Professionalizing a Passion

By Shuki Taylor

[This is the second article in a series dedicated to experiential Jewish education.]

In recent years, the field of experiential Jewish education (EJE) has been subject to much attention. Last week I listed some of the new initiatives that Yeshiva University’s Certificate Program in Experiential Jewish Education has launched in effort to provide high-level training in this field.

Why is there such a growing interest in the field of experiential Jewish education?
I believe that there are three reasons for this:

1. Recognition of Impact

The first reason for the growing interest in experiential Jewish education is because of the impact it has.

In 2013, we published the study “Mapping Goals in Experiential Jewish Education.” In interviewing educators from diverse settings and backgrounds, the most common goal that emerged was the importance of inviting learners to find personal meaning and relevance in their Jewish lives.

The agentic act of personal meaning-making – a result of a strong sense of personal agency – is a central goal in experiential Jewish education. This goal concurs with a lot of recent work in areas of positive psychology.

This is how Mihali Csikszentmihali – the world’s leading researcher on positive psychology – describes the ‘Optimal Experience’:

“We have all experienced times when… we do feel in control of our actions, masters of our own fate… we feel a sense of exhilaration, a deep sense of enjoyment that is long cherished and that becomes a landmark in memory for what life should be like.”

“… Actions and feelings will be in harmony, and the separate parts of life will fit together – and each activity will ‘make sense’ in the present, as well as in view of the past and of the future. In such a way, it is possible to give meaning to one’s entire life.”

Experiential Jewish education – the art of learning by experience and of growing from experience – becomes a central vehicle through which a learner can give meaning to his or her Jewish life and make sense of it.

In a world that is decentralized institutionally and privately, where individuals often encounter an extreme sense of dislocation and isolation, the field of experiential Jewish education becomes crucial in providing its learners with the opportunity to derive meaning from – and personal agency over – their Jewish experience.

Experiential Jewish education is growing because we’re beginning to realize the role it plays in impacting the formation and evolvement of Jewish identity.

2. How Learners are Now Learning

A second reason for the growing interest in the field of EJE is the autonomy it provides its learners. Christian Itin suggest the following definition for Experiential Education:

“Experiential Education is a holistic philosophy, where carefully chosen experiences supported by reflection, critical analysis, and synthesis, are structures to require the learner to take initiative, and make decisions, and be accountable for the results, through actively posing questions, investigating, experimenting, being curious, solving problems, assuming responsibility, being creative, constructing meaning, and integrating previously developed knowledge.”

This constructivist perspective is indeed one in which the majority of learners are living. As many anthropologists point out, the values of ‘ownership,’ ‘self-actualization,’ and ‘personal meaning making’ are widely accepted societal values and vehicles for growth, at least in Western society.

The blending of learner-centered education with religious ideology does not come without its challenges. But the growing interest in the integration of experiential education into Jewish education clearly demonstrates that learners are looking to absorb and construct knowledge, experiences and beliefs differently.

3. Professionalizing Passion

The third reason for the growing interest in experiential Jewish education is a derivative of the first two reasons.

The impact of experiential Jewish education along with the ways by which learners are now learning is, naturally, creating an interest and need, on the part [of] educators, for the professionalization of the field. And institutions are responding accordingly. Over the past five years, with support from a growing number of funders, and spearheaded by the Jim Joseph Foundation, countless academic institutions and education-based organizations are offering training programs in experiential Jewish education.

At YU we have found that the field of EJE is growing and developing faster than we can respond. More and more educators and institutions are looking to professionalize their passion for experiential Jewish education. Educators who once relied on their creativity and charisma are now seeking knowledge and skill. This makes sense: the former – charisma and creativity – are subject to burnout, thus contributing to a brief career in the field (there are also many other reasons for this), while the latter – knowledge and skill – only get better with time.

The professionalization of and passion for experiential Jewish education must go hand in hand:

While passion is one of the most necessary ingredients for the performance of experiential Jewish educators, it is the professionalization of these educators and, in effect, the professionalization of the field that will ensure its growth.

Shuki Taylor is the Director of the Department of Experiential Jewish Education at Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future.

Click here to apply to Cohort V of the YU Certificate Program in Experiential Jewish Education.

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Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper & Row, 1990
Itin, Christian. “Reasserting the Philosophy of Experiential Education as a Vehicle for Change in the 21st Century,” Journal of Experiential Education, 22(2), 1999
Becker, Gay. Disrupted Lives: How People Create Meaning in a Chaotic World. Berkeley: U of California, 1999