Taking Risks

By Robyn Faintich

[This is the final article of a four-part series written by graduates of M2: Institute for Experiential Jewish Education’s Senior Educators Cohort.]

Imagine you are planning a professional development conference for 40 senior-level Jewish educators. What kinds of sessions and workshops come to mind? Speakers with different expertise who come as guests and share (mostly frontally) that expertise? Maybe a fieldtrip to observe a methodology being implemented? And if you really invest, maybe a high-powered keynote address?

Now imagine a conference where you as a participant are given a headlamp, smock, paint and an easel, and asked to paint your core Jewish value – outside, at night. At that same conference, you participate in a small group trivia contest that earns your team “dollars,” and with those dollars, you purchase supplies to build a pirate ship – on which one of your team members will set sail in the hotel pool against other pirates to claim floating balls of different colors. Also at that same conference, you participate in a full-body movement exercise that helps you explore who you are at work versus who you are in a conference environment. These activities aren’t imagined, they were part of an impactful week of learning I experienced as a participant in the third cohort of the Senior Educators program with M2: The Institute of Experiential Jewish Education.

At Senior Educators Cohort, among the core pedagogy values we explored were risk, creativity and challenge, and three of the central typologies of activities included “Stretch Personal and Collective Boundaries,” “Provide Elements of Real or Perceived Risk” and “Create a Sense of Journey or Movement.” The faculty at M2 ensured that we had concrete experiences that reflect those very values and typologies. One of the concepts within the curriculum development model is a tension between education experiences that are predetermined and those that allow for the most self-exploration. Entwined with self-exploration is risk – at its core, allowing learners the freedom to determine the outcome and interpret their own meaning comes with an inherent risk. Yet, M2 is committed to the risk of self-exploration, training educators to use it and incorporating it into the training itself.

As a practitioner-educator, I take immense risk in the programs I deliver, typically involving middle and high school teens and their parents. These learners are craving “surprise and delight” within meaningful education experiences. With the goal of exploring the religious appropriation that occurs during December, I have set up a full-blown “Chanukah Bush” in my classroom, hung blue and white stockings from the tables, and displayed a blue and white wreath on the door to welcome participants. The tree topper is a Jewish star, of course. It’s risky to go for the shock factor, but the payoff is huge when the teens have a concrete encounter with the preposterous presentation. M2 methodology encourages us as participants to be creative in utilizing space, décor and displays as part of the innovation in education.

In another unit on Sacred Scandals, I introduce the learners (older teens and adults) to the racy biblical stories of Tamar and Judah and David and Bathsheba. The goal is for the students to find relevant lessons in our ancient texts. But the mere use of these more controversial stories (let’s be honest, they aren’t Noah and the animals by twosies) challenges the sense of relationship typical Jewish learners have with text. M2 underscored the value of exploring risk through sharing their concept of “stretching personal or collective boundaries.” However, I can only take these educational risks – stretching the boundaries – in an environment where I know the leadership (rabbis, education directors and lay leaders) will support my creativity.

As an education consultant, I have to assert that if excellent pedagogy includes the kinds of educational elements presented at M2’s Senior Educators Cohort, then an excellent learning organization also must value these traits – our organizations need to be learning and leading with these theories as their foundational backbone. Being a consultant means I get to challenge my clients to think big (no, even bigger than that!), but with those dreams come risk, and with risk comes the need for a space to fail forward if needed.

I like to call this R&D. Unfortunately, many in the world of Jewish education are afraid of failure. We are risk-averse and therefore not investing in R&D. The cell phone in your pocket had hundreds of prototypes and millions of dollars spent on experimentation before the final product landed in your possession. The developers planned for and invested in failure, because they didn’t see it as negative. Within the Jewish community, we need to take more creative and financial risks in program offerings, in organizational structures and in engagement strategies, and we need our funders to wholeheartedly support this risk.

It is clear to me that M2 has an amazing partnership with their funders, who allow the leadership team to deliver a program rich with risk, creativity and challenge. The M2 leadership clearly has the freedom to use methodologies consistent with their mission, which gives the organization the space to experiment with numerous approaches – some that may even seem outrageous – without fear of penalty if they don’t work. As a participant and learner, my experience was enriched immensely by having encountered these manifestations and watching the pedagogy methods play out in concrete ways. I am thankful for the opportunity the M2 funders have granted to me as a participant.

So I challenge Jewish communal leaders – funders, lay leaders, rabbis and educators – to take risks and invest in R&D, even if it means several iterations of failing forward until your team finds a programmatic formula that works. I challenge you to lead an organization whose own learning internalizes creativity and challenge. As a Jewish educator and education consultant, I am inspired by the significant level of risk and creativity M2 models and look forward to taking significant creative risks with all of my learners and clients in the future.

Robyn Faintich as a graduate of M2 Senior Educators Cohort 3, and an Executive Education Consultant of JewishGPS, LLC.

M² develops and provides training and research to advance the field of experiential Jewish education and invests in the growth of its educators. Learn more at www.ieje.org. Read the entire series at https://linktr.ee/m2ieje.