On Engagement, Setting and Pedagogy: Is Experiential Jewish Education Content Light?

[The following article is the first of four responses to the study “Mapping Goals in Experiential Jewish Education”, a study commissioned by the Department of Experiential Jewish Education at Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future, with support from the Jim Joseph Foundation, investigating the role that goals, indicators and outcomes currently play in experiential Jewish education.]

To read the full report “Mapping Goals in Experiential Jewish Education” click here. To read the introduction to this project, click here.

by Dr. Amy L. Sales

The research on goals in experiential Jewish education (EJE) shows a strikingly low priority placed on Jewish subject matter. Let me offer three possible explanations for this finding.

The first concerns the purpose of Jewish education. Simply put, why do we bother to provide Jewish education to our youth? The common answer is that Jewish education intends to build and strengthen Jewish identity. A group identity, such as Jewish identity, is richly complex. Comprised of attitudes, behaviors, and cognitions, it encompasses everything from pride in being Jewish and the centrality of Jewishness is to one’s sense of self, to the individual’s social network and affiliations, beliefs, practices, and the like. In the post-modern era, identity has become even more complex. Today’s youth have multiple, simultaneous identities that shift and change over time, and from one moment or setting to the next. They are bricoleurs who build their identities from bits and pieces acquired from various sources. One might fashion a Jewish identity by piecing together a bit of meditation, yoga, Friday night dinner, freedom seder, eco-kashrut, and feminism, for example. The result is highly individualistic.

In a recent meeting, a camp professional suggested that experiential education has only one goal – that participants return. Such a goal is consistent with the notion of lifelong Jewish learning, and it has practical value. If campers return year after year, we can teach them again and again. However, this single simplistic goal lets educators and educational organizations off the hook as far as content is concerned. They do not have to teach anything (or anything in particular), they just have to get participants to come back.

The rhetoric in Jewish public discourse has recently shifted from “education” to “engagement.” These are distinctive concepts. The former favors substance and cognition; the latter favors process and affect. Education is a modernist idea, structuralist and collective. It begins with the question, “What is an educated Jew? What do students need to learn?” Engagement is post-modern and individualistic. It starts with the question, “Who is this child? What does she need and how do we get her on her path of Jewish learning?” This distinction is deep in Jewish tradition and text. Contrast Abraham, the individual seeker on a literal Jewish journey, with the moment the Jewish people stood together at Sinai and heard the same law at the same time.

It is possible that the current low priority of Jewish subject matter in experiential Jewish education is a result of this shift from education to engagement (from Sinai to Abraham), where individualism is trumping the collective Jewish experience.

The second explanation for this phenomenon concerns the use of setting in defining experiential education. The creators of experiential Jewish education understand it as an approach. However, in its sampling, the research implicitly defines it by setting – Hillel, Moishe House, BBYO, camp, NCSY, museums, and so on. One benefit of the study’s definition is that it sends the message to those who work in these settings that their organization is an educational one and that they are all Jewish educators. In our 2000 study of Jewish overnight camps, we observed rabbis and Jewish educators carrying out the work of Jewish education. Although the camps had a sense that Jewish education was part of their mission, the counselors, with a few exceptions, did not see themselves as Jewish educators. Part of the evolution of Jewish camp between 2000 and 2010 can be seen in the changing expectations of the counselor’s role.

The downside of the study’s definition is a confounding of goals at different levels: those for the movement, the organization, a particular program, or a particular activity; as well as goals for the participants or the educators. Organizations tend to have strategic goals, which often concern marketing, recruitment, and retention. When those are the prevailing goals, return rate becomes paramount and content slips into last place.

The third explanation concerns the question of whether or not experiential Jewish education is a discipline in its own right. I would suggest that EJE is closer to an approach or a pedagogy than a profession. As such, its contribution will be to educational methods and process and not to content. As it evolves, its challenge is not to establish the trappings of a field of practice but rather to explore the confluence of experience – in all of its connotations – with Jewish education – in all of its richness.

Dr. Amy L. Sales is senior research scientist and associate director of the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University, and associate professor in the Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program. Her research focuses on Jewish life and community and has included studies of Jewish education, teen engagement, Jewish summer camps, religious life on college campuses, synagogue change, and other topics. She is the director of JData, a website and database of Jewish education in North America.

The deadline for applications for Cohort IV of the YU Certificate Program in Experiential Jewish Education is February 17th 2014.