The Conflict Within: A New Look at Experiential Jewish Education
By Aron Wolgel
[This is the sixth in a series of articles written by participants and alumni of the YU Certificate Program in Experiential Jewish Education (EJE), highlighting EJE related ideas and practices.]
When Jewish experiences are constructed to be memorable and formative, the level of connection is heightened to produce Jewish identity. The focus on creating Jewish identity highlights the key point that Experiential Jewish Education (EJE) is different from educating through Jewish experiences. Growing up, my Jewish education was full of many enjoyable and memorable Jewish experiences, through a strong foundation in Jewish day school and many summers in Jewish sleep-away camp. Yet, my Jewish identity really began solidifying itself when my family moved to a city where there was no Jewish day school option.
At this juncture, I was forced to decide how my Judaism would articulate itself. What does my Shabbat practice look like? Do I wear a kippah to school? Which restaurants will I eat in, and with what restrictions from the menu? These questions or conflicts were new to me, and I was forced to confront them on my own given the new Jewish landscape in which I was living.
During my university years I studied Talmud, Jewish history, biblical commentaries, and Jewish philosophy. I was told that all of these were important for a strong Jewish identity. In truth, learning all of these texts did not create my identity; rather, studying text produced the foundation upon which my identity could continually be formed.
Eventually earning an MA in Jewish Education, I recognized that along my Jewish journey, my Jewish identity was solidified most by the people, places, and opportunities, which empowered me to wrestle with conflicts, forcing me to think, feel, and make difficult decisions about my personal Jewish beliefs and practice.
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According to the YU EJE Certificate Program, “Experiential Jewish Education is the deliberate infusion of Jewish values and content into engaging memorable experiences that impact the formation of Jewish identity,” and the goals of EJE are accomplished by exposing our learners to conflicts that they will engage with.
Since the ultimate goal of EJE is to impact the formation of Jewish identity, our focus as learning facilitators should be to create memorable experiences that will stimulate students’ hearts and minds, through the use of conflicts and challenging questions.
There is often a strong focus on creating a powerful, memorable experience; however, when our primary concerns are the location of the face painter and the design of the bounce house, we actually rob the learners of a formative experience. No doubt, Purim carnivals are fun and memorable, yet the most successful ones will strengthen a participant’s Jewish connection by allowing for self-exploration. Otherwise, are we really content in relying on the long-term impact of a beanbag toss at Haman?
To begin the process of EJE, students must feel the conflict internally. As one of my teachers says, “We have to get them in the kishkes.” For example, eating latkes fried in oil is a Jewish experience, but it doesn’t generally create discomfort or cause for introspection. To the contrary, asking a student to determine if their decisions are based on “pursuing individuality” or “a desire to fit in” (a key theme during Chanukah) may cause some movement within.
To that end, virtually any text, discussion, or course of study can take on an experiential nature, even without leaving the classroom.
Recently, in my biblical commentaries class, we discussed Torah’s authorship, a controversial topic certain to engage high schoolers and allow them to challenge or sustain their lifelong assumptions.
The class unanimously recognized that the Torah is the fundamental pillar of Judaism. Yet, when we explored the question, “How essential is following the Torah in order to live a Jewish life?” students were scattered across the spectrum. We explicitly demonstrated that everyone’s Judaism stemmed from a relationship with Torah (even if they couldn’t articulate this connection at the beginning of class). While some displayed a personal, independent connection to Torah, others connected themselves to tradition, sacrificing some autonomy for the sake of a communal standard.
Once a conflict is explored, “agency” must be transmitted to the learner in order for the student to conceptualize their learning. Essentially, a student must be able to answer the question, “what will you do with this new knowledge/understanding?” In this way, the best teacher will be one who teaches their learners to learn for themselves, eventually rendering the teacher unnecessary. Consequently, by not transferring this agency to the student, learners are left to struggle with an identity that has been handed to them, as opposed to discovering their own Jewish identity for themselves.
We are blessed with the ability to process and reflect on life to make it meaningful. Meaning is derived from wrestling with conflict and reaching a resolution. Moreover, focusing on a value-driven life emphasizes the message that is internalized and then conceptualized by the learner. With heightened awareness and mindfulness, we can train ourselves to “live consciously” through experiences that produce deep, lasting impacts.
The experience begins from within.
Aron Wolgel is the Director of Jewish Student Life and a Jewish Studies instructor at the Frankel Jewish Academy and a graduate of Cohort IV of the Yeshiva University Certificate Program in Experiential Jewish Education.
Applications for Cohort V of the Certificate Program will be accepted through January 26, 2015. 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.