Some Needed R & R: The Power of Relationships and Reflection in Cultivating Experiential Jewish Educators

By Mark S. Young and Dr. Jeff Kress

There is a unique intersection between experiential Jewish education (EJE) and developing the human resources of our Jewish educational workforce. For the last five years, this intersection has been at the heart of our work. In our development of both EJE pre-service graduate programs and in-service programs for full-time professionals we have assiduously followed this guiding understanding: The core elements of EJE are relevant across contexts, settings, and media. This includes the professional development, itself. In acting on this premise, we have come to appreciate the power of some needed R & R (relationships and reflection) in the training of experiential Jewish educators.

Our two signature programs of the Experiential Learning Initiative at The Davidson School of JTS, an initiative supported by the Jim Joseph Foundation, have key differences in both program and participants. The learners of our Jewish Experiential Education MA cohorts are typically in an early career stage, are training to explicitly be Jewish educators, and meet solely in person. Learners do not currently work full time, and they are enveloped within a larger institution of study and scholarship.

The Jewish Experiential Leadership Institute (JELI, in partnership with the Jewish Community Center (JCC) Association), on the other hand, relies upon blended learning: short, intensive retreats connected through monthly online learning. The JELI professionals are not traditionally trained as educators, rather community professionals who serve an educative function. JELI provides them the training to incorporate an educator’s way of thinking more effectively into their lives and into their work. All work full time in various roles in JCCs and are immersed in their own disparate institutions of not-for-profit businesses, delivering product or service and continuously building community. Despite the abundance of differences, the programs share core ingredients that have contributed to the quality and outcomes of each: e.g., participants’ positive experience and demonstrated knowledge, understanding and applied growth.

In using EJE to work with students studying EJE, our appreciation of the power of each of the following elements has been enhanced:

The Power of Relationships

Perkei Avot 4:1 famously teaches us: “Who is wise? One who learns from everyone.” Developing and executing our two programs has reinforced the importance of relationship building among 1) the cohort of learners, 2) learners and educators, 3) educators and their mentors, and 4) the learner, faculty and mentor cohort as a whole. All of our programs included many warm-up activities, often learner-led; and non-replicable cohort experiences. Both components created a sense of shared, “for us only,” community, and shared identity. Such a strong sense of community enabled learners, faculty and mentors alike to take risks. Each engaged in challenging content, be it Jewish text, or one’s own examination of their strengths and areas of improvement, that otherwise may have been daunting, and leaped into the design and implementation of challenging projects that they otherwise may not have had the confidence to take on.

Relationship building may seem basic; but we learned and would argue that these were far from merely transactional relationships. These relationships were the foundation on which all else rests, and that allows for sustained learning. Each of these relationship dynamics were core in the transformational change of each participant (each learner, mentor and faculty member).

Nurturing Relationships over Time

We are already working through our alumni engagement initiatives to sustain these relationships over time, and we have seen that to a large degree they maintain themselves naturally. We are creating long-running communities of practice that continue to thrive long after the official program has ended. These CoP’s greatly benefit the program graduates and those they serve.

Special Attention to the Mentor-Learner Relationship

In a cohort-based program it can be easy to lose sight of one’s own personal goals, strengths, and areas of growth. A mentor, even one assigned to a participant before “chemistry” is established, can be the outside voice that links new learning with the individual’s goals and strengths.

In both of our programs we assigned mentors (senior educational leaders with experience in mentoring) to our learners. We intentionally structured the mentor-learner experience so that the mentor acted as the participant’s personal guide throughout the program, linking the sessions, retreats, projects, and work or academic challenges. Connecting one’s experiences (and reflections) into a larger narrative is a hallmark of EJE and we were intentional in leveraging the mentor-learner relationship to make these connections for each learner.

Additionally, we learned about the importance of developing the mentor cohort, itself. We nurtured the growth of each mentor and brought them together for discussion and input into the program. In a sense our mentors were “graduates” of these programs too, achieving their own marked growth. We also tried to link each mentor to the cohort as a whole, inviting them to participate in and lead sessions, and to be participants in our retreats. This enabled mentors to be more cohesively integrated into the content of the program and into the mentor-learner working relationship.

