The Journey of the Four Children

[This is the fifth in a series of articles highlighting the scope of best practices in experiential Jewish education.]

by Benji Berlow

Many developmental psychologists have tracked different, but surprisingly similar stages of human development. While each of these developmental models focuses on a different life question (needs, values, self-identity), Fred Kofman suggests in his book Conscious Business that they all show a journey from unconscious (not even perceived) to impulsive (it is all about me) to conformist (herd mentality) to reflective (not satisfied with conventional thinking).

Jewish tradition talks about the four children at the Passover Seder as though they were different types of children, but one could also look at the concept of the four children as a developmental journey of a single learner. The first stage is the student that does not know how to ask. She is unaware of the Jewish community because she has no language, no background, and no connection to the Jewish community. This student will need an educator who goes outside of a Jewish environment to meet them where they are in order to help them get to the next stage. Next is the simple student who knows a little bit about the Jewish community, but only has a surface relationship. He attends events with free food, but never will stay for the speaker. At first, he will only care about himself (egocentric), but as he stays longer, he will find other students who share his passions and values. Next is the wise student absorbed in the Jewish community, perhaps even a leader. She gives all of her time and energy to her group, but also seems to be going through the motions of recreating the same programs. Some educators would love to have all of their students stay in this stage, but some students feel unsatisfied with the status quo and transition to the wicked student. At one time, he too was immersed in the Jewish community, but now sees himself as beyond the establishment. While the simple student may not feel part of the group, the wicked student sees all of the people not included in the group. He is not evil, but a free thinker who will say exactly what is on his mind, even if upsets the Jewish community.

Similar to other developmental models, a student may move fluidly from one stage to the next, but it is not possible to skip a stage. For example, a student who knows nothing about Jewish tradition or community is not very likely to become a leader overnight. Below (Figure 1) is a comparison between Fred Kofman’s evolutionary model and the Four Children developmental model.

Berlow Article Figure 1
Figure 1: Kofman and Four Children Stages

How can this developmental model help an experiential Jewish educator? Just like a skilled artist can use one brush to get different results, a skilled educator can use a single program like Taglit-Birthright Israel to meet multiple students at varying stages in their development and help them progress to the next stage.

For a student who does not know how to ask, the challenge is to get him to know about the program. Effective marketing making it clear that it is open for all Jews regardless of knowledge or affiliation is critical. Unlike the Seder story, this student is not even at the table so an educator has to go outside of Jewish centered markets to reach him. Just knowing that a program exists especially for him may be enough to help move this student to the next stage.

Most advertising for Taglit-Birthright Israel is geared for the simple student (i.e. have a fun time riding camels), so it is very likely that many participants on the bus are at this stage. For these students, it is most important to instill a sense of connection – to the bus community, to Israel, to Jewish peoplehood, and/or to Jewish ritual. Once a simple student can feel connected to something larger than herself, it may propel her to move beyond a minimal connection to Judaism.

The wise student tends to live in a black and white world – good and bad, insider and outsider, pro-Israel and anti-Israel. This trip may be a good opportunity to engage him in questions that expose the grey areas of Israel – how does Israel balance being a Jewish state and a democratic state or do Jews outside of Israel have a say in the policies of the Jewish state? These conflicts that expose the complexities of Israel can help to transition him to think more critically about his connection to concepts that might have seemed simple before.

A wicked student may challenge policies and group norms from the beginning of orientation with questions like, “Why is the trip so sheltered? We don’t get to explore the real Israel or meet real Israelis.” While these students may be trying to be defiant, an educator may try to enlist their help to craft the educational experiences for others on the trip. How might they teach Israel to someone who is experiencing it for the first time? Is there something they discovered on their Jewish journey that they want to share with others? Helping the wicked student feel accountable to their community and still retain their independence can help them grow into the next stage of development – the integrated student who is able to hold both individual complexity and responsibility to the larger community.

The most important aspect of this model is not to pigeonhole students into categories, but recognize that their Jewish journey is dynamic and changing from moment to moment. Just like every other developmental progression, a student’s relationship to Judaism and the Jewish community evolves and changes over time. As experiential Jewish educators, we should not be fighting this current, but helping to guide students to their fullest potential.

Benji Berlow is the Director of Jewish Student Life at Carnegie Mellon University at The Edward and Rose Berman Hillel Jewish University Center of Pittsburgh and a current participant in Cohort III of the Yeshiva University Certificate Program in Experiential Jewish Education generously funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation.