At their final seminar in Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future (CJF) Certificate Program in Experiential Jewish Education, 21 educators from across the map in every sense – geographically, denominationally and generationally – reflected on their own spiritual journeys and backgrounds in an attempt to answer these questions: What influences Jewish identity and engagement? And how, as educators, could they create positive experiences and lasting impact for others in those areas?
“We need to be focused on the whole sense of individual journeys, which call for different questions and measures of success,” Shuki Taylor, the program’s director, told the group.
Those kinds of questions and measures are at the heart of the Certificate Program. Now graduating its second cohort and inaugurating a third, it is one of the few professional programs to focus on the unique role experiential Jewish education plays in the transmission of Jewish values and traditions – and to arm practitioners with research, methodology and skills to increase their effectiveness on the job.
“We run a wide range of programs where I work, from field trips to retreats to shabbatonim and residential programs, and while I think that what we do well, we do intuitively, it was important to get a background in experiential Jewish education from an academic perspective,” said Morris Panitz, program director at the Pearlstone Center in Baltimore and a member of the program’s newest cohort. “There are a lot of programs and training opportunities in Jewish education and a lot in experiential education, but the combination of the two is surfacing in mainstream consciousness. This certificate program is at the forefront of those efforts to train and integrate experiential Jewish education into Jewish engagement.”
That Panitz’s supervisor suggested the program to him is an indicator of how quickly its reputation has spread. “One of the greatest measurable growths we’ve seen over the last few years is the buy-in of organizations,” said Rabbi Kenneth Brander, Yeshiva University’s vice president for university and community life and the David Mitzner Dean of the CJF. “From the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and Birthright NEXT to Hillel International, NCSY and rabbinical groups, organizations are not only giving their staff time off to participate in our program but even covering most of their tuition. They are seeing a clear a return on investment – the program is addressing an important need for both educators in the classroom and in a more informal environment about the benefit of the Certificate Program in Experiential Jewish Education.”
The Certificate Program is divided into four modular seminars over the course of a year which focus on the foundational theories and practical applications of experiential Jewish education. Titled “Imparting Values,” “Creating Experiences,” “Cultivating Communities,” and “Self Development,” the seminars model experiential learning themselves to provide participants with new tools and ideas they can implement in their own programs. They also offer an important and not-often-heard message in the field of experiential education: content first.
“We want people to sit down and think about what the Jewish content, values or story is before they start thinking about how to tell it,” Taylor said. “Typically, there’s a huge emphasis on the experiential aspect of making things fun and creative and hiring people that are charismatic, and that’s important, but we’re trying to shift the focus so that the field doesn’t rely so heavily on those things. Creativity and charisma are subject to burn-out, which contributes to the short lifespan of careers in this field, but if we build knowledge and skills in our professionals, those are things that only get better and deeper with experience.”
One of the Certificate Program’s initial goals was to lengthen the typical three-year career trajectory of experiential Jewish education professionals, something Taylor is already witnessing. “We’ve seen a huge amount of promotions among our participants and graduates,” he said. “People who were program directors are now directors of their department, people who were assistant rabbis are now rabbis of their own shuls. Others have found more senior positions in different organizations, and still others have successfully secured Wexner, Greenspon and Tikvah Fellowships.” According to Taylor, the program is facilitating these positive transitions by not only giving participants more methodologically-sound tools, but also opening doors to opportunities they may not have realized existed. “Our program enables these professionals to focus on their strengths, understand what they’re great at and build on that,” he said.