Thriving Jewish Education, Minus the Jewish Educator

By Rachel Sherman

[This is the second of a four-part series from the Leadership Commons of The William Davidson School of JTS, in partnership with OneTable, a national nonprofit whose mission is to empower people age 21-39ish who don’t have a consistent Shabbat dinner practice, to build one that feels authentic, sustainable, and valuable. JTS and its alumni who work at OneTable are taking a “deep dive” into what it means to approach Jewish education through the lens of thriving: learners engaging with Judaism in order to live more meaningful and flourishing lives. We examine the challenges organizations may have in applying this approach, and how we can address and overcome these challenges, together.]

The most profound Jewish learning experience of my formative years took place with my local youth group chapter in New Jersey. It wasn’t led by a rabbi, an educator, or any other adult, it was led by my friends.

A group of 25 teenagers gathered in a Ramada Inn dining room and discussed the concept of miracles in Judaism, the essence of belief, and what it means to truly value life experiences. The conversation was rich; each participant sharing with vulnerability in the safe space that the leaders had created. The content was intriguing, layered with traditional texts, personal stories, and thoughtful discussion questions that encouraged us to push ourselves just a little bit further.

As I sat through that session I remember being mesmerized not only by the content but by how engaging and knowledgeable my peers were.

Fast forward 10 years. I now hold a master’s degree in Jewish education, and work as the New York Hub Manager for OneTable. I often think about that powerful Jewish experience that was led by my friends in youth group. I know they didn’t walk into that room on the spot and lead a dynamic session spontaneously. What role did trained Jewish educators play in bringing those workshops to fruition? How did my peers develop the tools to navigate the room, the texts, the dialogue?

Jewish learning comes in many different forms: formal and informal, in synagogue sanctuaries and day school classrooms, through Shabbat and holiday celebrations, during late night conversations with friends and early morning bunk rituals at summer camp, around coffee tables and dining tables. The right layers – dialogue, text, discussion, and intention – can raise holy sparks and create opportunities for authentic, lived Jewish experiences.

That’s the what. Now let’s talk about the who.

My experience, then as a participant and now as a professional, has taught me that powerful Jewish learning happens when I learn from my peers. It’s a unique relationship; I trust you because I can see myself in you. You are inspirational rather than aspirational. The conversations you initiate are an invitation for me to understand the role Judaism can play in my daily life because I see you struggling, openly and honestly, to live it in yours.

My power as an educator, therefore, isn’t necessarily about being in the room. As Dr. Alison King, a professor of education at California State University, so famously put it, I can accomplish more as a “guide on the side” rather than a “sage on the stage.”

Peer-led Jewish experiences are powerful when our students have access to the tools that make them shine. It is an educator’s role to provide competence and confidence, and most importantly that spark. We want our students to want to inspire their friends. And then – and this just might be the hardest part – we have to get out of the way. Only then will we see what our students are capable of.

I’ve seen this firsthand when coaching OneTable Shabbat dinner hosts to take on a Shabbat practice for the first time, or for the first time in a way that makes sense to them. Giving young adults the tools to take on Jewish learning in a way that is personally resonant makes it authentic; they speak in a language that speaks to them, and this translation is invaluable. We provide resources that are not required, but rather chosen. The OneTable guest-to-host process instills confidence, inspiring these hosts that OneTable coaches to believe in themselves. On top of which, we believe in you, and yes, it really is Jewish learning.

Reflecting back on that session about the essence of belief with 25 teenagers, it definitely would not have happened with a trained Jewish educator in the room. It also would not have happened without a trained Jewish educator preparing those student leaders, sharing texts with them in advance, and teaching them skills to balance the conversation. That educator had to trust us, and trust that what we created would be a powerful Jewish learning experience even if there was no rabbi, no educator, no adult in the room. It turns out that’s all we needed. The right tools plus a bit of trust manifested in a group of young adults becoming the producers of their own Jewish experience. It’s a formula we should all remember and practice, because so often it equals success.

Rachel Sherman is the New York Hub Manager for OneTable. She received her MA in Jewish Education from the William Davidson School of JTS.