What Happens When Experiential Education Is Just a Screen in a Different Room?

By Rob France

The last twenty years has seen the rapid rise of experiential education. What you learn is who you meet; what you learn is how you feel. The message is the message, but the medium is also the message. Birthright Israel, the rise of cohort-based fellowships and the growth of professional retreats are landmarks of the Jewish educational landscape. Though those elements are valued, no longer is Jewish education viewed as something that is limited to the classroom or the Beit Midrash. Education is as much a result of the company you keep and the setting you are in as of the content and teaching you receive.

But now the only safe experience is on a screen or in a bubble.

There are perhaps no better examples of experiential education than a gap year in Israel or going to college. For every drop of growth through academic study with professors and research, students learn buckets from being in a new place and experiencing a new community with others from different backgrounds. Navigating communal differences strengthens one’s identity, beliefs, and vision for the world.

Eric Fingerhut, former head of Hillel International, and current head of the Jewish Federations of North America, often said that 90% of what gets learned in college comes from experiences outside of the class. If that’s the case, what is the value of Israel from a dorm room or college as an experience when it goes entirely remote? And what Jewish educational experience can we provide for gap year or college students who choose to suspend their expensive educational plans because of an unexpected international pandemic?

Many existing programs are trying to make the best of pivoting to remote or hybrid learning but they are constrained by the existing expectations of their programs. Many students are stuck in their dorms on wonderful campuses that have to charge regular costs for providing, essentially, just a screen in a different room. And Israel gap year programs face a logistical nightmare to provide a safe sense of the land of Israel. At the Shalom Hartman Institute, we have created an entirely new program specifically designed for this unique historical moment when Jewish students are pausing their plans.

HevrutaAmerica will be the first of its kind – a full-time gap year experience, run entirely virtually, designed specifically to meet the need for an affordable, enriching, immersive program that can help form a tightly knit cohort of engaged Jewish college students.

Above all, the program will provide the three most important elements that educators have shown are exciting and motivating for young Jewish adults

  1. The creation of a unique and robust community.
  2. Exploration of meaningful and timely content.
  3. Framing the project in a way that enhances further education and career prospects.

The HevrutaAmerica program will take the best online practices from our wildly successful All Together Now program this summer where thousands of people took part in a wide variety of educational web experiences. We are going to combine those innovations with the tried and trusted methods of HevrutaAmerica’s beloved sister program, Hartman’s Hevruta Gap Year program in Israel.

Attendance will be capped at 50 students per semester; with class sizes capped at 25 – and students can sign up for either or both semesters. We know, from our summer Gateway Fellowship for college student leaders (also capped at 25 per class) that the sense of community we built in the virtual space was a crucial part of the Fellowship. By providing an opportunity for a small group of students to meet regularly for classes, to break into different groups for projects, hevruta learning, and in informal communal structures, the strength of the virtual community can rival those of the in-person communities that are no longer possible.

It’s not just community that matters to young college students – content is vital. In this time of crisis and deep uncertainty, young adults are searching for meaning and the authentic framing of questions. For Jewish students especially, wisdom accumulated by the Jewish people over millennia of scrutinized and questioned experience can provide insights and frames of reference that are crucial to their future: strengthening individual identity and Jewish communal involvement. After all, this pandemic is unique, but the Jewish people’s relationship to hardship, feelings of isolation, and day-to-day uncertainty is something we are quite familiar with.

HevrutaAmerica will be pursuing the optimistic theme of “The Jewish Future” because we believe that we can mine Jewish tradition for ideas and values forged in the past that may help us pave the way to a bright future.

Finally, in a time of deep economic uncertainty, the HevrutaAmerica gap year program will provide the third and perhaps most important factor driving college-aged students, Jewish or otherwise – the opportunity to advance one’s education or career. Participants who complete a semester of study will be awarded a certificate in Young Adult Jewish Leadership. For students looking for ways to distinguish themselves in an environment with restricted opportunities, we hope that participants will leave this program better equipped for leadership in the Jewish world, and better positioned to take on leadership positions or educational opportunities post-graduation.

For many students that were told that it would be safe to return to campus or Israel by the fall, it feels like they were overpromised by organizations and institutions that couldn’t fully deliver on their expensive promises this year. When college can’t be America’s best Jewish experiential educational platform in a pandemic, we think that a specially designed virtual gap year like HevrutaAmerica can take its place.

To learn more about HevrutaAmerica, visit https://www.hartman.org.il/hevrutaamerica-gap-year-program/.

Rob France is Director of Campus Initiatives for Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. He oversees all programs for campus professionals and college students at the Shalom Hartman Institute.