Viable Approaches to Jewish Identity Formation

By Gabi Spiewak

[This is the third 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.]

Many people refer to Experiential Jewish Education with a stronger grasp of what it does not include and a murkier feel for what it affirmatively entails. This phenomenon is certainly understandable. Conventional Jewish education has a well-trodden script, whereas non-traditional Jewish education is practiced by an ever-diverse population in a seemingly exponential array of settings with few identifying markers to boot.

Among the many profound contributions offered by YU’s Certificate Program in Experiential Jewish Education (EJE) is a substantive definition that not only respects the broad sweep of the field but also boldly identifies its critical elements: “Experiential Jewish Education is the deliberate infusion of Jewish values and content into engaging and memorable experiences that impact the formation of Jewish identity.” The means, the method, and the purpose of EJE are all succinctly delineated in this well-crafted keystone statement.

This definition also exposes a great tension within EJE practice. The purpose of EJE revolves around the process of identity formation. James Marcia famously positions identity formation at the corner of exploration and commitment. According to Marcia, a healthy identity formation can only be achieved when an exploratory effort precedes an identity commitment. Exploration breeds options, alternatives and conflicts and only from the crucible of these crises can an individual acquire a crystallized identity. Experiential education, fully equipped to provide such exploratory ventures, serves as a hotbed for dynamic growth in identity formation.

Yet, the means necessary to achieve Jewish identity – “Jewish content and values” – constrain the formative process by often placing limits on what options are available to EJE students. In many cases, EJE is not interested in providing a buffet of values from which a student may choose an expressly Jewish one. Rather, experiential Jewish educators essentially cater to their clientele a well packaged “value meal” stuffed with a smorgasbord of “kosher” ingredients. Preselecting the Jewish content is critical to promoting Jewish identity even if it betrays the ideal process of full-fledged exploration and identity formation.

If the purpose of EJE requires an open process of identity exploration, how then can EJE thrive when the identity’s content is necessarily predetermined? This fundamental tension of EJE practice begets three distinct approaches to nurturing healthy and well-adjusted Jewish identities.

One way to ease this tension is to deflate the pressure coming from one side. Perhaps, it’s not always necessary to preselect Jewish content while delivering EJE, and a full-fledged “exploration in breadth” is actually feasible. At times, merely presenting the Jewish value as one alternative among others can still move the needle meaningfully towards Jewish identity formation.

This approach works best when the Jewish value is inherently foreign to EJE participants so its mere presentation immediately frames a conflict between the normative and the Jewish alternative. For example, a group of learners encountering the value(s) of Shabbat for the first time within an experiential framework would satisfy both sides of the EJE tension: the presentation of a new set of values that contrasts with the cultural norm provides ample opportunity for exploratory conflict. At the same time, exposing learners to fresh Jewish ideals realizes the goal of enhancing Jewish identity.

Whereas Marcia framed the critical element of exploration as a search among alternatives for values, goals or convictions, more recently, researchers have identified “exploration in depth” as an equally potent form of healthy identity construction. In this approach, the constraints of specific values can be a laboratory for further identity enrichment. As individuals place their values under an evaluative microscope, their commitments and identities flourish.

This is already a common feature of celebrated EJE programs. When Hillel students flock to Israel on Birthright trips, there is plenty of evidence of successful Jewish identity growth. This success does not depend upon a challenge to the value of a Jewish State. To the contrary, meaningful discoveries about that value commence a positive evaluative process that only enhances an already present Zionist identity.

In fact, this approach to identity formation – clearly favoring commitments over liberal exploration – is an indispensible identity-forming tool anytime the Jewish value commitment is paramount.

Finally, the tension can be addressed by an approach that constantly balances the needs of both predetermined content and broad exploration. Judaism is blessed with a full spectrum of values. Jewish exploration can satisfy both content constraints and the full force of conflicting alternatives by constructing experiential programs that promote Jewish dialectics and juxtapose revered Jewish values.

My experience in YU’s EJE Certificate Program exposed me to numerous bright and creative experiential educators who gravitated most often to this method of EJE. Notwithstanding the tremendous talents of YU EJE alumni, this is not an approach for the faint of heart. A rigorous understanding and presentation of Jewish content coupled with a temperament that’s at peace with debate, pluralistic disagreement, and improvisation are required characteristics for this form of experiential education to thrive.

Affirmatively speaking, EJE delivers Jewish content and values through the medium of memorable experiences in order to deliver Jewish identity growth. Even though memorable experiences and free exploration can sometimes feel constrained by the singular focus on Jewish content and values, several viable approaches to this underlying tension hold great promise for the well-intentioned and successful practice of EJE.

Gabi Spiewak teaches Developmental Psychology at Kean University and is the Manager of Data Analytics at Met Council. He previously taught at Yeshivat Netivot Montessori and is 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