Yadaim, the Academy of Applied Academics – A 2011 Jewish Futures Competition Winner

by Andrea Rose Cheatham Kasper

In response to last year’s Jewish Futures Conference competition on “prosumerism”, the idea of Yadaim, the Academy of Applied Academics was born. To be clear it was an idea that was in the making for well over a year which crystallized in a competitive context. The competition asked the public to critically think about how co-creation of Judaism and Jewish education can manifest itself in innovative and dynamic ways which will capture the imagination of the public.

The trend of prosumerism is only one major trend we face today, another is a trend grounded in resourcefulness and utility, the ability to do things on our own. Prosumerism is the idea that people have evolved from simply being consumers to actively creating the world and experiences they seek. In the Jewish context, this means that Jews no longer look to an authority to tell them how to be Jewish nor through what traditions or practices, instead they are looking to collaborate and co-create a Judaism that is meaningful to them. By embracing this trend we evolve from being only intellectual creators of our world to actual creators of our world and experiences. By embracing this trend we move from a one dimensional focus on intellect to a fuller educational and Jewish conception of being God’s partners in the physical, material/economic, spiritual and intellectual work of the world. It is the intersection of this trend with the unprecedented connectivity provided by technology that demands a prosumer response. Yet, as prosumerism is understood, there is no one public, it is not monolithic; rather it has over time and with the advent of new technologies broken into small, individualized and specialty groups. Jewish day school and Jewish high school leadership must respond to the increasing demand for individualized products by diversifying options. While the North American Jewish community offers Jewish educational options in terms of observance and denomination, by and large there is little, if any, diversity in mission statements and educational philosophy. Foremost in Jewish education and community is the notion that all students must go to college and go immediately. This assumption ignores the many students who are interested in other modalities of learning, in other areas of interest and not least of all those who are not prepared or capable of pursuing a rigorous four-year degree.

The North American Jewish community has, perhaps, an especially challenging time accepting the shift from consumer to producers and creators, because it requires that we let go of long held stereotypes of who we are and what is valued within our community. We are proud of our academic and intellectual achievements but to the point of dismissing other ways of engaging in the world. It is high time that we challenge the implicit classism within our Jewish community, which values intellectual activity and demeans other forms of creativity. In claiming this shift, we will finally allow all members of the Jewish community to be productive and essential, and not only those with intellectual prowess. Combining these factors with the current state of production and consumption, and the pressing need to create relevant Jewish education preparing students for the world they will be entering, I submit my idea for Yadaim, The Academy of Applied Academics.

At Yadaim, high school aged students work in multi-aged work groups engaging in hands on projects with a focus on production. The school is equipped with fully stocked woodwork, welding, and textile studios. There are specialized rooms to learn about electricity and plumbing. The school shares land on a working farm, running its own community supported agriculture (CSA) and brings food from the earth to the table in a teaching kitchen preparing food for the school community. Yadaim focuses on the arts with studio space for visual arts, music and dance. Borrowing from John Dewey’s Lab school methodologies, the students take their relevant, hands on work into a shared space to work with teachers and each other to understand the theory behind their practice and to use this understanding to increase efficiency and output. The answers to the questions, “why are we learning this?” and “what will I ever need to use this for?” are self evident.

Yadaim’s fundamental goal is relevancy in all areas of learning. Relevancy is currently a hot concept in education and is at the center of Jewish education. Jewish educators are plagued by this idea daily; Rabbis and communal leaders are tackling the problem of how to make Judaism relevant to a modern population. Just as the textile work, farming, art and welding are applied at Yadaim, so is Jewish learning. As Judaism is grounded in agricultural practice, Yadaim uses these principles on the farm. The work of the Mishkan, provides ample opportunities for building and creation in various materials, all the while entrenched in Jewish thought. The kitchen is another area where students can experiment with the ideas of the ever expanding definition of eco-kashrut and its application to current ideas of food justice and ecology. As the school focuses on production, issues concerning Jewish business and ethics are applied as well.

Students who complete this program will not only be prepared to enter the job market with clear and marketable skills, they will experience rigorous applied academic training which will prepare them to enter a four-year university. An essential goal of this school will not be that everyone should go to college. While this goal has permeated US schools and heavily permeated Jewish high schools, it is becoming increasingly clear that this goal has been misguided. Reports such as “Pathways to Prosperity,” published by Harvard Graduate School of Education, clearly states that the numbers are not adding up, criticizing policy makers and the public for a narrow and short sited goal which has not yielded the hoped for results. The drop-out rate in the US continues to be problematic; there is a growing skills gap leaving unfilled jobs even in a depressed economy; of those students that begin university only slightly more than half graduate within 6 years. Furthermore, this narrowly focused goal has limited the options and opportunities we present to our students. A strong system of education supported by the community, which incorporates democratic ideals, demands that we expand and grow the options available to our students and not shrink them as we have systematically done.

As a Jewish educator, I have long been concerned with the state of Jewish education. I was raised in a Conservative Jewish day school and later taught in the same school. My journey as a Jewish educator has led me to teach in day schools, synagogue schools, Prozdor Hebrew high school, and abroad in Panama. When my family had the opportunity to move to Iceland this journey, at least seemingly, came to a halt. However, I always find myself connected in some way and while applying to an Ed.D. in Jewish Educational Leadership, I began to reflect on Jewish education anew. The profound difference in my reflection, this time, was my distance from the North American Jewish community and my proximity to, not only another culture and way of life, but to another education system. Scandinavia has a strong and successful system of education which requires its students to decide at the age of 16 to choose between a traditionally academic path and what the US would term vocational education, which in this context includes the arts. Most importantly, both of these options prepare students for a four- year university; both of these options provide opportunities for intellectual growth and both lead to fulfilling careers.

In the US, there is a need to rethink antiquated and poorly perceived vocational schooling. There is also a need to rethink Jewish education. Yadaim, is an exciting and dynamic re-imagination of both of these institutions, creating opportunities for students of many talents to find a place to develop and grow while offering them a myriad of potential career paths.

Andrea Rose Cheatham Kasper is an Ed.D. candidate in Jewish Educational Leadership at Northeastern University who is temporarily living with her family in a remote Icelandic village. She has lived around the world and has used these experiences to shape her educational philosophy and crystallize her vision for a new kind of Jewish school focused on applied academics.