From Informal to Experiential: New Approaches to Graduate Studies in Jewish Educational Leadership

by Mark S. Young

At 22 I had the best job of my life, Song Leader and Judaic Director at my JCC overnight camp. I had spent nearly every summer there since I was 10. If someone told me then I could do this work as a career I’d have signed up in an instant! No one did, so I moved to New York and searched for “a real job.” I didn’t know at the time (2003) that I could earn a Master’s Degree in Jewish Education with a focus on Informal Education. I thought Master’s of Jewish Education programs were only for day school teachers. I also didn’t much think of myself as a Jewish educator, just someone who loved leading at camp. Even if I did, I wonder, would I have misunderstood the use of the word informal, perhaps question whether informal meant, not real?

Over the last generation, especially in the last ten years, settings including Jewish camps, youth groups, Israel experiences, Hillel and service-learning trips have been re-envisioned as more then social and recreational opportunities for Jewish youth, teens and emerging adults. They are now viewed as institutions of serious Jewish learning and engagement. They hire full time Jewish educators and leaders to direct complex businesses, teach texts in meaningful ways, celebrate Jewish ritual and build community.

What is so informal about this? Nothing! These modes of education are real, just as real as the de-facto labeled formal settings, day school and religious school. Jewish learning in settings outside of the classroom is not a by-product. As a result, students in the last decade who have pursued a Master’s in Jewish Education with a focus on informal education at the Davidson School at JTS have taken a similarly rigorous curriculum as their day school and synagogue focus classmates. This includes a practicum experience with year-long internships at JCC’s, Hillel and camps to learn from a mentor through observation, guidance and completion of meaningful projects that add value to the host institution.

Reflecting on the field’s recent transformation, should we explore further what makes experiences in these labeled informal settings, so special? Recent studies, including Dr. Steven M. Cohen’s “Camp Works” study released this year, demonstrate that Jewish camp, Israel trips, and youth groups increase the engagement of participants in Jewish life, strengthening their Jewish identity in adulthood. Is there a specialized skill-set for educating utilizing the experiential learning approach in a Jewish context?

For the past two years, thanks to generous funding from the Jim Joseph Foundation, the Davidson school has embarked on a significant exploration and planning process to identify and design an updated approach to graduate studies in Jewish education, one that directly supports the training needs of Jewish experiential educators and leaders. Through an examination of Davidson’s core curriculum, field placement opportunities and meeting collaboratively with over 250 educators, professionals and leaders in the field, Davidson’s informal track has undergone a transformation into a new Master’s program with a focus on Jewish experiential education that commences this fall.

This transformation is technical and conceptual. The technical changes include reshaping academic course work, enhancing the quantity and quality of the fieldwork experience, and creating cohort based activities that effectively train and produce exceptional Jewish experiential educators and leaders. To be more specific, courses in pedagogy are intentionally linked to courses in Jewish content in a manner that addresses experiential approaches to learning. In addition, students will participate in a new experiential learning seminar in their first year to include visits to and speakers from leaders and venues where excellent Jewish experiential education is happening now. Students will engage in activities and rich discussion with these leaders. Students will also attend Jewish experiential learning events and conferences on their own both to increase their professional network and to observe, participate and reflect on Jewish experiential education programs. Students will also engage in more intensive field placements in the program’s second year to be more fully immersed in their internship, learning from their mentor, leading practitioners in the field, and engaging in meaningful projects. Lastly, students will receive mentorship from senior practitioners throughout their program journey including first year post- graduation.

There is also a fundamental conceptual transformation that acknowledges the reality that the experiential approach to learning is not purely setting-based. The experiential approach is used quite seamlessly at Jewish camp or at Hillel, and the physical setting certainly plays a key role in facilitating this process. However, experiential learning techniques, including facilitation and reflective practice, can occur successfully in the classroom as well. How we learn, and therefore successfully educate, using the experiential approach will be a core discussion throughout our students’ program journey.

In addition, acknowledging that experiential learning is often most successful in a group process, students learn together and from each other as a cohort. Each student will have an individual journey within the cohort-based experience.

That this program is a Master’s program also reflects this field’s transformation. Returning to my personal anecdote, I entered the workforce wanting evidence that being a Jewish experiential educator, which I essentially was at camp and didn’t know it, was a real and amazing career path! A dedicated Master’s program sends the important message that this is a legitimate profession, integral to the success of Jewish education. In addition, based on what we’ve learned in our collaborative discussions with field professionals, a dedicated program allows for comprehensive training in the various knowledge and skills Jewish experiential educators need. This includes a rich study of pedagogy, both non-experiential and experiential approaches as they work together. It includes rich Jewish content that gives the educator comfort and confidence in a breadth of content areas and identifies areas of future learning and how to access content. It includes a rich understanding specifically of experiential learning techniques, applications and case studies, and experiencing them within a cohort. Finally, it includes non-profit administration and leadership skills for our educators to learn to set vision, manage organizations and help continually transform the field.

At 22, if a Master’s program in Jewish experiential education had existed, I would have applied in an instant. Now, I get to work with outstanding faculty and staff as well as a wonderful cadre of field leaders to coordinate one. It’s an honor to do so, and is becoming the best job of my life. I call on all the song leaders, using this term broadly reaching out to all those who love creating positive Jewish experiences, to consider this career, a life-long experience that you will give you challenge, joy and overwhelming sipuk nefesh (soul-satisfying work).

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