Experiential Jewish Education is Not a Separate Field

Fully Integrating the Study and Practice of EJE into the Graduate Training of Jewish Educators
by Mark S. Young

I’ve been reading with intrigue the responses to the Yeshiva University (YU) study on Mapping the Goals of Experiential Jewish Education (EJE) the past several weeks on eJewish Philanthropy. I commend our YU partners on our Jim Joseph Foundation educational grant, and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) for that matter as well, for raising the profile of EJE with both energy and gusto these past four years. This recent series also highlights an important question about the trajectory of EJE: should EJE, as the study suggests, be maintained as a separate field?

My YU friends are well aware that many Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) colleagues, including me, differ from their response. We have had vibrant and respectful conversations about it. I have struggled personally with this question while directing experiential learning programs within The Davidson School since 2010. In September 2011 I shared a piece on this website, “From Informal to Experiential: New Approaches to Graduate Studies in Jewish Educational Leadership,” announcing our new cohort MA program in Jewish Experiential Education. For the past three academic years, The Davidson School at JTS has welcomed 11 or 12 students within our larger incoming MA class to this cohort. The cohort was integrated with the larger MA student body in many ways but often, by design, separated out for additional learning, enhanced field-work opportunities, mentoring, and cohort activities. This was justified because they were becoming “experiential” Jewish educators.

During this 3-cohort initiative as 34 students journeyed through the program, we achieved great success. These students embraced the experience, advanced their professional networks, gained deep understandings of EJE, and our first cohort of alumni is excelling at their positions in the field. We at The Davidson School, however, soon realized that every trained Jewish educator, especially at the graduate level, should have the type of enhanced MA experience that includes learning as a cohort, gaining guidance from additional mentors, and engaging extensively with the field. All emerging Jewish educators should receive significant exposure to and wrestle with the ideas, practice, and the “philosophy of EJE,” as Dr. Barry Chazan, Dr. Joe Reimer, and Dr. David Bryfman referred to it.

As a result, with the transition out of the “initiative” phase of experiential learning at The Davidson School, we are expanding these experiential education experiences and training by comprehensively integrating into the program for all MA students beginning with the incoming fall 2014 class. Essentially, all in-residence students will be enrolling in a Jewish Experiential Education MA program.

This move signifies a strong statement that EJE should not be considered or treated as a separate field, enterprise, discipline or domain; rather, it is an essential and critical methodology and approach within the larger unified field of Jewish education. The field as a whole should promote intentionality, accessible Jewish content, learner empowerment and learner-centered experiences, relationship-building, and an emphasis on learning and growth through individual and group meaningful reflection.

It should be noted that, at this point in the development of Jewish education, we still need to be explicit in referring to those trained in EJE as “experiential Jewish educators,” until all practitioners in the field are fully familiar and confident in facilitating this type of learning. This is why, in our work with the leadership of the Jim Joseph Foundation and our sister institutions we will continue to raise the profile and use the language of EJE in the years ahead.

Let me be clear however. EJE is not and should not be limited to a certain type of educator, certain type of setting or specific set of goals. I would argue that all Jewish educators are aiming for a set of similar goals: we aim for our learners to be both more knowledgeable and more engaged in Judaism and Jewish life. Therefore, there is no need to consider the goals of EJE as separate goals from Jewish education. Rather, let us take what we have learned from these last few years creating separate trainings in EJE and make EJE the not-so-secret-sauce in a healthy stew of holistic training for all Jewish educators. This will unify our goals and objectives across the field and make it easier to collaborate among various institutions and settings.

Let us advance the work of integrating EJE into the larger unified field of Jewish education by enabling all emerging and current Jewish education professionals to experience and reflect on experiential Jewish education, strengthening their craft, their institutions, the field and the collective Jewish future.

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