Can On-the-Job Training Adequately Prepare Jewish Leadership?

time-to-learnBy Daniel Infeld

Close to nine years ago, I began my career as a Jewish educator the way many do, by packing my bags for a summer as a camp counselor. I distinctly remember being astounded that strangers would trust me – a high-school graduate with barely five days of on-site training – with the physical, emotional, and spiritual health of their children.

Fast forward five summers, and I found myself in a similar situation. I was a newly-minted college graduate starting my first full-time job at a national Jewish organization, and I, with no meaningful classroom teaching experience to speak of, was entrusted to lead a network of educators using the organization’s curricular materials, to support these educators (many of whom were much more senior than I was), and to help them adapt these teaching resources for their own contexts.

In both of these cases, I was hired and I did my job reasonably well, without any formal preparation in the education field. Instead, like many of my colleagues, I had lots of on-the-job training. Thankfully, I was blessed with supportive and attentive supervisors and mentors who taught me what I needed to know in order to complete my work effectively and enabled me to grow in my role, so I didn’t make too many mistakes. The experience that I gained has proven invaluable – it has fed and flamed my passion for the Jewish community, honed my work and supervisory skills, and helped me to think broadly and deeply about my role in creating educational experiences.

However, except for a few brief professional development experiences, I didn’t learn very much about the world outside of the organizations I worked for and I was immersed in the decision-making culture of the organized Jewish community, where critical decisions are based almost entirely on gut intuition, instead of evidence and experience. After several years of on-the-job training and experience, I knew I needed something more.

In Democracy and Education (1916), John Dewey, the renowned philosopher of education, draws a distinction between training and education. He argues that training is the process through which one moves another to act when they encounter certain stimuli. The learners have no investment in the outcome; they just learn how to get the task done. Education, on the other hand, involves a process where the learner is a “sharer or partner in the associated activity so that he feels its success as his success, its failure as his failure.” In other words, education creates invested and engaged participants, while training mainly creates automatons. Arguably, both education and training have their place in preparing people for any sort of job, but within a professional culture that favors one over the other, there are bound to be imbalances.

From my first days as a camp counselor until today, I’ve had a lot of training, but I haven’t really participated in my own professional education. I’ve always believed in the power of my work, and Jewish education in general, to change lives, but besides my own anecdotal evidence, I didn’t have anything to back up this claim. I didn’t know how or why Jewish education works (or doesn’t). I couldn’t even really tell you what I thought the purpose of Jewish education was. So a year ago, I packed my bags again and enrolled in the Masters program in Education and Jewish Studies at NYU Steinhardt.

I chose NYU because I was attracted to the idea of a program that focused on the needs of the Jewish community and issues of Jewish education in particular, while being able to take advantage of the resources of a prestigious secular university to gain an understanding of greater contexts. I’m involved in serious, evidence-based conversations about Jewish education and my role in it. I came to this program to build a knowledge base and a network, and to learn how to speak with authority on my chosen field. And, for the first time, I am able to ground my ideas in evidence and carry out meaningful research on my interests.

I’ve learned a great deal in the last year, one of the main things being that if there is one thing the Jewish community needs it’s more people getting a professional education like mine. Today’s Jewish communal professionals often comment that their self-identification as a Jewish educator is one of the largest factors in why they choose to do the work that they do. In the same way that we expect our children’s classroom teachers to have a high degree of education in their field and in educational methods, our communal educators need to be held to a similar standard. Relying on self-identification, without real training to back it up sells our community short. Our educators need to be versed in Dewey, Sarason, and contemporary educational theory and practice. We need policymakers (and programmers) who can understand and interpret demographic data – and who don’t ignore its limitations. We need leaders who can engage with the scholarly discourse, and make decisions based on solid research.

This is the kind of education that Jewish communal professionals need if we’re ever going to move beyond the same conversations that we’ve been having for fifty years or more. For too long, we’ve been relying on intuition and on-the-job training to make decisions. We need more educators, communal professionals, and leaders who have participated in an educational process that gives us the tools to grapple with the issues of the world at large, and the conviction to make needed, evidence-based change within our own Jewish context.

Daniel Infeld is the Director of Programming and Operations at Limmud NY, and a Masters student in Education and Jewish Studies at New York University.