Experiential Jewish Education: A Response to Pew

By Aaron Levi

This is the second 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.

Jack Wertheimer and Steven M. Cohen’s recently published articles in Mosaic argue that more Jewish education (specifically day school education) will result in increased Jewish endogamy and more Jewish babies, stating: “The gradient of engagement extends downward from the high of those who have attended day schools for nine or more years” and dwindles to those “who have received no Jewish education and who are correspondingly the least likely to be engaged in Jewish life” (p. 6).

How do the Pew study and the Wertheimer-Cohen piece recast our ideal Jewish educational objectives, and how is the field of experiential Jewish education uniquely poised to respond?

No Platonic ideal exists in regards to the final product of Jewish education. Meaningful learning outcomes are as diverse as individual learners themselves and cannot necessarily be distilled to endogamy and birth rates. Narrow learning outcomes such as these work well in a logic model but is much more ambiguous in practice.

It is a continual struggle for practitioners to select the most appropriate or generative subject matter for a particular group of students to achieve clear and measurable aims. Much communal conversation focuses on what learners should know (and should be able to do) as a result of Jewish education. Unfortunately, when we speak in terms of “should” we tend to close ourselves to the creative thinking and ingenuous opportunities required to effect maximal growth among our learners.

Regardless of the educational setting, experiential Jewish education (EJE) represents a comprehensive methodology to achieve such growth among learners. For this reason, universities, nonprofits, and private foundations are partnering to generate research in the field of EJE and develop a robust cadre of experiential educators whose training will help them transform the present Jewish educational landscape.

I myself grew up in the Labor-Zionist youth movement Habonim Dror and worked in Jewish education for years before I began to see myself as a professional Jewish educator. My self-conception shifted during my participation in Yeshiva University’s Certificate Program in Experiential Jewish Education. During the program I acquired the language and skills to create and guide more purposeful and holistic educational experiences. I learned to recognize the inherent tension between my intended outcomes as an educator and the learners’ need for self- exploration. Through my cohort I tapped into a network where we grappled with similar questions despite our diversity and differences in workplace settings. The Certificate Program convinced me that I had been operating on intuition rather than intentionality and inspired me to achieve an even deeper level of expertise in the field.

EJE has wide-ranging application, offering a path to engage, activate, and educate today’s Jewish youth. When skilled practitioners wield this methodology, EJE fosters not only Jewish identification among learners but a sophisticated knowledge base and skill-set. EJE is learner-centered, which means it is able to successfully harness participants’ intrinsic motivations and creates a dynamic educational process that establishes trust, meaningful assessment, vulnerability, and risk-taking. The EJE methodology encourages learners to cultivate a sense of agency in the educational environment and in life. As an ideal result, we actualize the progressive vision of John Dewey by setting the stage for learners to pursue life-long positive growth with the intent that they become empowered members of the Jewish community.

Ultimately, I believe the Jewish people and Jewish education are about much more than just the numbers, as Cohen and Wertheimer discuss in their analysis of the Pew study. Our immersive culture touches people on the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual levels, which is what transformative experiential Jewish education does, too. It engrosses and activates the whole person. It offers an inspiring vision for what we could be as a people and as a civilization.

During our first seminar, we learned a quotation attributed to William Butler Yeats that I have often pondered since then: “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” Youth are not empty vessels waiting to be filled, rather, they are curiosity, passion, and possibility to ignite. We have much to celebrate as a people, and it is our collective joy – rather than fear for what the future holds – that will illuminate the paths forward in the coming millennia.

Aaron Levi is a graduate of Cohort II of the Certificate Program and is currently a student in the NYU Dual M.A. program in Education and Jewish Studies and Hebrew and Judaic Studies as a Jim Joseph Fellow.

Applications for Cohort V of the Certificate Program will be accepted through January 26, 2015. 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.