Taking Professional Development Outside of the Conference Room


[This is the first in an annual series of articles written by participants and alumni of the YU Certificate Program in Experiential Jewish Education (EJE), highlighting EJE related ideas and practices.]

By Dr. Laura Tomes

It’s 3pm, and you’ve just about hit your capacity for the day. The person at the front of the room is teaching fascinating material. There’s so much that you want to take away with you. But, there are only so many notes you can take in one day. And it’s hard to concentrate with the hotel air conditioning up so high, with the retreat center coffee so diluted. And you’ve been sitting still in your chair so long that you think your back might be about to hang up a sign that says “Out to Lunch.” That’s right – you’re at a Jewish professional development conference.

Over the last ten years, experiential Jewish education has gained increasing clarity both in nomenclature and as a field of practice. A growing literature, combined with practitioner experimentation and accompanying field research, has taught us that though there is still much to be done to canonize experiential Jewish education pedagogically, there are some agreed truisms that have helped to introduce significant change in our practice. Jonathan Woocher’s 2012 article on Reinventing Jewish Education for the 21st Century [1] remains a handy reference for many of those paradigm shifts. We know that Jewish education can be more effective if it is learner centered. We know that learners will learn in larger numbers if our programs and curricula incorporate experiences that provide access points for multiple intelligences. We know that participation can take place on a deeper level if learners feel that they are “prosumers” of their own experiences. And we know that learning will be enhanced when formal and informal-experiential modes are blended together across different domains.

It’s time to take these lessons out of the classroom, and into Jewish communal professional development. So much of our professional development programming fails to integrate the best practices of our work with students. Concerned with conveying as much as we can into a few snatched hours away from the office, and within a limited budget, the pedagogy of our Jewish professional development remains frontal – whether the setting is a webinar, MOOC (massive open online course), retreat or conference. They come, they sit, and we expect them to soak it all up like a sponge. But just as students will learn and internalize more if they are able to experience the content they are engaging, then kal v’chomer, all the more so, will Jewish communal professionals grow if they are engaged in an experiential learning environment themselves.

One of the most valuable aspects of the Yeshiva University Certificate Program in Experiential Jewish Education is the ongoing commitment of its educators to teach not only about, but also through experience. In this mode, experiences are not just manipulatable modalities for conveying content, but intrinsic to a full appreciation of the content itself. The idea of divine creation, for example, is presented in the second seminar of the program not only by chevruta study of the first chapter of Bereishit but also by getting hands dirty and planting seeds in the ground, exploring about the creative act of speech through video and discussion, and exploring the creation of professional growth with mentors and colleagues. With thoughtful design, each experience reifies the other, and illuminates new perspectives on the theme that alternately clarifies and complicates it.

In my work at Hillel, I find myself often in search of facilitators who can lead professional development retreats or a session at a conference. And above all, I’m in search of colleagues who can go beyond teaching about engaging learners, but who can model it – outside of the conference room. Facilitators who can help the Hillel professionals with whom I work think about leading Shabbat programming not only by having a conversation about Shabbat at college, but by modeling a Shabbat experience that grips their senses. Who can teach about the value of bringing Jewish wisdom off the page and into life not only by way of a source sheet, but who can demonstrate how to bring it into a hike or the design of a social justice program. If we really want Jewish communal professionals to understand the impact of learning through experience, then they have to be able to participate in such experiences themselves; to have been actively involved in a personal learning journey that has had a multi-sensory impact on their experiences, knowledge and assumptions.

And to be able to bring such experiences back into their work, there must be opportunity for reflection. Professional development experiences have to be facilitated within a managed and focused setting that affords participants space to deconstruct the experience and to hone their own practice in the process. It’s not enough to simply create an experiential program and expect that participants will be able to replicate it. It should be broken down, analyzed and evaluated, so that participants can develop their own iterations of its structure and contents. Only then will we have truly taken Jewish professional development out of the conference room, and into life.

[1] For the full list of paradigm shifts, see Jonathan Woocher (2012): “Reinventing Jewish Education for the 21st Century,” Journal of Jewish Education, 78:3, 182-226

Dr. Laura Tomes is the Director of Educational Research and Innovation at Hillel International, faculty in the M.A. program in Experiential Education and Jewish Cultural Arts at the George Washington University, and a participant in the fifth cohort of the Yeshiva University Certificate Program in Experiential Jewish Education.

Applications for Cohort VI of the Certificate Program will be accepted through February 22, 2016. For more information and to apply visit www.ejewisheducation.com

The YU Certificate Program in Experiential Jewish Education is generously funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation.