A Community Model for Supporting “Beyond the Classroom Experiences”

Photo courtesy Jewish Education Center of Cleveland
Photo courtesy Jewish Education Center of Cleveland

By Judith Schiller

Earlier this year, David Phillips shared the exciting launch of a comprehensive assessment of the Jewish Retreat and Conference Center sector. Premised in part on the proven concept that multi-day, immersive, experiential education can shape a Jewish journey for a lifetime, this assessment would help create a hub of data and best practices that any retreat or conference organizer could turn to for guidance.

Through our involvement with Shinui: The Network for Innovation in Part-Time Jewish Education, we have seen first-hand the benefits of sharing an effective model with colleagues. In this spirit, we are compelled to share the model of the Retreat Institute (RI), a program of the Jewish Education Center of Cleveland (JECC) that receives generous support from the Jewish Federation of Cleveland. The RI supports congregations, schools, and other Jewish organizations plan and implement “beyond the classroom” experiences – uniquely impactful opportunities for deeper learning, community building, and for fostering a love of Judaism.

For these experiences to be high quality and to have real impact, they need to be designed and implemented with strategic thought. How do you select a retreat location, develop a program with meaning, and build a cohesive structure for the whole retreat? Coupled with these questions are the essential details that go into marketing and recruitment, necessary to reach audiences beyond the small, self-selecting participants. Importantly, these experiences, which often have a high price tag, have to be funded, thereby reducing financial barriers to participation.

Think of the RI (a staff of three) as a collaborative, one-stop-shop to help congregations and schools in the Cleveland community design a wide range of immersive experiences – from overnight retreats to smaller scale programs – for diverse audiences of youth and families. Our holistic model is unique in these key ways:

  • Funding: Rather than offer a block grant, we give funding allocations that are directly connected with our RI planning process. Institutions are invited to apply for RI support on a yearly basis by submitting proposals and projected budgets for the coming year. Financial support and staff are provided to each project, depending on the needs and circumstances of each institution. Through funding from the Jewish Federation of Cleveland, we are able to subvent participant costs by up to 50 percent.
  • Collaboration: Our work is not “off-the shelf” programming. The RI and the partner institution each assign a liaison, and together, they have primary planning and decision-making responsibility. Working collaboratively, we develop experiences that integrate with curriculum and broader learning goals relevant to each specific participant group. Each institution hires their own retreat staff, and the RI co-facilitates their training and preparation.
  • Planning Process: We engage an intensive, complex planning process, encompassing educational programming, cultivation of the environment, recruitment of participants, community building, logistics, staff training, and many administrative tasks. We see all aspects of the retreat – programming, meal times, use of space, Tefila, free time, and bed time – as interconnected parts of the whole.
  • Jewish text and content: RI Retreats and programs embrace Jewish text, values, and traditions, while operating with a fully pluralistic approach. Through an experiential framework, we bring text and tradition to life in ways that fit the culture of the institution.
  • Resources: We offer a deep level of resources, encompassing a repertoire of programming and expertise in experiential Jewish education, educational materials, and much logistical support – from ritual and kitchen, to games and posters.
  • Use of space: We do not have our own retreat site, we utilize a variety of facilities – the JCC camp (which is the only Jewish site), an environmental education center, hotels, Christian camps, as well as public spaces such as museums, and zoos – and create a sacred Jewish space in all of them.
  • Professional Development: We help build the capacity of our institutional partners to mobilize these experiences through professional development of their staff, informally, through collaborative partnerships, and with formal workshops and seminars. We are building a community of practice in experiential Jewish education (EJE) and strengthening the culture of EJE through my participation in the Yeshiva University EJE program.
  • Evaluation: Eight years ago, as part of an independent evaluation from JESNA, we developed an evaluation structure that operationalizes all aspects of an experience. Since then we have maintained a database of participant and staff feedback, providing insights into the participant takeaways, and ways to improve.

Surveys from participants and faculty show that this model is an integral strategy in the Jewish education offered in our community. We hope it is a model other communities consider as well.

While funding is a significant incentive, institutions also say that working with the RI process makes for a richer, more meaningful experience with lasting value to the participants and their institutions. Over the years, institutions have integrated retreats into their educational program and culture of their organization.

Last year, Temple Beth Shalom, a smaller congregation outside of Cleveland worked with the RI on a congregational retreat, “Shabbat Tzedek,” held over Martin Luther King Jr. weekend. It was the first-ever overnight retreat for the entire congregation and also came at an opportune time as the congregation welcomed a new rabbi.

“We are a small congregation with limited resources,” says Stefani Carlson, education director of Temple Beth Shalom. “But the Retreat Institute empowers us to think beyond our normal means and think about what we would like to do. It is paradigm shifting in this way. But it’s also so much more than the funding. The RI helped us do everything from selecting the location to thinking about a thematic arc for the whole weekend. Every learning session connected to the other in some way to create a powerful community experience. We launched a yearlong initiative after the retreat to engage with a transitional housing establishment in our city – something that brought incredible meaning into our congregants’ lives. We simply could not do this without the RI.”

More and more, the Jewish community understands that “beyond the classroom” experiences are one of the most impactful elements of Jewish engagement – for all ages. Our surveys reflect positive outcomes about retreats in numerous areas: after retreats participants agreed that they would use Judaism in their lives “more fully and on their own terms;” participants appreciate the opportunity to engage in Jewish rituals and practice, and they enjoy the “fun and exciting” learning that occurs. They also like the opportunity to build connections to peers and community.

A recent survey of Temple Emanuel El families affirmed the findings above. “We learned that families truly wait for the retreats each year,” says Kate Milgrom, education director of the 450 member family congregation. “They love the communal nature, they love the learning that comes to life for their children in front of their eyes.  We now work with the RI throughout the year on programming like day-long education and holiday experiences that somewhat model aspects of a retreat.

As more people seek out these experiences, more Jewish organizations want to be positioned to deliver them. With a generous commitment from our Federation, the Retreat Institute helps make these opportunities accessible for many participants. We support, on average, 36 projects among 12 institutions with 1,700 participants on a yearly basis. We know that other successful models exist too, and we want to add our voice to the growing number of people committed to sharing information that will increase our collective effectiveness and will make these “beyond the classroom” experiences as meaningful and as high quality as possible.

Judith Schiller is Director of the Retreat Institute of the JECC. She recently shared this model through Shinui: The Network for Innovation in Part-Time Jewish Education. She can be reached at jschiller@ameritech.net. More information is at www.jecc.org