YU Program Takes Experimental Out of Experiential Education

Learning the art of creating experiences at the Leichtag Ranch.
Learning the art of creating experiences at the Leichtag Ranch.

By Maayan Jaffe
eJewish Philanthropy

“I can put terms and a methodology to what I was already doing instinctively,” says Weinberg Tzedek Hillel Director Michelle Lackie.

Lackie is referring to one of many gifts she says she received by completing the Yeshiva University (YU) Certificate Program in Experiential Education.

The program’s definition of experiential education: the deliberate infusion of Jewish values and content into memorable, engaging and fun Jewish experiences that impact the formation of Jewish identity. It’s tagline: Professionalize your passion.

“Experiential education relies so much on charisma and creativity and these educators are subject to burn out,” says Shuki Taylor, YU’s director of Jewish service learning and experiential education programs. “For many years, these people were doing what they were doing, saying it was very instinctive and you do it because it feels right. They would have tremendous impact on people’s lives, but their career projections were very short, they were undercompensated and not well recognized for their work.”

Cohort IV of the EJE Certificate Program in action.
Cohort IV of the EJE Certificate Program in action.

The YU program helps to change all of that. Taylor, who helped found and build the certificate program, said it was started after the Jim Joseph Foundation Education Initiative provided a total of $45 million in grants to Hebrew Union College (HUC), the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) and YU to increase the number and enhance the quality of Jewish educators working with Jewish youth and young adults. YU took its $15 million to support the development of the new certificate program – and opened it to Jews of all denominations. Today, in its fifth year, it continues to share best practices and collaborate with HUC and JTS.

The program’s main aim, says Taylor is to “give intentionality and deliberation” to the field of Jewish education. He says by developing and infusing theory, goals and measures to the field, educators can better align their personal and organizational goals and outcomes with field-wide goals and outcomes. They feel more successful and hopeful, too, as they can see a direct correlation amongst a variety of settings in experiential education, so that a lengthy career path is visible and can be carefully orchestrated and developed.

Teaching experientially and learning from experience.
Teaching experientially and learning from experience.

“When these educators come together, they see that there are others that speak the same language,” says Taylor. “Many of these professionals thought they were the only ones who could do what they are doing. The moment they see that they are using a theory – even intuitively – that is the same that someone else is using, it opens doors. … It creates a real sense of purpose.”

Now working with its fifth cohort of professional educators, Taylor says he has seen a major and positive shift by institutions in supporting this type of learning. When the program launched, educators paid their own way and took their vacation days to attend the three in-person seminars required to complete the certificate. Today, the program receives as many as five times as many applicants as in that first year, the applicant educators skew younger – averaging between 28 and 35 years of age – and their paths are paid by their places of work.

“That institutions recognize the importance of this – that is remarkable,” Taylor says.

He continues: “If you don’t invest in educators, educators won’t change. It doesn’t make a difference how much money you put into more programs. If you don’t invest in, excite, train and give a sense of purpose to your educators, nothing will hold.”

Those who have taken part in YU’s program say they agree.

“The YU program was able to give me language and a foundation to be able to talk about the work that we do in an organized way,” says Lior Cyngiser, Vice President, Israel Engagement, Education & Advocacy at Hillel of Greater Toronto. “Every element of the program was methodical, relevant and focused. … We learned about the science of the ‘aha’ moment.”

Cyngiser says he finds he is approaching his work with a new perspective.

“Judaism values the importance of experiences and understands how they impact identity formation,” notes Leah Maas, coordinator mentor, North America Diller. “Experiential education works because it is a holistic approach to understanding people, how they learn, grow and develop.”

Taylor says the focus of the program now is on follow up – how to help experiential educators provide that wow experience and then help their students to learn from it.

“What we don’t want to do is turn Judaism into a roller coaster – what roller coaster will you go on next?” explains Taylor. “We want you to go on the roller coaster ride, and when you come off, to help you understand what it meant when you were scared, how you cope with the experience and how it changed you, before you go on for the next thrill.”