Hands-On Education: Where Jewish Education Comes to Life

by Andrea Rose Cheatham Kasper

I was sitting in the synagogue during my older brother’s Bar Mitzvah listening to my dad’s speech. Although we have it somewhere, printed out by an old printer on perforated sheets, I don’t need to read it to remember my dad’s most striking piece of advice, “Learn to make something with your hands.” It is this line that has remained a connecting thread through so much of my life and which has also been repeated to me by others who were present that day, 27 years ago.

It’s not what most American Jewish children hear from their parents, but we were not only American Jews, we were Israeli, as well, and had moved to the United States from Kibbutz Gan Shmuel just two years earlier. Also, we were not only Jewish. My dad had recently converted to Judaism, and while he was well entrenched in Israeli society, he was equally grounded in a New England resourcefulness he had learned from his mom. This makes for a fierce combination when something needs to get done.

Considering my background, it probably comes as no surprise, then, that this simple piece of advice has become my guiding vision for Jewish education in the United States: “Learn to make something with your hands.” It encapsulates my isolation from the North American community even as I have lived and worked within it for over 25 years; it also captures a fundamental yearning among American Jews to reconnect to the tachles aspects of life to which we are so removed. When this advice is repeated to me by those present that day it is an affirmation of this yearning; when I won the Jewish Futures Competition for the idea of a new Jewish high school, Yadaim, it was affirmed again. As I work to develop and found this vision and share it with a diverse Jewish audience it continues to resonate and affirm its need.

Throughout my life the diversity of my upbringing has served me incredibly well and my dad’s advice has resonated. As I have spent most of my life training as a dancer, I have expanded my understanding of my dad’s advice to include art and the expression of the body. I have lived and worked in five countries successfully. In each I found employment and intellectual stimulation enabled by my interpretation of making something with “my hands” through dance. While I am grateful, I bemoan my community’s inability to support this pursuit. When I was looking at colleges, a conservatory was out of the question. Once in school, the parents of my Jewish roommates rolled their eyes at my life choice and wanted to know what I would fall back on. Now, ironically, it is dance more than any other single thing I know and do that has provided me with a cushion to fall back on. Even today, living in a remote Icelandic fishing village, while I pursue at Ed.D. in Jewish Educational Leadership, it is dance that provides me with work through performance and teaching.

In the North American Jewish community we have to let go of some long held stereotypes of who we are and what is valued within our community. We are proud of our academic and intellectual achievements, but to the point of dismissing other ways of engaging in the world. It is high time that we challenge the implicit classism within our Jewish community, which values intellectual activity and demeans other forms of creativity. By so doing, we have denied the fundamental need of knowing how to make something. We have denied ourselves the empowerment that comes from knowing that wherever we land, as individuals, we have a craft to live by.

My educational vision has grown to become Yadaim Academy of Applied Academics. Imagine a high school where students learn about math, science, and writing as they create a prototype bicycle and bring it to market or work in teams to design a green building. Yadaim is a Jewish high school grounded in the integration of work-based learning with Jewish and academic subjects. Using project-based learning, students in multi-age groups focus on the Jewish, ecological and production aspects of each project. By facilitating the development of skills in fields such as farming, textile production, green construction, and fine and culinary arts, the school offers students pathways to diverse career options. I envision a thriving year-round school community built on past wisdom yet unencumbered by old assumptions, with the goal of redefining Jewish education.

Yadaim Academy provides a totally different vision of what constitutes Jewish education. It is where Jewish education comes to life; where the frame of reference of the kibbutz helps us reimagine and redefine Jewish literacy through hands-on and practical knowledge grounded in physical creation. Graduates of Yadaim will not only be exceptionally prepared for a life of the mind but they will be empowered by knowing how to make something with their hands.

Currently, Yadaim is in its infancy stage and I continue to work with the guidance of a talented advisory board. My dream is to open the doors of Yadaim, in the United States, in the fall of 2015.

Andrea RC Kasper, MJEd Hebrew College and an Ed.D. student in Jewish Educational Leadership at Northeastern University, lives in Skagastrond, Iceland, with her husband and two children. A winner of the 2011 Jewish Futures competition, she joined the ROI Community in 2012.

Connected by the ROI Community of Jewish Leaders.