Learning is How We Re-create Ourselves

By Dr. Wendy Grinberg, RJE

Here we are in June, mourning the closure of camp while simultaneously thinking of how to adapt our Jewish educational settings for the fall. Perhaps one can inform the other. I do not recommend trading the trappings of camp (e.g., Hebrew unit names, t-shirts, and tie dye) for the trappings of school (e.g., grades, text books, and desks). Rather, a closer look at Jewish camp education can help us focus on what is core to Jewish education as we rethink our approach in synagogue schools.

So many descriptions of Jewish camp education describe it in ways that are hard to understand (“magical”) and impossible to replicate in a supplementary school setting (immersive). I’d like to share here a few elements based on my academic research and experience with Jewish camp education that help it to succeed and that can be applied to any setting. In my position at URJ Eisner Camp, I primarily direct the hour designated to Jewish education for every camper every weekday. While this hour is embedded in the larger, holistic context of camp, there are mindsets and approaches that can certainly be implemented in after school programs.

  1. Love. Campers feel the love around them at camp. They are accepted for who they are. Our educators love the setting, the content, and the learners. Camp is a place where our visiting faculty come for their own rejuvenation. They delight in the content they are teaching. Most important of all, they love the campers. The most successful camp educators are able to tolerate all kinds of behavior, because they care first and foremost about getting to know the children, connecting with them, and accepting them. Strong relationships with campers help us to negotiate challenges and hold campers accountable for their behavior. When loving acceptance happens in a Jewish context, it sends a powerful message about the child’s place in the Jewish community. Similarly with content – teachers need to be excited by the material in order for students to be. Jewish tradition is rich with content that can engage even the youngest student, and that should be at the core of what we teach.
  1. Quest. The hierarchy between student and teacher is broken down at camp. Camp is a community of people, older and younger, who are puzzling out who they are as individuals and a community, in their day to day interactions and through designated time for Jewish education. Underlying all the learning are existential questions, such as “How can I be my best and truest self? What is the right thing to do? Why is the world the way it is, and what is my role in it?” This is the kind of Jewish community to which we all want to belong – one which makes our lives more meaningful by helping us understand ourselves and our purpose in the world. In a supplementary school setting, this means bringing big questions to students and sharing our own journeys. As the seder reminds us, we each have to answer what our history and teachings mean to ourselves and empower the next generation to do the same.
  1. Agency. Campers are happiest when they are able to make choices about their learning. Sometimes they choose the content, and other times they select an approach to it. Agency can take place in little and big ways, from adding hand motions to a song to writing lyrics and music, or from voting on where to donate tzedakah to researching worthy causes. When it comes to online learning, our students are more expert than we are; they have more experience learning in this way, and they often are more adept at using the technology. Ask your students how you can make their experience better. Let them shape their own “Zoom Mitzvah” or other online worship. The flip side of agency is contribution. As learners help shape their learning experience, they can contribute to the community. Active participation makes learning meaningful.

All of these elements: love, quest, and agency, are intertwined. Membership in a loving, curious, and responsive community involves students in the effort to build a better community. Now more than ever, we can recognize how important it is for people to be seen and heard and for the community to respond by reshaping itself into the best expression of its members. As Peter Senge teaches,

Real learning gets to the heart of what it means to be human. Through learning we re-create ourselves. Through learning we become able to do something we never were able to do. Through learning we reperceive the world and our relationship to it. Through learning we extend our capacity to create, to be part of the generative process of life. There is within each of us a deep hunger for this type of learning. (2006, p. 13-14)

This is not easy work, but it is the work at the heart of Jewish education, in any setting and for any age.

Senge, P. M. (2006). The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization (Rev. Ed.). New York: Doubleday.

Dr. Wendy Grinberg, RJE is the founder and director of Grinberg Education Consulting and the Director of Jewish Education at URJ Eisner Camp. She can be reached at grinbergconsulting@gmail.com.