From Relational Engagement to Relational Learning

By Shuki Taylor

Relationships are at the heart of what it means to be human. The “other” in a relationship can become, in the words of the Israeli poet Leah Goldberg, “a glance, a window, a mirror,” ultimately supporting and challenging our capacities for self-discovery and our self-conceptions of authenticity and significance. Relationships are also significant in cultivating, nurturing and sustaining communities of meaning.

Relationships between and within generations are foundational to Jewish vibrancy. Tractate Avot, a compilation of teachings dealing with Jewish ethical and moral principles, is relational at its core. In addition to providing guidance for how we must relate to others, ourselves, our communities and to God, many of the teachings in this tractate are presented through the prism of relationships (teacher to student, student to student, groups of students among themselves). The teaching is whole when shared in context of the relationship that bred it.

The Talmud provides another example of the critical role real-life and virtual relationships play, most significantly when describing the atmosphere of the bet midrash, a Torah study hall fueled by vibrant and demanding relationships among its students. Learning in a bet midrash is not just an act of transition where knowledge is transferred from person to person or generation to generation. It is an act of creative disruption, always leading to newness. The educator claims no authority over the Torah – she demands of her students to teach her! The relationship between educator and learner within the Jewish context is a sacred encounter, contributing to the ongoing and never-ending perfection of Torah.

In recent times, the cultivation of personal relationships has been viewed as a key strategy for connecting unaffiliated Jews to Jewish community and Jewish activities. To this end, an approach called “relationship-based engagement” came into practice close to two decades ago. This approach focused on the development of one-on-one relationships between an “engager” and a “student” (i.e., the subject of the outreach). This approach has garnered praise, and currently many institutions employ professionals with ranging degrees of seniority to perform this type of work. However, viewing engagement as a professional strategy has also surfaced challenges of quality versus quantity, particularly when quantitative outcomes are significant.

s Relational Learning Circle explores what it means to view relationships as a pedagogy rather than a strategy. While relational engagement as a strategy is important, this program emphasizes relational learning and the unique educational possibilities it offers. Focusing on the qualitative implications of relationships, M²’s approach to relational learning explores how cultivation of relationships over time yields deep and profound educational impact – one that cannot be reached through any other mode of education – and further explores how these relationships shape personal and communal conceptions of meaning.

Informed by a broad range of disciplines, M²’s Relational Learning Circle provides a new approach to relational work, focused around the following definition and aims: Relational learning is the contextualized co-construction of meaning, guided by the intentional expression of middot (personal behaviors shaped by attitudes). The aim of relational learning is the cultivation of thought partnerships between educator and learner, ultimately leading to the development of thought communities, intentionally crafted communities that are bound by a mutual sense of meaning and belonging that transcends individual experiences.

This Circle, designed for educators immersed in relational work, is a year-long cohort experience designed to create, through learning and experimentation, a richer paradigm of relationship building within Jewish educational frameworks. The program includes three in-person gatherings as follows:

Seminar 1: The Commonplaces of Relational Learning
This seminar introduces the three commonplaces of relational learning: character, self and other, and thirdness. Primarily, it focuses on various aspects of character development in relational encounters through the disciplines of psychology and the philosophy of Chavruta.

Seminar 2: CoConstruction of Meaning
Growth and development happen when navigating – and even embracing – conflicts. Through an exploration of the elements that make up relational work, including the encounters with risks, perceptions of belonging and heightened stakes, this seminar investigates the process of – and potential within – relationships that focus on thought partnerships and the co-construction of meaning.

Seminar 3: The Emergence of Relational Communities
This seminar explores how individual relational encounters slowly enable the emergence of thought communities: deliberately crafted communities bound by a mutual sense of meaning, belonging and purpose. Stemming from the educator herself, relational communities help develop a new paradigm of growth and education.

In between gatherings, participants are engaged in action-based research and personal mentoring. Action-based research challenges participants to formulate and test hypotheses about relational work throughout the course of the year. Current Relational Engagement Circle participants are testing hypotheses around creating belonging, what is a “calling”?, the place of friction and conflict, and more. The results of personal research projects and their integration into educational practice will enable participants to experiment with their learnings as well as yield a shared publication of findings to contribute to the field of relational work.

As members of Relational Engagement Cohort 1 continue to refine their own conceptions of relational learning, both in theory and in practice, and continue to explore through their action-based research projects, M² is thrilled to invite senior educators immersed in relational work to apply for Cohort 2. Contact Michelle Lackie, Senior Director of Community Engagement, michelle@ieje.org.

M² Circles are generously supported by the Jim Joseph Foundation. To learn more about M²’s other professional development opportunities (M2 Circle: Design of Immersive Experiences, Senior Educators Cohort and Camp Educators Cohort), see www.ieje.org.

Shuki Taylor is the founder and CEO of M²: The Institute for Experiential Jewish Education, providing educators and organizations with knowledge, tools and skills to advance the theory and practice of experiential Jewish education. Shuki studied Jewish philosophy, education and scriptwriting. Shuki can be reached at shuki@ieje.org.