What Ground Up Jewish Education Looks Like

By Rebecca Powell

In an April 5 article published on eJewishPhilanthropy, Joshua Ladon notes a real challenge to the Jewish education community: while American Jews move out of the synagogue and into Moishe House, while Havruta learning seeps outside school walls and into living rooms and bars alike, most of our institutions of higher learning continue to prepare educators for traditional careers in synagogues and schools. But we should also be preparing leaders and educators to innovate in new settings and to dream up the Jewish spaces of the future. Fortunately, when I was researching grad schools, I came across a unique program that is in fact educating the kind of leaders Ladon calls for – the Experiential Education & Cultural Arts Master’s program at GW.

EEJCA trains a new generation of leaders and educators for the rapidly changing and increasingly important arena of Jewish experiential education, preparing its graduates to enter the Jewish professional world with a new approach to educating in communal and cultural spaces. This new approach shifts the focus to providing quality educational experiences in the settings where our generation prefers to “do Jewish.” After dissecting countless population studies – from the 2013 Pew survey to smaller reports like the National Study of Immersive Jewish Outdoor, Food, and Environmental (JOFEE) programs – we analyze what the next generation, our generation, is looking for in Jewish life.

We pose questions that stem directly from research reports that tell us that Jews want to be proudly Jewish in unconventional spaces. Can trendy Jewish delis create a true sense of community? What makes a dance piece authentically Jewish? Why are there so many compelling Jewish stories on popular television? We explore possible answers through class discussion and internship placements in the rich DC Jewish community and beyond.

As emerging educators, we study pedagogy starting with the theories of John Dewey, the father of experiential learning, and then delve deep into modern research on specifically Jewish education. Our discussions consider legacy institutions like the JCC and their past innovations in creating a microcosm of the Jewish neighborhood while also examining the current success of Moishe House and One Table, organizations where we students also count ourselves as participants. We spend time examining the crown jewel of experiential Jewish education, Jewish summer camp, and exploring the key elements it entails – immersive setting, whole Jewish personalities, and fun. But we also think beyond the confines of what our community views as educational spaces; we consider how visiting a museum and seeing a play can also be intentionally educational experiences.

As emerging professionals, we analyze cultural phenomena from all angles – historical narrative, communal impact, and the continuous reinterpretation of each generation – culminating in creating rich and relevant event proposals for Jewish cultural institutions. As a group, we have designed the Anne Frank Walk to End Hate, a Dybbuk-inspired haunted house, Golem-themed Claymation studios, a call for artists to create ethnographic pieces inspired by the work of pre-World War II artists Roman Vishniac and S. Ansky, an 18-hole mini golf course with each hole telling the story of a Jewish cultural moment, and a short-story about a Golem protecting the Jewish resorts of the Catskills. Our ideas are creative and new yet grounded in our rich cultural tradition. We are innovating beyond the boundaries of conventional spaces, learning to cultivate experiences with the power to both educate and inspire a Jewish community looking for a connection to their heritage.

At the same time, students have the opportunity to take electives within the larger university, covering topics like educational theory, museum studies, and organizational leadership. Supplementing our Jewish communal focus with relevant secular studies makes perfect sense at a moment when American Jews are at home in American culture. Learning from experts in general education enriches our studies and enhances our ability to build the best possible programs for today’s diverse Jewish community.

Over time, American Jews have been constantly pondering how to serve each new era. In the late 19th century, the community established the Young Men and Women’s Hebrew Associations, a pre-cursor to the JCC, which replaced the synagogue as a communal center for many in that generation. Jews in the 1940s, 50s, and beyond spent summers at the Catskills where they focused much more on social life than on religious practice. Fiddler on the Roof’s premier in 1964 brought both nostalgia and pride as Jews saw their ancestors lovingly and publicly portrayed on Broadway, and the 1980s and 90s allowed Jews to connect to their identity through watching Seinfeld, a contemporary take on Jewish secular life.

And Jews today are breaking previous held conventions by holding Yom Kippur services in a bar, inviting non-Jewish friends to Purim spiels, embracing post-denominational structures, and hosting Instagram-worthy Shabbat dinners.

GW’s EEJCA graduates have studied this history and deeply understand our current cultural landscape. After five years, the program is expanding to address more needs in the Jewish community by adding tracks in Israel education and social justice. Joshua Ladon asserted that “it is time to begin exploring the training needs for the next generation of Jewish educational leadership.” Luckily for me and my classmates, EEJCA has already launched this training. No matter what specific career paths we take, we are a group of dedicated educators ready to lead our Jewish community into the future.

Rebecca Powell is a graduate student in the Experiential Education and Jewish Cultural Arts program at George Washington University. The program is generously supported by a grant from the Jim Joseph Foundation.