Are Investments in Experiential Jewish Education for Teens Worthwhile?

by Sally Gottesman

Dr. Amy Sales, associate director of the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University, recently wrote an insightful piece for eJewishPhilanthropy.com that should serve as a wake-up call to all those who fund or run informal education programs.

“The research on goals in experiential Jewish education,” Sales writes, “shows a strikingly low priority placed on Jewish subject matter.”

Sales goes on to say that “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.”

If you find yourself reading this and questioning whether a shift to experiential Jewish education is a good thing for the future of the Jewish people, then you are asking what we at Moving Traditions are exploring with the help of social scientists: Is it possible to have successful, ongoing Jewish engagement experiences that also enrich the participant’s Jewish education?

This is a particularly challenging question in our work with middle and high school students. Declining enrollment in formal Jewish education such as Hebrew High School programs and stagnating numbers of teens in Jewish day schools have placed an increasing amount of attention on “immersive” experiences – particularly summer camps – in the lives of teens.

We know from program evaluations by the Foundation for Jewish Camping and individual camps that summer camp has a positive impact on teens’ Jewish identity as well as on their Jewish education.

But how are the various experiential efforts to engage teens – philanthropy circles, volunteer programs, youth groups – faring in terms of Jewish education?

This question and others are behind our decision to conduct a comprehensive, independent national evaluation of Moving Tradition’s signature program, Rosh Hodesh: It’s a Girl Thing!

Rosh Hodesh is a hybrid of teen engagement and education. In monthly meetings, pre-teen and teen girls engage with each other and with an adult mentor on topics at the heart of adolescence – and they learn to apply Jewish values and a gender lens to these issues.

Launched in 2002, Rosh Hodesh has now been experienced by more than 14,000 girls. The girls who were in the first groups are now young women studying in graduate school and launching careers.

Experienced evaluators Dr. Pearl Beck and Dr. Tobin Belzer will survey alumna and adult mentors, whom we call group leaders. Among the questions that they will explore: To what extent and how does an experiential approach to Jewish ritual and learning help participants understand Jewish concepts and Jewish history? Does Rosh Hodesh inspire teens to feel connected to the Jewish calendar? Do they learn how to articulate Jewish values? Did it help the girls feel more connected to Jewish life?

Looking at Jewish education holistically, we are also interested in the psychological and spiritual aspects of our program. To what extent do girls acquire knowledge about Jewish women of the past and understanding about the challenges that women continue to face? Does the educational experience help girls counter social pressures from the wider American culture? Does it encourage them to form and retain friendships with other Jewish girls? Does participation in Rosh Hodesh lead to Jewish and feminist activism in college?

It is rare to be able to conduct an extensive study of an experiential Jewish education program and we are deeply grateful to our funders for helping make this research possible. We are inspired by the Jim Joseph Foundation’s commitment to research that sheds light on teen education – illuminating the work of Moving Traditions and the wider field of experiential education. Our goal is not only to learn how to improve our model, but to contribute to the field of informal Jewish education and inspire others to create models for teens that hold up both engagement and education.

Now it is your turn: If you know one of the 14,000 girls who have participated in a Rosh Hodesh It’s a Girl Thing! group – or know their parents or grandparents! – please have them visit www.roshhodesh.org and share their experience.

Sally Gottesman, Moving Traditions Co-Founder and Board Chair, has long been committed to Jewish and gender issues, having worked for the Israel Women’s Network and The New Israel Fund, and having served on the Boards of American Jewish World Service, Americans for Peace Now, the Jewish Funders Network, and The Jewish Women’s Archive.  Currently, Sally is on the Executive Committee of her synagogue, Congregation B’nai Jeshurun. A consultant to not-for-profit organizations, Sally graduated from Wellesley College and the Yale School of Management.