Broadening the Mindset of Experiential Jewish Education

[The following article is the second 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. David Pelcovitz

I want to raise some questions regarding next steps in the field of Experiential Jewish Education (EJE) by focusing on three areas: (1) Developmental perspectives; (2) The role of parents and grandparents; (3) How the “subject” we speak to in qualitative or quantitative research on this topic impacts our conclusions.

1. Developmental Perspectives

Quantitative research on the psychology of religion teaches us that what works in spiritual education differs considerably over the course of the life span. From one year to the next, young people change in their reported religiousness just as they change their interests, social circles, dress, and the color of their hair. Researchers report that late adolescence is a time that individuals are uniquely open to the perspectives of religious role models.

Particularly illustrative of this fluid process is an AVI CHAI funded quantitative study we did at the YU Azrieli Graduate School for Jewish Education that looked at various aspects of religious actions and beliefs in a group of over twelve hundred students attending modern orthodox Jewish high schools across the United States. We found that, in contrast to girls, who remained relatively stable in their beliefs and actions over the course of their high school years, boys showed a precipitous drop in their connections to the spiritual at age 16. What is particularly relevant about this finding is that for most of the boys in this study this decline took place after spending a summer in experiential Jewish education settings. A significant percentage of these boys spend the summer before they turn 16 attending various EJE programs in Israel or other parts of the world, often reporting high levels of inspiration during the program.

What leads to this “crash”? Why do we see it in boys and not in girls? What implications does this have for our understanding of the process of Experiential Jewish education?

Another highly relevant body of research are the implications of new trends pointing to drastic changes in the transition from adolescence to adulthood. These changes are evident in the rise in the age of young adults entering marriage and parenthood, the tendency of this cohort to spend much longer periods of time pursuing higher education, and the difficulty this cohort experiences in attaining job stability. Much has recently been written about the implications of this change in the experience of young adulthood for spiritual education and development. For example, Robert Wuthnow, describes this cohort as: “spiritual tinkerers – a reflection of the freedom we permit ourselves in making choices about faith and the necessity of making those choices in the face of the uprootedness and change that most young adults experience.”

Practical implications of these changes in segments of the Jewish community include the finding that emerging adults are more likely to shop around for a synagogue and religious community they feel comfortable in. They are more likely to have been reared by parents who encouraged them to think for themselves and make choices resulting in lower levels of receptivity to accepting religious teachings in a passive manner. There is also evidence that, in contrast to previous generations they talk more about religious issues with friends. Of particular relevance is recent research suggesting that since the financial crisis of 2008 they are more open to a search for meaning then their older peers who came of age in a more affluent era.

These changes all point to increased opportunities for experiential Jewish educators, while at the same time posing a challenge to these educators to more specifically tailor approaches to these new realities.

2. The Role of Parents and Grandparents

Is there a role for parents and grandparents in experiential Jewish education?

While the argument is made that, by definition, experiential Jewish education is about helping individuals find their inner voice, separate from the influences of family – this ignores a repeated finding of researchers who, in well designed longitudinal studies, document the central role of family in ultimately shaping an individual’s spiritual connections. Researchers have found that the most powerful predictors of spirituality, for children and adolescents is the level of connection with their parents. A warm and loving relationship with one’s parents predicts that the child will view and practice his or her religion in a manner that is very similar to what was modeled at home. An important challenge for the field of experiential Jewish Education is to explore how to take the changes that begin in EJE programs and mindfully explore how to broaden the conversation in a manner that includes the whole family.

While in some families parents play the primary role as mentor to the child regarding religious development – with parents providing the scaffolding necessary to optimally promotes their child’s spiritual and religious development, sometimes this influence isn’t top-down, but is rather bottom-up. Recently a dissertation was completed at Azrieli, by Natan Goldstein, who documented a fascinating finding in families of young men and women who returned from a year of study in Israel. Dr. Goldstein found a bi-directional phenomenon; where the parent’s religious and spiritual connections often deepened as a result of their child’s increased commitment. These finding again, highlight the power of broadening our perspective in a manner that considers promoting a more active collaboration between experiential Jewish educators and the entire family.

3. Different Sources of Information: The Eye Sees Only What the Mind Knows

A short vignette: Last summer, I was in Chicago giving a talk to a group of parents of children attending various area Orthodox Jewish day schools. Using Poll Everywhere parents were asked: “What do you feel are the major challenges you face in the spiritual and religious education of your child?” The parents were offered a number of choices; much to my surprise – their top choice was “lack of stillness – in their life and in the life their child.” The discussion that followed focused on the continuous partial attention that distracts them and their children; the continuous interruptions of texts, phone calls and email that competes with the essence of spirituality – connection to self and others.

The next week, I gave a class to a group of doctoral students at Azrieli, many of whom are highly experienced educators, who hold posts as senior administrators in Jewish Day schools. I asked them the same question posed to the Chicago parents the previous week. Their first response was the challenge of parents who serve as poor role models for their children in areas such as prayer and religious observance.

The lesson I learned from these disparate responses is that our informants are as important as the questions themselves. The data we gather are very much dictated by the source. The lack of stillness as well as the lack of parental consistency are both important pieces of information informing our needs and goals for future areas of focus. We have to be very careful, however, to recognize that our conclusions need to be tempered by a recognition of how limited our findings will be if not based on multiple sources of information.

In conclusion, the field of Experiential Jewish Education is one that is, by its’ very nature, elusive and difficult to professionalize. I am excited by this initial attempt to create a systematic theory and practice of, what is in my belief, the most powerful ingredient addressing Jewish identity and continuity. The words of Parker Palmer, capture this elusive set of goals:

“If we want to support each other’s inner lives, we must remember a simple truth, the human soul does not want to be fixed, it wants simply to be seen and heard. If we want to see and hear a person’s soul, there is another truth we must remember: the soul is like a wild animal – tough, resilient, and yet shy. When we go crashing through the woods shouting for it to come out so we can help it, the soul will stay in hiding. But if we are willing to sit quietly and wait for a while, the soul may show itself.”

Dr. David Pelcovitz holds the Gwendolyn and Joseph Straus Chair in Psychology and Jewish Education at Yeshiva University’s Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration. He also teaches courses in Pastoral Psychology at the university’s affiliated Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary. Before assuming his position on the faculty of Yeshiva University, Dr. Pelcovitz was a clinical professor of psychology at New York University School of Medicine and director of psychology at North Shore University Hospital-NYU School of Medicine.

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