Creating Conditions for Growth: A New Hub for Masa Educators

By Yehudit Werchow

[This is the sixth and final article in a series written by participants in the inaugural Senior Educators Cohort at M²: The Institute for Experiential Jewish Education.]

“If we want to grow in our practice, we have two primary places to go: to the inner ground from which good teaching comes and to the community of fellow teachers from whom we can learn more about ourselves and our craft.” (Parker Palmer, The Courage to Teach)

As Director of Education at Masa Israel Journey, I feel honored and privileged to work with a team of professionals and partner organizations to co-create one of the most unique and exciting experiential Jewish education opportunities in the world: immersive experiences in Israel for young adults. My colleagues and I work with young adults to shape and co-design their own personal and professional transformative journeys while living in Israel with their peers from around the world and immersing themselves in a diverse array of Jewish and Israeli cultural experiences.

Our goals include building authentic and lasting relationships and connections between Masa participants, with Israel and Israeli society, with Jewish life, and with peers from around the world. Perhaps the most inspiring results of this work is hearing from our participants about the impact that these experiences have on their lives and their identities, and the ways in which they are motivated and inspired to play more active leadership roles in their communities once they return home from their time in Israel.

Since embarking upon my own journey with Masa, I have sought to understand how the Masa team and its partners can better work together to fulfill this monumental educational mission, particularly within the context of our fast-paced, complex and globalized world and the challenges it presents for us and our participants both as individuals and as a people. In order to fulfill this mission, over the last two years, Masa’s organizational leadership has consulted with our diverse community of stakeholders in Israel and from around the world and as a result of this process we are implementing a new set of pedagogies and core principles, diverse professional learning opportunities and an evaluation process that will better serve our participants.

One part of this process has involved my participation in M²: The Institute for Experiential Jewish Education’s first Senior Educators Cohort (SEC) as well as a partnership we have formed with M² to create the Hub for Experiential Jewish Education at Masa. We’ve recognized that implementing our new pedagogical approach can only be realized if we invest in the growth of one of Masa’s biggest assets – the educational leadership that works with our participants. To that end, we invited a group of Masa’s educational partners to join the Hub and participate in a series of three two-day-long professional development seminars, all developed with M². At these seminars we have sought to nurture our educators’ passion, curiosity, creativity and skills, while building a community of leading practitioners. In turn, each Hub educator is better equipped to lead their teams and develop the educational vision for their programs.

We launched the first two seminars in January and early February and have already noticed that this model has enabled us to do something critical for our practice: creating a space for reflection and self-exploration as an organic and core practice for our field. In addition, throughout the first two seminars Hub educators learned new and diverse ideas, pedagogies and skills to explore their own personal and professional beliefs and values, as well as those of the institutions for which they work. They considered the ways in which these precepts influence the choices they make and the actions they take as educators. As a result, Hub educators reported that these activities helped them reconnect to and reaffirm their sense of purpose. More practically, the first seminar strengthened their sense of agency and helped them identify conflicts or disconnects between their educational goals and the approaches they value and the content of the experiences they design. In addition, the reflective space made all participants more aware of and sensitive to their strengths, weaknesses and comfort zones.

Another important goal of the seminars was to create a sense of community and shared sense of purpose among the educators. This was critical as we learned through this process that the educators often feel isolated, drained, and in competition with each other. These perceptions and conditions have built barriers between colleagues and blocked their abilities to share ideas and best practices, ultimately limiting opportunities for growth and innovation. This dynamic also makes it extremely difficult for them to share honest and constructive feedback with one another – an unfortunate and unnecessary barrier that we must tear down in order to build a resourceful network of practitioners and leaders who can help each other to succeed in fulfilling our shared mission. We learn best from trial and error and we need support and encouragement from the field in order to take risks and we can only do that when we trust one another.

To this end, the community-building aspects of the seminars have been critical. Throughout the Hub seminars, we have prioritized teamwork and experimentation to build upon and highlight the cumulative wisdom and talent we all offer as individuals and as a network of dedicated leaders and educators working toward the same purpose. During the seminars we have experienced new ideas, experimented with theories and pedagogies, and shared fun experiences that build trust and create conditions for building personal relationships, all leading to further collaboration and the strengthening of the experiential Jewish education ecosystem in Israel and beyond.

Lastly, Hub educators are encouraged to bring back their learnings to their teams and to adapt the content, skills and ideas they gain to their local settings and individual programs. At the end of each seminar, the group generates a list of shared insights and action items that will inform their immediate and future work and, at the same time, help build sustainable bridges between educators from our wide variety of programs and ensure that they continue learning and working together between seminars.

While this initiative has just begun, we are excited to see the medium becoming the message and are learning for future Hub cohorts that authentic and creative experiences, when reflected upon, encourage the development of a creative mindset, authentic relationships, and energized networks. Our hope is that this process will help guide Masa and our partners to create even more focused, intentional, scalable educational experiences for our participants and end-users.

Rabbi Yehudit Werchow is the Director of Education of Masa Israel Journey, an initiative of the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Government of Israel, and a participant in the inaugural Senior Educators Cohort (SEC) at M²: The Institute for Experiential Jewish Education. SEC is generously supported by the Maimonides Fund.

Applications are now open for Cohort 2 of the Senior Educators Cohort. For more information and to request an application visit www.ieje.org.