What We Have Learned About Jewish Learning

Moishe House Community Learning Retreat, August 2011 - Sonoma County, California; photo by Jonathan Goldstone
Moishe House Community Learning Retreat, August 2011 – Sonoma County, California; photo by Jonathan Goldstone

by Daniel S. Horwitz

In late 2011, Moishe House received the results from a two-year external evaluation by the TCC Group. Two major findings included:

  1. Young Jewish adults in the Moishe House network were seeking additional content-rich and skill-building Jewish educational experiences; and
  2. The majority of Moishe House residents did not grow up doing the types of Jewish rituals and experiences that they are now leading.

In short, while the Moishe House model created the demand (tens of thousands of young adults participating in Jewish life every year), in order to enhance the quality of the Jewish content, it was critical that the residents receive the tools and resources to be effective peer educators.

With generous funding from an anonymous donor through the Jewish Funders Network, Moishe House designed and implemented four pluralistic, experiential, Jewish empowerment weekend Learning Retreats. In late 2011 and early 2012, we brought over 120 young adults together from across North America to learn “how to do” Shabbat and the holidays of Sukkot and Passover. Each Learning Retreat of 30+ young adults was filled to capacity (with a waiting list), with more than half of all attendees being Moishe House residents and the others being comprised of alumni and select Moishe House participants.

The Learning Retreats were designed to motivate those in attendance to feel authentic, inspired, and empowered upon leaving to return home and lead Shabbat and holiday celebrations in their home communities. In addition to Moishe House’s in-house Jewish education team, each retreat featured stellar outside educators, such as Dr. David Bernstein, Dean of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, Rabbi Lizzi Heydemann of Mishkan Chicago, Rabbi Michael Knopf of Har Zion Temple in Philadelphia, and Torah scribe Julie Seltzer. We found that by providing multi-day, topic-specific training retreats, young adults not only showed up, but they were excited to take home new skills and put them into practice.

As a result of the pilot Learning Retreats, 35% more houses built a Sukkah than did the previous year, 36% more houses hosted Passover Seders than did the previous year, and Shabbat-related programming such as Havdallah and weekly Torah portion studies increased significantly.

Residents shared with us feedback such as, “I’ve heard many Dvar Torahs but never learned how to give one until now!” and “I am going to bring back insights and tools that will enhance the overall Shabbat experience of people in my Moishe House community.”

Building upon the success of the pilot retreats, in 2012, with generous funding provided by the Maimonides Fund and additional support through the Alan B. Slifka Foundation, Moishe House, with its partners Repair the World and NEXT: A Division of Birthright Israel Foundation, hosted an additional 6 Learning Retreats, also all filled to capacity. Expanding upon the pilot, we included a service learning retreat and an extended 5-day retreat the last week of December billed as “An Introduction to Jewish Civilization.” Our outcomes from the pre- and post-retreat surveys looked like this:

Percentage of attendees who describe themselves as “confident” in specific Shabbat-related skills:

Before After
Leading Shabbat dinner rituals 69% 85%
Leading a Shabbat oneg 39% 89%
Navigating the siddur 43% 86%
Preparing and giving a Dvar Torah 29% 86%
Leading Shabbat lunch rituals 39% 89%
Leading Havdallah 56% 89%

For 2013, thanks to the continued generosity of the Maimonides Fund, the Alan B. Slifka Foundation, as well as a number of local foundations and Federations who invested in retreats in their specific regions, we set the ambitious goal of hosting a Learning Retreat each month. We hosted our first international Learning Retreat this past April outside of Warsaw, Poland for our European community. In response to our residents expressing a desire to develop not only their Jewish ritual skills, but their general leadership skills as well, with the support of the Los Angeles Jewish Federation we piloted our first Leadership Development Learning Retreat, focusing on communication and conflict resolution skills through a Jewish lens. Due to the great success of the pilot, we were able to secure a generous multi-year grant from the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation to significantly expand our leadership related offerings.

We hope to continue growing our immersive learning offerings and that our partnerships in the field will expand. As an organization that benefited from the wisdom of others when developing the content of the Learning Retreats, we want to share some of the critical insights that we have gained along the way:

1. Immersion is Key

  • Young adults are interested in learning – but even more so, they are excited about building relationships and community. By taking people away in a retreat setting, the learning not only resonates on a deeper level, but the individuals are able to become part of a cohort as well.

2. Be Transparent About the Topic and Goals

  • Many participants have shared that they have signed up for programs, and then showed up to find them being “not as advertised.” By being topic specific and sharing the schedule for the weekend ahead of time, people know what they are signing up for, know that the weekend will contain significant amounts of “learning,” and allows for all present to rally around the same objectives.

3. Find the Right Number of Participants and Educators

  • Our goal is for young adults to take home the skills they have learned and apply them in their own homes/communities. To that end, we have found that 25-30 participants is the attendance figure that both allows for meaningful personal connections to be formed, and for educators to be able to comfortably facilitate their sessions. We do not want to be the “authorities” on how something is done; rather, we want to share with them a variety of traditions so they can find what resonates best for them. We have found that having 3-4 educators allows for a variety of perspectives without giving anyone the “authority.”

4. Follow Up Opportunities are Crucial

  • There has to be a vehicle in place for people to put what they have learned into action. While a group coalescing over the course of a weekend is wonderful, it is an entirely different effort to ensure that the highlighted skills are being put into practice once attendees return home. An equal or greater investment must be made in providing the platform and resources for participants to put their new-found (and/or polished) skills into practice. By providing holiday incentive grants and building Moishe House Without Walls, we’ve developed a way to meaningfully provide a follow up platform for all Retreat attendees.

There is great power in immersive, experiential education. Together, we can provide the tools and empower this generation of young adults to live vibrant, joyous and confident community-centric Jewish lives.

Daniel S. Horwitz is the Rabbi and Director of Immersive Learning at Moishe House.