personal practices, beliefs, and struggles, in order to enhance the experience of the learner
  • Is hyper-aware of the needs and personality of each learner, and therefore designs programs that cater to a variety of learning styles

In programs all across the world, experiential Jewish educators are developing the skills they need to succeed – skills just like these. We are learning to be deliberate, inviting, and memorable. We are learning Jewish content, creativity, charisma, and community building.

A PCJE student has the opportunity to lead a small group discussion in the Pardes Beit Midrash on 9 Adar, guiding a conversation with students and faculty members about our own journeys with Zionism. “What is our relationship with Israel? What excites us; challenges us about living in Israel?”

A PCJE student has the opportunity to lead a small group discussion in the Pardes Beit Midrash on 9 Adar, guiding a conversation with students and faculty members about our own journeys with Zionism. “What is our relationship with Israel? What excites us; challenges us about living in Israel?”

And most of all, we are learning to create “wow” moments: inspiring Jewish experiences that surprise and excite a new generation of learners to wrestle with the same Jewish values and questions that we all address every single day.

The photos included in this essay are from the professional development training that I have received this year, through the Pardes Center for Jewish Educators and Yeshiva University. I hope they help to explain and excite you about the incredible potential for this field.

Carolyn Gerecht is a full-time student in the Pardes Experiential Educators Program at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, Israel and a current participant in Cohort III of the Yeshiva University Certificate Program in Experiential Jewish Education generously funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation. After her year in Israel, Carolyn will return to Pittsburgh, PA, where she will continue her work in the field of experiential Jewish education.

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Comments

  1. says

    Thank you Carolyn for this succinct overview of experiential education. As I was reading it (and hearing David Bryfman’s piece from a few weeks ago) I was reminded of Michael Rosenak’s four common places of education (student, teacher, content and milieu). It seems like experiential education in particular privileges the student over the content. There is much that is appealing about this emphasis but I also recognize that this is a shift from the emphasis on content above all that I think was predominant in Jewish education a generation or two ago. It is clear that we can’t emphasize every aspect of learning but I wonder what we are missing out on when we make this switch. I think it is important to ask this question to better enable ourselves to guide and comfort those who mourn that loss as we shift our focus.

  2. Joe Rosenberg says

    Hi Carolyn:
    Reading your article gave me a better idea of the things that you are learning and doing in Israel. I am very curious how your experiences this year have influenced your feelings, beliefs, and identity as an American Jew, and as an educator. Although I am not particularly observant, my Jewish education growing up was inspiring in many ways, and helped to forged my identity today. I’m sure that you will be an even greater Jewish educator when your return. Ellen and I look forward very much to seeing you in Jerusalem on our trip, assuming our schedules coincide. Love, Uncle Joe

  3. Carolyn Gerecht says

    How much “Jewish content” should experiential educators be responsible for – to what extent should EJE programs (within the classroom or in the youth lounge) depart measurable Jewish knowledge? If relationships and self-exploration are the priority, what does that mean for the content? I really struggle with these questions and am curious to see where the conversation goes as the “field” of EJE tries to set a vision for itself. For sure, EJE should not be seen as a total replacement for frontal, traditional methods of Jewish learning. It should be seen as a methodology to supplement, and complement, traditional approaches to education. But even with that understanding, do we all agree that EJE is less content-focused (and more relationship-focused) than traditional learning?

  4. says

    Carolyn, congratulations on a beautifully written and well-articulated article on the cutting-edge Jewish experiential educator training programs now taking place. Many congratulations also to Shuki Taylor, the visionary creator of the YU Certificate Program in Experiential Jewish Education (EJE) program and field building initiative, and Gaby Schoenfeld, Assistant Director of EJE. I have had the honor to work with Shuki since the program’s start,and 2 years later with Gaby and serve as on of its primary mentors. The methods are some of the most transformative ones I have seen in my 25 year career in this Jewish professional field. I urge everyone interested in the new world of high impact experiential education to become familiar with this program and its core principles and tools. I wish I could speak to the Pardes program as well, but knowing the
    Pardes quality, I’m sure it is also excellent.