Relationships among Partnering Organizations

JELI benefited from an additional layer of relationships among program leaders. Our team was comprised of the two of us from JTS; and Joy Brand-Richardson and Dr. David Ackerman from JCC Association. We learned a lot from one another during this collaboration. In addition, this leadership model meant that JELI could be systemically consistent with the goals of the participating JCCs and integrated within other JCC Association initiatives (including JCC Professional Conferences). From the perspective of the fellows and perhaps even the faculty and mentors, JELI was one entity with one set of goals. Everything flowed from that coherence and contributes to the sense of community within the group. As a result, we did not function as one organization providing a service to another, but rather as two organizations co-creating an experience.

Relationships Build Stronger Online Learning Experiences

All of these relationships allowed for more spirited and participatory learning sessions, both in person and online. Certainly, a strong sense of community breeds active participation and strong learning when everyone is in the same room, on the same bus, at the same experience. What we also discovered is that this spirit and engagement occurred online as well. Our webinar platform for online discussion became an active place for chevruta learning, with many virtual hands raised; and an immediate channel to reinforce learning at the participants’ home institutional environment. As creative as we aimed to be with our online facilitation, we found that the strong personal relationships cultivated and nurtured in person, was a core ingredient to the recipe of a successful EJE online learning experience as well.

Experiences + Reflection (+ Individualization)

We took seriously our roles as facilitators of learning. We “flipped” many of the in-person and online sessions, assigning background reading ahead of time, so that our time together could be spent in more interactive elements of the program. We provided space and time to reflect at every juncture. A trip to the Museum of Jewish Heritage wasn’t just a trip to the museum; it was a pre-discussion, then a visit, plus a debrief, plus a later opportunity to connect the museum visit with other program themes. In our planning, we constantly came back to the question of how best to “connect the dots” of the larger experience.

We found this to have tremendous power online as well. A trip to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in March can be further reflected upon in April as we discussed the leadership lessons and themes of freedom and liberty of the Pesach narrative online. Our formula became clearer with every facilitation. We’d Prepare for an engaging experience that connects to our larger themes, provide ample time for reflection and then, space to make the “take-aways,” your own, reinforcing the use of relationships discussed above.

The Power of the Demonstration Project

In both of our programs we asked participants to articulate individual goals and to implement long-term demonstration projects (or capstones) that enabled each learner to add value to their organization, either at the intern or employee level, and apply their learning in a significant way. In the MA program, this occurred in internships at Jewish educational organizations, during which students, for example, created new training programs for JCCs, designed new experiential curricula for museums, or created new forums or programs for Jewish organizations in an agency network to share best practices.

For JELI, the projects included initiatives that participants brought back to their local JCCs. Examples include using technology and staff input to implement new forms of community engagement in Jewish learning; and reframing a fitness and wellness department with a clearer mission of Jewish values – expressed in handbooks, and new forms of training.

All of this was coupled with ongoing reflection on the process. The project work added immediate value to the host settings that can live on and the projects will serve as a continuing source of pride and achievement for the learner. The value is thus, in a sense, two-fold: learners implemented real-life projects that are authentic (meets a real need in the organization) and meaningful to them (the learner chooses something near and dear to their hearts and interests). Second, learners practice their newly-learned skills in a fully-scaffolded setting. In other words, the curriculum, cohort, and advisement of their program experience increased the likelihood of project success and enhanced the learner’s professional growth.


Reflecting on our five year journey and the impact we have seen in our graduates has driven home what really matters in any training – and certainly for those becoming excellent in EJE or nurturing their EJE expertize. We see this as much more than modeling EJE for our learners. If we firmly believe, as we do, in the power of these EJE elements, it becomes crucial to integrate them into any learning experience. As you consider training and development, for yourself, your students or your employees, to either send your learners to a specific program or develop one on your own, we encourage you to implement these elements and philosophy and make them core to your trainings. In doing so, you too will come to further appreciate the needed R & R.

Dr. Jeff Kress is the Associate Professor of Jewish Education and Academic Director of the Experiential Learning Initiative at the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of The Jewish Theological Seminary.

Mark S. Young is the Director of Alumni Engagement and Program Coordinator of the Experiential Learning Initiative for The Davidson School.