The Emerging Jewish Self: Identity Formation through Experiential Jewish Education

By Tamara Rebick, M.Ed.

[This is the fifth 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.]

Recently I’ve been hearing conflicting opinions on the term “identity” and its relationship with Jewish education. While some educators – myself included – view the term as one that aspires to influence, others often dismiss it, on the grounds that it is too ambiguous or too difficult to measure. Based on the interdisciplinary research and methodologies that I was exposed to in Yeshiva University’s Certificate Program in Experiential Jewish Education (EJE), I contend that much of what we experiential Jewish educators do is in fact, in the service of identity formation, and particularly so when it accounts for and includes the integral concept of agency.

EJE imparts values through proven strategies and methodologies that can have a long-term impact on how our learners respond to the experiences that they encounter. But in order for this to occur, the emphasis must be on a process whereby Jewish learning through experience has the learner answer “what am I going to do about what I’ve just learned?” This type of question works in service of agency. It is what moves learning, understanding and connecting from consequential to evolutionary, and shifts the impact of experiences from interesting to defining.

Helping our learners develop an individualized sense of agency is all too often missed in a learning process, as it is a long-term component that often precludes time-bound, immersive environments, which are commonly the setting for prime experiential Jewish education. An experiential Jewish educator must be very intentional when designing an experience, ensuring agency-development’s vital role in the overall learning process – especially when approaching learning as a strategy for identity formation. Learners will be challenged to hone in on their core values, appreciate their innate skills and identify what it is about Judaism that is relevant and important to them. Identity formation is influenced by Jewish education when learners reflect on how these experiences are significant, contemplate what it is that has been learned as a result of the experiences, and explore what they will now do differently as a direct result of the learning experience. Thus, our learners can become agents that can intentionally make Jewish choices based on what they have learned from their specific experiences.

Cultivating a sense of agency for the learner begins with the design of such experiences in the first place. “The core features of agency enable people to play a part in their self-development, adaptation, and self-renewal with changing times.” (Bandura, 2001) Instilling a sense of agency in our learners through the methodologies and best practices of experiential Jewish education – like those taught in the YU Certificate Program – is what transforms learning from knowledge acquisition and reflection into inspired life-changing actions derived from the learning experience.

Early this fall, a former student of mine who is now a Jewish community professional herself and I were discussing how we can utilize experiential Jewish education in the pursuit of “building Jewish identity” when identity is so highly personal and individualized.

The question of identity is no longer “who am I?” or “what makes me unique?” but rather “what is it that I do that represents me?” Experiential Jewish education can be truly significant, relevant and powerfully transformative when talking about the development of a Jewish self. The diverse academic research and methodologies shared through YU’s Certificate Program comes from the fields of psychology, sociology and Jewish education, and support the influence that experience can have on shaping one’s self. Kenneth Gergen’s work on The Self, James Marcia’s “Identity Stati,” Bethamie Horowitz’s “Connections and Journeys,” David Kolb’s “Learning Cycle” and the social psychological synthesis on “Identity Formation, Agency and Culture” by James Cote and Charles Levine all contribute to this conversation.

My own high school students from the past 10 years have confirmed that they are engaged in a personal connection to Judaism through having directly explored Jewish values and content in ways that encouraged them to play a role in their learning. The formation of their Jewish identities was most affected in the space where they were challenged to “do something” with their newfound knowledge – to engage in active experimentation with what it was that they had just experienced and learned.

In order for us to be truly effective Jewish educators, we must humbly recognize and embrace the great responsibility and potential we have to influence the Jewish future, one learner at a time. We must strive to inspire our learners to become their own agents based on what they have learned with us, and come to understand their Jewish selves through thoughtful experiences, the exploration of values, and a desire to do something personally meaningful in their Jewish lives going forward.

Tamara Rebick is the Vice President for Identity, Education, and Experience at Hillel Ontario and a graduate of the fourth cohort of the Yeshiva University Certificate Program in Experiential Jewish Education.

Applications for Cohort VI of the Certificate Program will be accepted through March 14, 2016. For more information and to apply visit

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