Text at the Core of Experiential Jewish Education

[This is the sixth, and last, in a series of articles highlighting the scope of best practices in experiential Jewish education.]

by Judith Schiller

Sometimes it takes a fall in the dirt to open up pages of text.

Several years ago, as a convener of a Jewish educators’ training workshop focused on creating sacred community, I participated in a ropes course experience with a group of colleagues. Our final team initiative of the day was the Mohawk Walk – a series of foot cables strung between trees or poles, in a zig-zag pattern. Our goal was to traverse the lengths of the cables without falling off, with assistance coming only from the hands of our teammates. Two groups began at opposite ends of the zig-zagging cable. While my group struggled to help the person on the cable stay on balance and not fall off, the group on the other side sailed through this challenge. When we debriefed our experience, the successful group shared that they wondered, “what [my group’s] problem was,” since for them, this challenge was really no big deal. Our facilitator then told us that the Mohawk element was a lot harder at our end, and easier at the other. That was the “Aha moment,” in which we recognized our impulse to judge others. I dovetailed this experiential insight with some texts that I shared with our group: “Don’t judge your fellow human being until you have reached that person’s place” (Pirke Avot 2:4); and “Give the benefit of the doubt” (Pirke Avot 1:6). These opened up lively discussion about our human tendency to be judgmental, and how the limits of one’s own personal lens hampers the creation of safe, inclusive community.

This ropes experience (as well as others like it) could well have happened without the infusion of Jewish texts. The participants might have had similar insights and takeaways. However, in this case, the experience was designed to help participants recognize the relevance of Jewish text, and how it continues to speak to us today. The experience made the text came to life not just within the immediate context, but as real-life insight embedded in the canon of Jewish teaching and values.

In my work at the Retreat Institute (RI) of the Jewish Education Center of Cleveland (JECC), we have been creating and implementing text-based retreats and programs for youth, families and educators for over 20 years. We work collaboratively with institutional partners – supplementary and day schools and congregations – to develop a range of immersive, beyond-the-classroom experiences, for a variety of participant groups, ranging in age, background, and affiliation. We aim for participants to encounter the relevance and excitement of exploring Jewish texts and find meaning through experience with Jewish tradition and community. The RI staff has trained in a variety of experiential methods, encompassing dramatic play, philosophical inquiry, games, adventure, and the visual arts, all of which are utilized to engage textual understanding. We continue to enrich our text knowledge with weekly text study gatherings. The opening story reflects how we’ve experimented with connecting Jewish text with the field of Adventure-Based Education, expanding on its scope of group building and character formation.

As a participant in the Yeshiva University (YU) Certificate Program in Experiential Jewish Education (EJE), I explored with my cohort YU’s working definition of EJE as “the deliberate infusion of Jewish values and content into engaging and memorable experiences that impact the formation of Jewish Identity.” Experiences grounded in Jewish text, which I define as encompassing the gamut of Torah and rabbinics, to poetry, song and contemporary Jewish thought, strengthen identity, impart values, and foster a supportive community. Jewish texts address the conflicts and dilemmas rooted in our lives. When a program is develped without text, it is a missed opportunity to connect Jews to our heritage of enduring, timeless wisdom that anchors our lives, and connects past, present and future.

Developing Text-Based Experiences

In our practice at the RI, a text-based experience originates by either exploring texts that inform a particular topic; or by studying a text, such as the weekly Torah portion, and playing with issues and themes that emerge. Text study among program planners animates questions, imagination and brainstorming, and often resonates with personal narratives. The choice of texts for any program depends on what is accessible to the given audience. Once we are grounded in the text, we develop the programmatic focus, and design experiential ways to connect text for participants on their learning journey. A core aspect of crafting experiential Jewish education entails navigating the tension between pre-determined outcomes, such as basic Jewish literacy, or understanding halacha, and self-exploration that invites personal interpretation and meaning-making. Educators must be clear about their aims of engaging text and be transparent with their audiences. In the story of the ropes experience, the planners of the program mindfully crafted an opportunity for participants to discover the relevance of the Pirke Avot text to the topic of self and community.

Dealing with the Text Intimidation Factorof Staff

Experiential Jewish educators need to have Jewish content knowledge and know how to access the sources that will enrich their programs. However, too often the notion of “text study” feels intimidating, and assumed to be dry and boring for educators as well as participants. In our retreat collaborations with various groups, in addition to reviewing the schedule, program, and logistics, we include text exploration as part of the retreat staff preparation process. Initial resistance lessens, as the staff feels “permission” to interpret and relate to the text. They become more confident and empowered to facilitate experiences that engage their retreat participants, as well as themselves.

Whether the experience is at a ropes course, food bank, camp, or in a classroom, the infusion and thoughtful facilitation of exploring Jewish text serves to impart values and spark spiritual growth.

Judith Schiller is the Retreat Institute Director at the Jewish Education Center of Cleveland and a graduate of Cohort II of the Yeshiva University Certificate Program in Experiential Jewish Education generously funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation.