Costumes and Usernames: Simulations, Real and Virtual, in Experiential Jewish Education

By Yael Steiner

[This is the fifth in a series of articles written by participants and alumni of the YU Certificate Program in Experiential Jewish Education (EJE), highlighting EJE related ideas and practices.]

costumesThinking back to my summers as a camper, my most vivid memories involve costumes. Counselors and units heads were constantly dressing up, turning ordinary activities like lunch into dramatic events of great historical significance. During an afternoon trip to Lake Chautauqua, our counselors transformed into British soldiers, patrolling the lake on motorboats and preventing us, the Ma’apilim (illegal immigrants) from entering Palestine. Each summer felt like a time warp to an era in Jewish history, brought to life through the creative and dramatic efforts of the staff.

As a participant in the Certificate Program in Experiential Jewish Education I gained a language and methodology to explain the magic that I had had as a camper, and later helped to create as a staff member. I could break down the simulations and dramatic games that we used at camp to teach Jewish history, and see where there were opportunities to enrich the learning experience, through encouraging campers to explore conflict, and creating opportunities for reflection.

I was also pushed to focus on an aspect of experiential Jewish education that I felt less familiar with: the imparting of values. The EJE program defines experiential Jewish education as “the deliberate infusion of Jewish values and content into engaging and memorable experiences that impact the formation of Jewish identity.” I felt confident in my abilities to design experiences that were infused with rich content, but I wasn’t sure how values fit in, or how you could assess whether learners connected with those values. I was specifically interested in how values could be imparted through simulations like the elaborate experiences we created at camp.

These questions stayed with me as my career took me from summer camp to day school, where I grappled with new questions of how to bring the spirit and immersive power of experiential education into the formal classroom setting. I was surprised to find one answer to this question in the form of an online educational program – something that felt antithetical to the hands-on, low-tech atmosphere of camp, and yet captured the immersive and intensive quality I was looking for.

One of the projects for which I am responsible at RAVSAK, the Jewish Community Day School Network, is an online Jewish history program called JCAT, the Jewish Court of All Time, funded by The Covenant Foundation. Over the course of twelve weeks, middle school students from around the country research and adopt the personas of historical figures, and interact with each other in character through an online simulation of a fictional trial.

In this year’s JCAT trial, Rose Hermann, a granddaughter of two passengers on the ship the MS St. Louis, sought reparations from the United States government. She was suing the government for their decision in 1939 not to offer safe harbor to the 937 passengers who were aboard the ship when it entered American waters. Through online conversations, exploration of historical evidence, and in-class discussions, students speaking in the voices of figures such as Golda Meir and Abraham Joshua Heschel grappled with questions about who should be held responsible for the M.S. St. Louis, whether reparations were an appropriate response, and how the money should be used.

At the conclusion of the program, the students had an opportunity to video chat with each other, and their mentors – college and graduate students from the University of Michigan, the Davidson School at JTS, and Hebrew College, who had all been interacting through the program as historical figures. Listening to JCAT participants reflect on their experience, I had the opportunity to hear about what “stuck” with them.

I was taken by a particular reflection that many students voiced, that through JCAT they had considered an issue from an entirely new perspective. As one JCAT student shared: “to understand someone else’s point of view you have to walk in their shoes.” Through researching their character, playing their character during class activities and online conversations, and figuring out how their character would respond to unexpected questions and situations, each student took on a perspective different from their own. By conversing with historical characters with whom their own character disagreed, they developed an awareness for the diversity of perspectives on a particular issue.

I realized that what these students were describing was empathy – the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. What felt most remarkable about this, is that students were not only speaking about developing empathy towards historical figures who they had never personally met, but towards virtual characters played by other middle school students across the country!

Empathy is both a paramount Jewish value, and a mode of critical thinking that is central to the study of history. The passage from Exodus, “And a stranger you shall not oppress; for you know the heart of a stranger, seeing that you were strangers in the land of Egypt” establishes that understanding the experience of others must guide the way that we interact with others. Historical empathy, or the ability to view the world through the thinking of someone in the past, is central to the discipline of studying history. We can only begin to understand the decisions and behavior of historical figures if we understand the experiences, beliefs, and values that motivated their choices.

As I reflect upon the low-tech simulations from my time at camp, I realize that the magic was not only generated by the costumes and drama, but through the feelings of empathy that these experiences activated. As a child I had a taste of the fear that the illegal immigrants felt in 1945, and during another summer, of the joy in celebrating the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem in 516 BCE. Because the value of empathy is deeply woven through the fabric of the experience, simulations, real and virtual, serve as a powerful and transformative tool in experiential Jewish education.

JCAT is a RAVSAK program in partnership with the University of Michigan, University of Cincinnati, JTS Davidson School of Jewish Education and Hebrew College with the generous support of the The Covenant Foundation.

Yael Steiner is the student programs coordinator at RAVSAK and a graduate of Cohort I of the Yeshiva University Certificate Program in Experiential Jewish Education. She spent many memorable summers at Camp Stone.

Applications for Cohort V of the Certificate Program will be accepted through January 26, 2015. For more information and to apply visit

The YU Certificate Program in Experiential Jewish Education is generously funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation.