Experiencing the Self in Experiential Jewish Education

Professional-DevelopmentBy Elise Loterman

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

Parker Palmer, the founder and Senior Partner of the Center for Courage & Renewal, challenges us to think about ourselves as educators and our personal development in our role as educators. In his acclaimed book ‘Courage to Teach,’ he writes, “Seldom, if ever, do we ask the who question – Who is the self that teaches? How does the quality of my selfhood form… the way I relate to my students, my subject, my colleagues, my world?” Arguably, one of the most important aspects of working in the field of experiential Jewish education is that by “signing up” to do this work, we accept and take upon ourselves the challenge and responsibility to actually be and self-identify as an experiential Jewish educator. In each conversation we have and in everything that we do, we have the opportunity to teach others about the importance of Jewish values and Jewish experiences. It is an awesome and very heavy responsibility.

My own personal journey of coming to self identify as an experiential Jewish educator took me through two significant and diverse transformative experiences. The first was the training I received in Yeshiva University’s Certificate program in Experiential Jewish Education (EJE). Through the learning, strong cohort experience, and dedicated alumni network, this program transformed my self-perception from a college graduate with a Hillel programming job to a professional experiential Jewish educator with a unique skill set to share, use, and develop.

The second transformative experience was leaving my job to spend time traveling in Australia. As someone who has worked in the Jewish community, mostly in educational roles, since the age of fourteen, it took my leaving my most recent position at Hillel and traveling – doing something for my own personal growth – to gain a greater perspective on the importance of this work and to recognize my intentional and deep commitment to it.

I believe that in order to be committed to the field, we, experiential Jewish educators, must require ourselves to focus on three essential tools and to practice using them: self-awareness, self-restraint, and self-development.

1. SelfAwareness: It is impossible to educate others without having a basic understanding of ourselves; our own traits, strengths, and weaknesses.

In the EJE Certificate Program, we studied a poem called The Woodcarver, as well as analyzed Parker Palmer’s response to it. The poem discusses a master carver who was commissioned to produce a perfect bell stand. To accomplish this task, he removed himself physically from the world by fasting and meditating. During this time, he was able to visualize and ultimately create his piece of art.

Drawing on the Woodcarver’s motivation, which was to please his master, the first segment of Palmer’s analysis speaks about being honest about our motivation for doing the type of work that we are engaged in. What skills do we, experiential Jewish educators personally bring to the table? What are our individual strengths and weaknesses? What are the real or true motivating factors that drive us to do this work?

2. Selfrestraint: One challenge that our profession faces, especially at the entry level, is incredibly high burnout rates. This is especially true for jobs where people are working full days, running programs over Shabbat, in the evenings, and on weekends. One key component to self- development is learning when to say no and understanding the art of delegation. Setting personal boundaries not only leads to healthier work-life integration, but also allows learners to interact with someone who is excited about their work and is able to maintain a high level of energy by taking needed breaks and nurturing their self-care.

3. SelfDevelopment: This is the part where “Experiential,” “Jewish” and “Educator” should be focused on the individual as well as the collective:

  • Experiential – Our learners must take risks and move beyond their comfort zones and it is essential for us to model this type of behavior. While it does not have to be as extreme as traveling to Australia (although I would highly recommend it!), it is important to be engaging with new people, places, and ideas on a consistent basis.
  • Jewish – We cannot be Jewish leaders or educators without an understanding of what Judaism is, both individually and communally. The 613th (final) commandment in the Torah is for each person to write his or her own Torah scroll to teach the rest of the Jewish community. If this is an obligation on every Jew, then it is especially relevant to us as Jewish educators. One of the rich elements of Jewish learning is that it encompasses everything from Torah to philosophy to language and history. Each of us can find a part of Jewish tradition that speaks to us and our interests and we must continue to nourish our Jewish hearts, souls, and minds.
  • Educator – While many of us might not have formal training in the field of education, we should work to learn about various pedagogical approaches, theories, and methodology. This allows us to realize the depth of opportunity to grow and be challenged in the field and to create more sophisticated approaches to our work. It is only through enhanced training in this area that our field will be taken seriously and professionally. Programs such as the YU EJE Certificate Program provide this type of training and exposure to educational theories.

There is a well-known story about a Chassidic Rebbe named Reb Zusha. His students once asked him about his greatest fear. He shared that he was not concerned about not living up to the level of spirituality of Moses or the kindness of Abraham. Rather, his main concern when he went up to heaven was that he would be asked, “Zusha, why weren’t you Zusha?”

Each of us has our own backgrounds and experiences that have allowed us to enter this diverse field. It is only with consistent self-restraint, self-awareness and self- development that we will be able to become our best selves and best educators and therefore create the most optimal learning environments for our diverse learners.

Elise Loterman previously worked at Hillel Ontario and is currently the Experiential Jewish Educator at The King David School in Melbourne, Australia. She is a graduate of the third cohort of the Yeshiva University Certificate Program in Experiential Jewish Education.

Applications for Cohort VI of the Certificate Program will be accepted through February 22, 2016. For more information and to apply visit www.ejewisheducation.com

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