Experiential Jewish Education for All

By Mark S. Young

Research, Design, Experiment, Implement, Reflect, Apply the learning, and Refine the practice.

Jewish educators reading this first line may recognize this as a slight modification of the cycle of learning by David Kolb. Learning by experience and reflecting on those experiences are a hallmark to the principles of experiential education.

At The Davidson School of JTS, experiential education which, combined with the serious study of Jewish content to form Experiential Jewish Education (EJE), has also been a hallmark of study in our MA in Jewish Education program for over a decade. It was a small piece of the puzzle beginning in 2000, growing in each subsequent year. At first, Theories and ideas of EJE were introduced as part of one class of students who were completing internships in settings defined by the ever-becoming-obsolete term: informal settings.

Then, in 2011, thanks to the generosity of the Jim Joseph Foundation whose support commenced our 5 year Experiential Learning Initiative, we launched a new program: a specialized cohort of graduate students who concentrated on the study, experiences and training of EJE on a much grander scale. These thirty-four brave souls over the three cohorts of our two-year Experiential MA were, essentially, our guinea-pigs, our participants in our grand experiment.

They were fully part of the larger MA class. In addition, the cohort was charged with additional course work and new field-based projects including workshops and trips specifically crafted to experience EJE in-action, reflect and learn. The objective was to dive deep into EJE theories, enhancing each student’s own understandings of EJE and professional growth as a result. Our goal has been for each student to graduate from our program as a truly exceptional Jewish educator with cutting-edge skills and creative approaches to facilitation, reflection, leadership and engagement. Truly, our work with these three cohorts has been innovative, challenging in the best way possible, and a lot of fun. Most are already excelling as star professionals throughout the field from Hillel to Jewish camp, synagogues, and day schools.

However, as we engaged in this process an obvious question arose: why aren’t all of our MA students participating and gaining from these new, exciting, and innovative programs? Certainly, the Jewish educational world has come to a consensus now and much more than when our initiative began in 2010 that the power of EJE is not limited to certain settings, and those who focus on day school teaching and synagogue educational leadership would also benefit immensely from the experiences and learning that our experiential MA students did. In fact, many of our EJE cohort graduates have earned exciting new roles in day schools and synagogues where their EJE training and expertise is highly valued and a key rationale for their hire. Moreover, our rabbis and cantors, who are entering career paths in which education is part and parcel to their work, would certainly gain tremendously from this graduate training as well.

We are now integrating and infusing EJE training components throughout the MA program so EJE training at Davidson is for all. Beginning this fall and solidified further in the semesters ahead, every MA and Doctorate student at Davidson is exposed and connects to the theory, experiences, reflections and educator growth from engaging in the numerous EJE training and program components we provide: annual cohort retreats, attending and reflecting at Jewish educator conferences within and outside of JTS, diving in deep to our rich core course work and electives in EJE, immersing themselves in expanded field projects and internships and engaging in one-on-one focused career development, just to name a few.

What our students begin to understand during their time at Davidson and, perhaps the big reveal as they journey through the program, is that successfully planned and implemented EJE is just good, solid, awesome Jewish education. Everyone should have access and the opportunity to be engrossed in EJE, for each to become the thoughtful, well trained, inspiring educator that is full of promise and potential no matter their position, rank, title, or setting.

Has the EJE program at The Davidson School ended? Nope, exactly the opposite! We are expanding, growing and continuing to lead the field with the stance that every educator should have the expertise, energy and excitement to bring experiential Jewish education into their learning environment. We also continue to innovate, pilot, and experiment and, in the spirit of Kolb, reflect on our implementations, learn from them, and apply our learning every day. Come join us.

Mark S. Young is the Program Coordinator of the Experiential Learning Initiative at the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of The Jewish Theological Seminary. The Experiential Learning Initiative is generously funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation educational grant to JTS.

To learn more about the MA program in Jewish Education visit our website.