YU Certificate Program Professionalizes Field of Experiential Jewish Education

They work for Hillel, NCSY, Maimonides, Birthright and other Jewish organizations. They range in education and background experience from recent college graduates to seasoned non-profit veterans. Between them, they have accompanied hundreds of people of all ages on Jewish journeys across the globe, engaging in volunteer work and team-building exercises, reflecting on issues of Jewish identity and community, and inspiring others to live meaningful lives centered on Jewish values.

Using their iPads, program participants learn about multi-disciplinary engagement and technology integration.

They are experiential Jewish educators, and thanks to a new certificate program created by Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future and funded through a grant from the Jim Joseph Foundation, they are embarking on an educational journey of their own.

“The field of experiential Jewish education is still in its early stages, with significant opportunities for improvement and important lessons to be learned,” said Dawne Bear Novicoff, senior program officer at the Jim Joseph Foundation. “YU’s Certificate Program is an excellent new training model for the field and will help share best practices that educators can apply directly to their work.”

Novicoff added, “The Jim Joseph Foundation is committed to investing in training opportunities for educators in order to meet the needs of young Jews engaged in Jewish learning in a variety of settings. Over the next several years, we look forward to charting the path of the EJE certificate graduates as they translate their learning into practice and further develop the field of experiential Jewish education.”

Experiential Jewish education seeks to instill Jewish values through innovative and immersive experiences, coupled with intentional reflection and contextualization. However, though this form of education has one of the strongest impacts on the Jewish community today, there has been little research or formal training available for those practicing it professionally.

“One of the biggest challenges in the field of experiential Jewish education is that so much of it relies on the individual who happens to run the program and whether it’s an exciting experience,” said Shuki Taylor, director of the certificate program and the CJF’s department of experiential Jewish education and Jewish service learning. “There is a need to give deliberation to this field so there is a theory to it, so that successful models can be applied, and so we can understand why what we do works and how we can do it better. If you take what we are all doing already one step further and create a narrative with the highest sense of intentionality, imagine how much better it could be.”

That is exactly what the certificate program accomplishes. Through four week-long seminars held in January and June, titled “Imparting Values,” “Creating Experiences,” “Cultivating Communities” and “Self-Development,” participants professionalize and enhance the core skills of their trade. Certificate seminars are also structured similarly to many experiential Jewish education programs, featuring diverse learning styles, site visits, an array of speakers and mentorship opportunities, and group reflection and engagement that pools each member of the cohort’s personal experiences and enables them to learn from each other.

“Our hope when we launched this program was that people working in the field would look at the flier and say, ‘That’s precisely what I’ve been waiting for,’ and that’s exactly what happened,” said Taylor. The program also seeks to lengthen the career lifespan of experiential Jewish educators by providing them with an evolved, transferable set of skills, which Taylor hopes will result in a wider range of job opportunities as well as better compensation.

Mayim Bialik, actress and neuroscientist, discusses the relationship between memory and experience at a Certificate Program seminar in Los Angeles. Program Director Shuki Taylor looks on.

“We’re trying to create a language that’s relevant to all experiential Jewish education professionals anywhere they work so that there is universality to the field.”

Now in its second year, the certificate program celebrated the graduation of its inaugural cohort this June and welcomed its second cohort. Each cohort is comprised of 20 educators, ranging in experience from one to 25 years and representing organizations like B’nai B’rith Youth Organization, Camp Stone, Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls, Chabad, Hillel, Moshava, NCSY, SAR Academy, Mandel JCC, The Joint Distribution Committee, Young Israel and others.

“What drew me to this program is that in our line of work we work full-time to educate and inspire others, but there are few resources in our day-to-day lives that are there to nurture and inspire us,” said Sara Herst, director of student activities at Maimonides School and a member of the program’s second cohort. “For me to come here to a community of educators who work in this field, are as passionate about it as I am, and are ready to support me and share ideas with me, is extremely exciting.”

“I just sent an email to my boss last night about all of the ideas I’m going to be bringing back to work with me,” said Levi Zeffren, regional head advisor and programs coordinator at Midwest NCSY and a fellow member of the second cohort. “I think this model of education lends itself to all facets of my job. I’ll be able to educate a lot more effectively in public schools, unite a staff better for Shabbatons and community work… I’m so fired up about all the epiphanies I’ve had over the last week.

You can learn more about the Yeshiva University Certificate Program in Experiential Education at ejewisheducation.com.