Public Space Judaism as Experiential Education

Can the training of outreach professionals engaged in Public Space Judaism be considered Experiential Education by academic standards?

by Dr. Kerry M. Olitzky

While not all programs of Jewish engagement are necessarily experiential education, at Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute, we were purposeful in incorporating experiential education into our programs of Public Space Judaism?, a phrase we coined to refer to a method that we began to advocate some 15 years ago. While there had been other ad hoc examples of doing programs in public spaces, particularly through Chabad, we developed a theoretical construct for this approach to programming, and educate and continue to innovate in this space through such programs at Passover in the Matzah Aisle™ and Hands on Hanukkah™. These programs are operated by Jewish communal professionals and volunteers at synagogues, JCCs, federations, and other Jewish organizations across denominational lines through JOI’s formalized program of professional training.

At its 15-year mark, and with the interest in informal Jewish education growing, it is time to ask the question: is Public Space Judaism robust enough to be considered part of the discipline of Jewish Experiential Education?

To answer the question, I borrowed the framework of the Davidson School at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) whose program in Experiential Education is overseen by Dr. Mark Young. According to Dr. Young, the two main elements of Experiential Education are “facilitation of experiences that present Jewish content in a meaningful and accessible manner” and “the opportunity for learners to reflect on these experiences to reveal and concretize their own learning, both in content knowledge and through emotional connection.” He and Dr. Jeffrey Kress further explicate the definition by isolating the following seven elements which are the foundation of the training program for such educators at JTS. (See “Framing the Training of Our Emerging Jewish Experiential Educators” in eJewishPhilanthropy.com, posted January 13, 2012.)

Intentionality: According to Young and Kress, educators and programs should be intentional about their educational goals and desired outcomes. Our programs provide multiple portals of entry to the Jewish community. Success is determined by participating in what we call “next step programming.” Thus, the intentionality of the program is to train educators how to reach people outside of the walls of Jewish communal institution and then move them on the path of engagement. These programs can either be those that we have designed or programs that are adapted from already existing programs sponsored by Jewish communal institutions.

Facilitation: Young and Kress require educators to act as facilitators of learning experiences. In so doing, these facilitators successfully allow learners to develop their own guided understandings and conclusions. Each program has a facilitator whom JOI has trained in outreach best practices who, in turn, has trained a bevy of volunteers to engage passersby and teach them. Thus, there are many involved in the facilitation of each event. However, the lead practitioner helps shape the learning experience for all of the participants.

Holistic Jewish Growth: These programs have to reach the whole Jewish learner, says Young and Kress, including their various interests, intelligences and complexities. Public Space Judaism is focused on the needs of the participant. Rather than focusing on the needs of the sponsoring institution, Public Space Judaism events can be described as “client-centered” since they address the individual needs of people are they are guided on the path to further engagement with the Jewish community.

Meaningful Reflection: Experiential education has to provide opportunities for meaningful reflection for each learner to draw out his/her learning, engagement to the content that is presented, according to Young and Kress. Any event upon which an individual “stumbles upon” (the criterion for determining what qualifies as Public Space Judaism) is insufficient in itself to produce long-term results or a profound experience. Nevertheless, each experience must be self-contained and provide participants with a holistic experience – as if participants would not be participating in another event or program. Since staff members and volunteers follow up with each participant, the process of follow-up and follow-through gives the participant the opportunity to reflect on the experience.

Meaningful and Accessible Jewish Content: The content has to be meaningful to learners. This requires the incorporation of appropriate techniques to do so, claim Young and Kress. All Public Space Judaism events are low barrier. Thus, by design they provide easy access to all participants. There is no anticipation of prior knowledge or Jewish literacy. These events are scheduled at convenient times, in convenient locations. The presumption is that these programs are designed as portals of entry into deeper Jewish community life. As noted, they are designed as self-contained experiences as if there would be no additional experience. This is particularly true of holiday events and programs.

Visionary Leadership: Young and Kress believe that the educators involved should plan the experience with clear vision. Public Space Judaism demands vision. It requires the turning of an institution inside out. It also requires the creation of a path for individual participants in order to shape their Jewish journey—from the periphery of the community into its core.

Strategic Administration: Finally, functional and strategic administration of the program or event is required by Young and Kress. The tactics of Public Space Judaism are clear. As noted, programs are designed in public spaces so that participants can “stumble over” them. However, these tactics emerge from a simple strategy: reach people where they are rather than wait for them to cross the threshold of Jewish communal institutions.

In conclusion, it is easy to discern that Public Space Judaism, as well as the training of those practitioners who are engaged in the work, clearly fits within the framework of experiential education by the objective standards set forth by scholars who are shaping the field. And that’s a good thing, since we look forward to seeing more examples of it in the community as Jewish communal institutions do their best to turn themselves inside out – in order to serve the community rather than just its members.

Dr. Kerry M. Olitzky is Executive Director of Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute.