Experiential Jewish Education: Back to the Future

by Dr. Gil Graff

Recently, I attended the annual conference of the Network for Research in Jewish Education, in Los Angeles. There, I participated in a session on principles of experiential education articulated by John Dewey in the first half of the twentieth century as applied to Jewish learning in contemporary settings of Jewish education. The presentation included a look at some project-based learning experiences at schools, anchored in “a Dewey-inspired perspective.”

Several weeks later, I came across a piece authored in 1925 by Dr. David de Sola Pool, spiritual leader of the Spanish and Portuguese Congregation, Shearith Israel (in New York), in the pages of The Jewish Forum. Titled “Can Our Jewish Schools Be Made to Teach?” the article encouraged project-based experiential education. “Mere telling is not teaching,” observed de Sola Pool. “As Professor Dewey puts it, ‘There is nothing in the nature of ideas about morality, of information about honesty or purity or kindliness, which automatically transmutes such ideas into good character or good conduct.’”

Schools, urged the author, “must do much more than merely teach a child about Judaism.” Describing the current system as “outworn,” de Sola Pool declared the necessity of starting from the interests of the pupils. As a model of possibility, the author pointed to the example of Young Judaea clubs. Such clubs, he observed, teach children “by their doing something which arises out of their own interests.”

This approach, noted the author, is by no means novel. “The rabbis well understood that the fundamental factor is not Midrash, theoretic knowledge, but Ma’aseh, practical, active knowledge. The project is summed up in the phrase ‘na’aseh ve-nishma,’ ‘let us do and then we shall learn.’”

Dr. de Sola Pool pointed to a fundamental need to re-imagine religious education. “The question which the Jewish community must face is whether it will go on dogmatically insisting upon more of the outworn methods of imparting lifeless knowledge by means of authority, worthless devices, and appeals to popular emotional enthusiasm, or will … move in the direction of enlisting the coming generation in wholehearted, purposeful Jewish activity.” That discussion of experiential learning engages practitioners and academics alike early in the 21st century is evidence that the choice of active learning advocated by de Sola Pool – though not broadly embraced generations ago – has, in many quarters, been made. How fortunate is our generation to reclaim experiential Jewish education, making our way back to the future.

Dr. Gil Graff is Executive Director of BJE: Builders of Jewish Education