Three Proverbs and Experiential Jewish Education

[The following article is the last of four responses to the study “Mapping Goals in Experiential Jewish Education”, a study commissioned by the Department of Experiential Jewish Education at Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future, with support from the Jim Joseph Foundation, investigating the role that goals, indicators and outcomes currently play in experiential Jewish education.]

To read the full report “Mapping Goals in Experiential Jewish Education” click here. To read the introduction to this project, click here.

by Dr. David Bryfman

In the field of experiential Jewish education there is an oft-cited adage, adopted from another context that “you just know it when you see it.” When one walks into a good summer camp, one can know straight away whether it’s a good summer camp. Likewise for a good youth group activity, a good Israel experience etcetera. Of course the converse is also true, if the setting isn’t quite living up to its potential. Suggesting that someone with many years of experience in these settings intuitively knows what is good and successful is both the blessing and curse for those of us who engage in the research of experiential Jewish education.

This response is organized around three proverbs (actually two proverbs and a saying):

Give a man a fish, he’ll feed for a day, show a man to fish, he will eat for a lifetime.” (Chinese proverb)

This quote appears in the study and I find that we need to consider it more seriously, because Jewish education has primarily been feeding students fish – in that it gives them knowledge that educators have deemed important. To a certain extent, this is still the dominant paradigm for many involved in Jewish education today.

This notion, of filling students with what they need to know, stands in complete contrast to what was often believed to be taking place in the informal realms of Jewish education, which was referred to in such terms as “fluff” or “the warm and fuzzy stuff”. I stand here today building on the work of my teachers, Barry Chazan, Joseph Reimer and others to dismiss these false dichotomies.

This was one of the major reasons that I, and others, have felt it so important to develop the terminology of experiential Jewish education, rather than informal Jewish education. In this way we can explain a term by what it is, rather than in relation to what it is not (i.e. informal as opposed to formal).

Education is often said to be about the ABC’s – the affective, behavioral, and cognitive changes that take place as a result of learning. In other contexts we might refer to these as feeling, doing and knowing, or heart, hands and head. But these distinctive outcomes, not that they can’t all co-exist, over time have pushed me to acknowledge that experiential Jewish education is primarily about the heart and the hands. That’s not to say that the head is not important and that cognitive acquisition of Jewish sources and Jewish texts is not important – it is. But, at the end of the day, experiential Jewish education at its core is about the experiences that one applies to ones life. Experiential Jewish education, and dare I suggest all good Jewish learning today, should first and foremost be about transformation and growth, which might require knowledge at its foundation, but ultimately is dependent upon the influences that we as inspiring educators can have over the affect and behavior of our learners.

The goal-posts have changed.”

It must be acknowledged that what we refer to today as experiential Jewish education, in the past would not have been referred to in this way. This has a lot to do with the distinction between education and engagement. It is important to recognize that several programs that currently serve as perfectly good engagement strategies have been lumped under the banner of experiential Jewish education – and I believe that this is a mistake. Playing basketball with Jewish friends is great – but it is not education per say. Volunteering is amazing, but there is a distinction to be made between doing service and Jewish service learning. Relationship building is an essential technique, but in and of itself is not Jewish learning.

We need to recognize that experiential Jewish education is not about setting. For example, if I go to a summer camp and there is a group of kids sitting under a tree for forty-five minutes, listening to one person, often a Rabbi, giving them a shiur about some Jewish topic – there is nothing experiential about that environment. Not the tree, not the circle. It is didactic and traditional. On the other hand, if I walk into a day school, and there are kids running around, having a total body experience and having fun, simulating Aliyah Bet and there are the British, the Arabs and the Jews – there is nothing even remotely didactic about that. The students might have learned about this episode in history cognitively earlier on in classrooms, but this simulation was an example of experiential education.

Barry Chazan was completely right, when he framed informal Jewish education as a philosophy and not just pedagogy. Informal (or experiential) Jewish education has its basis as a philosophical worldview where the most important item of the experience is the learner themself. There are formal and informal settings of education, but the philosophy of experiential Jewish education can be applied in all settings.

Experiential Jewish education is not just about meeting learners where they’re at and acquiescing to their articulated desires, and definitely not just about having fun. There is learning involved and by definition, learning involves taking people on journeys, where if successful, change is a desired outcome. It is not in our interest to call all informal Jewish experiences experiential Jewish education.

Chanoch LaNa’ar Al Pi DarcoEducate a child according to their way” (Proverbs 22:6)

This is one the most commonly used Jewish texts in Jewish education. People often forget the last part of the text explains why each child should be educated according to their own way – so that “when they grow older they will not depart from their path.”

It is the translation of the word chanoch that is of real interest to me. If we translate this word not as “teach” or “train” but from the standpoint of its root, and connect it to Chanukah, or Chanukat Habayit (house dedication), we then as educators see ourselves as dedicating the child. If every interaction we have with a learner is seen as a dedication or a re-dedication, then the outcomes on all levels are very different than if we enter that moment attempting to teach or to train someone.

What I am suggesting is that if the outcomes are so clearly predetermined in advance of an event, then I am not sure that it qualifies as experiential education. And here is where this understanding of experiential Jewish education might be problematic in some communities, who stress an outcome-based education. If the objective is to take kids, young adults, and to make them more something, more religious, or more observant, or there is a specific agenda, then, at least according to John Dewey, it is unclear whether you’re actually letting the kid go down their own path, or whether there is authentic self-discovery.

This is a challenge for orthodox education or for any education where there is a specific ideological pathway involved. I have applied this challenge to many instances of my own education in an ideological Zionist youth movement and the issues are very similar.

However, this read is also a mis-read of John Dewey. Dewey also had values that were the core of his educational philosophy. Education through experience was certainly not about experience for experience sake. John Dewey had morality and values as central to his educational philosophy and he clearly had an agenda to transform lives, to make better citizens in the world and ultimately to make the world a better place as a result of these experiences. These tensions for both Dewey and us today are very real – what agency are we really giving our learners to determine their own paths and ultimate outcomes?

I think we need to be really clear of what our end-game is, our objectives, and our goals. A better understanding and articulation of these will further help come even closer to reaching the full potential of this enterprise known as experiential Jewish education.

Works cited: Chazan, B. (2003). The Philosophy of Informal Education. The Encyclopedia of Informal Education Retrieved September 1st, 2006, from Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and Education. New York: The Macmillan Company.

Dr. David Bryfman is an Australian born-and-bred Jewish educator who has worked in formal and informal Jewish educational institutions in Australia, Israel and North America. David has a broad array of educational interests that include Israel education, experiential Jewish education, technology and Jewish adolescent identity development. David currently serves as the Chief Learning Officer at The Jewish Education Project in New York.

The deadline for applications for Cohort IV of the YU Certificate Program in Experiential Jewish Education is February 17th 2014.