Jewish Experiential Education, Not Just for Fun!

by Mark S. Young

“A Hillel Dinner: fun! A youth group or Birthright trip to Israel: way fun! Returning to Jewish sleep away camp: the most fun ever!”

Jewish experiences outside the classroom are often referred to as places where Judaism is “fun.” Although this is true, it can lead to two dangerous corollaries: One, that any Jewish experience inside a classroom, including synagogue or day school, must automatically not be fun. Two, all Jewish experiences outside the classroom are only fun. That is, that there is little significant learning or mastery of Jewish content. Thus we assume that formal education is where we learn Judaism but don’t like it, and experiential is where we love Judaism but don’t learn so much.

Dr. Gil Graff shared in a recent eJewish Philanthropy article that, “The shift from school-like classrooms to learner-focused experiences – in class and beyond – is the real breakthrough in Jewish education.” Complementing this, I’d suggest the real breakthrough is to recognize that, while the setting has significant implication, we should focus primarily on the approach, one that can achieve both substantive learning and meaningful engagement.

Experiential learning as an approach to Jewish education has the ability both to strengthen one’s Jewish literacy (“literacy” broadly defined as knowledge and understanding of Jewish content) and to create strong, positive emotional bonds with Jewish life. Further, this approach can take place anywhere, both inside and outside the classroom.

Gaining an understanding and mastery of Jewish experiential education requires considerable training and study. This is part of the reason that The Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education at JTS and other institutions of higher education have designed and implemented new graduate and certificate programs in experiential education, with generous support from the Jim Joseph Foundation.

Serious experiential education involves two key elements: (1) facilitation of experiences that present Jewish content in a meaningful and accessible manner and (2) the opportunity for learners to reflect on these experiences to reveal and concretize their own learning, both in content knowledge and through emotional connection.

Here are two brief examples. The first is my favorite moment of services at my Jewish sleep-away camp: when we sang the beautiful Shalom Rav prayer in our outdoor chapel in the woods. I began to love Judaism in those moments. At the end of my summer, I knew the prayer – how to read the Hebrew, sing the melody and understand the words!

How did this happen? The entire camp, from the director to service leader to my counselor, planned and facilitated a meaningful experience that engaged all the campers. The service leader asked us to reflect. We’d have silent prayer right before Shalom Rav, so I had the opportunity to learn the purpose of prayer. He helped by posing exploratory questions such as, “What does this prayer mean to you?” coupled with simple explanations that our prayers are about praising what’s good in the world, asking for health and good fortune and thanking God for all that we have. These are basic concepts that a 10-year-old can find meaningful.

A second example is from my synagogue. This experience invokes the Chinese proverb; “Tell me and I forget, show me and I’ll remember, involve me and I’ll understand.” During Simhat Torah, the Rabbi gathers all religious school students in the sanctuary, asking them to stand in the center as the entire Sefer Torah is unrolled and the huge parchment envelopes the class. The Rabbi, invoking the two elements of experiential education cited above, asks the students to travel in time to different parts of the Bible by way of the Torah Scroll. “Where is creation?” he asks, followed by other points in Biblical time: the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai, the Tower of Babel, and the 10 plagues. The students both see and feel themselves surrounded by their tradition. While the Rabbi explains, he also asks the group, “What does this feel like? What do you think these stories are all about and why are they so important to us?”

The students’ eyes are big, curious and eager to take on every task and respond to every question. They are encouraged to run around, imagine, think creativity and share ideas. They are having fun! They are also learning, and not just on the surface. They are engaging in serious discussion and gaining serious knowledge of Jewish history and tradition, working on their Hebrew language skills, understanding the origins of Jewish holidays, grappling with text, and learning about one another in the process. This is more than just having fun; this is creating significant opportunity for Jewish learning and literacy.

It is important to note that the activities might have remained on a superficial level, and we would have missed opportunities for learning and engagement, if not for the facilitation and reflection the educators employed. Because they were utilized, the learning was deep and powerful.

This learning, this experiential education approach that engages and seriously educates, can and does happen anywhere. We could easily imagine successfully switching the settings of each activity: The Shalom Rav experience could take place during synagogue services and an experience similar to that on Simhat Torah could be held at camp.

I hope that we all gain the ability to reject limitations in our assumptions about settings and approaches to education. Experiential education can be a creative approach to both strengthen Jewish literacy for our future generations, and ignite their love of Judaism too, wherever they may be.

Mark S. Young is the Program Coordinator of the Experiential Learning Initiative at the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of the Jewish Theological Seminary. Mark has worked in education, programming and human resource roles for multiple non-profit Jewish and secular institutions including sleep-away camps, community centers and social-service agencies for the past decade. Mark is a graduate McGill University and received his MPA and MA in Non-profit Management and Judaic studies from NYU.

cross-posted at the AVI CHAI Foundation blog