Framing the Training for Our Emerging Jewish Experiential Educators

by Mark S. Young

As we begin 2012, I predict that experiential education in the Jewish world will continue to be a hot topic. Last month, I attended the Union for Reform Judaism’s Biennial where Jon Woocher, Chief Ideas Officer at JESNA (I love his title), continued to press the importance of creating “immersive and meaningful experiences” within Jewish education to be successful in transmitting Jewish knowledge and engaging the next generation in Jewish life. Given this, we must not only address the question of what makes for excellent Jewish experiential education. Perhaps more important, how do we know a great Jewish experiential educator when we see one and how do we train these future educators for success?

To substantiate definitive answers is a daunting task, primarily since the academic field and literature of Jewish experiential education is still in its emerging phase. We can study the work of Dr. Barry Chazan, whose seminal piece on what he then called Informal Jewish Education is not even a decade old, as well as the work of Dr. Joe Reimer and Dr. David Bryfman who have given us rich theory and analysis to study in-depth, complementing the educational legacies of John Dewey and Rabbi Seymour Fox. We can also visit Jewish experiential education in action: Hillel events, Jewish environmental programs, Jewish museums; or participating for example in a Shabbat at a Jewish camp. We can speak to those who work and lead the field. These visits can provide significant raw data to consider, analyze, and reflect upon. But, how do we weave it all together in a framework that allows for integration into cohesive and intentional training for experiential educators? In Fall 2011, we of The Davidson School at JTS approached the task with six strands.

The six strands are six words or phrases that Dr. Jeff Kress and I posed to our inaugural cohort of 11 students in our Master’s Program in Jewish Experiential Education, a program generously funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation. After months of reviewing the literature, speaking with field leaders and reflecting on our own experiences we arrived at the following: Intentionality, Facilitation, Holistic Jewish Growth, Meaningful Reflection, Meaningful and Accessible Jewish Content, and Visionary Leadership and Strategic Administration. We presented these strands as a framework for our students’ in their first semester seminar examining Jewish experiential education. We asked them to think about what makes experiential learning excellent and the experiential educator a successful one, utilizing these strands to help them synthesize their thoughts, insights and conclusions.

We used the six strands as a lens during our visits throughout the New York City area including Columbia/Barnard Hillel, 92YTribeca, the Jewish Farm School at Eden Village Camp and the Museum of Jewish Heritage. The strands were also core to our conversations with field leaders who facilitated sessions on Jewish camp, service learning, and youth group settings for us, and when we met with executives from organizations such as Hazon, Moving Traditions and Limmud-NY. In each session we asked several of the following:

  • Are these organizations, educators and programs being intentional about their educational goals and desired outcomes?
  • Are their educators acting as facilitators of learner experiences, successfully allowing the learners to develop their own guided understandings and conclusions?
  • Are they reaching the whole learner, their various interests (Jewish and non-), intelligences and complexities?
  • Are they providing opportunity for meaningful reflection for each learner to draw out his/her learning, engagement, and connection to the material and its Jewish content?
  • Was the Jewish content accessible and did their educators incorporate techniques to make it meaningful to the learners?
  • Do these respective settings and educators plan with clear vision, strong and effective leadership, and with functional and strategic administration?

Addressing these questions brought rich thoughts, insights and opportunities for processing to our discussions. It also brought substantial personal and professional growth among our students. It gave them guiding points and a road map to dig deeper, identifying the why and how of the success (and weaknesses) of Jewish experiential education, and more broadly, good Jewish educational practice.

Along with helpful feedback from our students, Dr. Kress and I reflected and critiqued our own framework, discussing throughout our semester whether the six strands are complete or at all correct. Perhaps one of the strands is really part of another, or maybe there are additional core strands that need to be part of the conversation, or maybe the whole framework needs to be re-designed. In fact, by semester’s end we asked each student to generate his/her own framework each throwing in an intriguing wrinkle into the conversation.

What we noticed, and what I will argue here, is that this framework allowed for real, demonstrable growth in the training of our Jewish experiential educators. Further, I wonder whether this or a similar framework could be extended to the serious evaluation of Jewish educational programs across the field. Such a framework can allow for meaningful assessment that credibly informs our leaders, current and future funders, and an organization’s professional staff. These strands or a similar framework can give the field real direction.

It has been a fascinating journey to train these talented individuals, preparing them for careers in a field that needs their creativity, passion and leadership, and we are only just beginning. Our evolving frameworks will be with us throughout the rest of their program, which includes significant field internships, targeted academic course work, and career preparation. Citing two of the strands, let us all as stewards and leaders in Jewish education and non-profit work continue to be both intentional and to meaningfully reflect in all we do, so we may be successful in positively shaping the future of Jewish education.

Mark S. Young is Program Coordinator of the Experiential Learning Initiative, William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education at the Jewish Theological Seminary.