Originally posted at The Avi Chai Foundation Blog
By Mark S. Young
“Chanukah is the Festival of Lights; instead of one day of presents, we have eight crazy nights.” Most of us are familiar with Adam Sandler’s comedic songs of the 1990′s. They made us laugh and, in my experience, gave young Jews a reason to smile by feeling connected to their Judaism through pop-culture when listening during a radio season predominantly oriented to playing Christmas songs.
I was 13 when the original “Chanukah song” came out. Though I already felt engaged to my Judaism at this young age, the song also gave me light, a real sense that my holiday and my religion was relevant and present in this nation and world. I was part of a larger community beyond my family, synagogue or town. Chanukah also engaged me in my personal Judaism: building relationships with my family, empowering me to light the menorah, and reflecting on all the blessings I had in my life.
Now as a Jewish professional, I try to spark this light in others by facilitating such experiences and training emerging experiential educators to do so as well. I see Chanukah as a significant opportunity in the Jewish calendar to engage both Jews and our friends around us, young and old, in Jewish life in an accessible and meaningful way through experiential learning.
During Chanukah, we use all of our senses each night: seeing the lighting of the menorah, hearing the songs like Ma’oz Tzur (Rock of Ages), smelling and tasting the latkes, touching the dreidel and gelt. We play games and participate in multiple rituals that allow for teachable moments, participant creativity, and opportunities for reflection. We gather as families, co-workers and communities to light each night, a prime chance to build on our relationships and cultivate new ones.
Because Chanukah has so many easy and enjoyable access points, it is the ideal holiday to spark engagement through experiential learning. With the right intentionality and facilitation, all participants can feel comfortable, curious, and connected – a sentiment that, with nurturing and follow up, could last far beyond the eighth night.
How can we as educators, parents and communal leaders facilitate such experiences to “light up our fire for Jewish life” for all participants this Chanukah? To start, I believe that the moment when everyone is huddled around to light the menorah offers an opportunity not only to sing the blessings and Ma’oz Tzur, spin a dreidel, and then disperse. It is also a time when Jewish “light” can be kindled through engagement. Here are three constructs of experiential learning with examples that you can bring to your Chanukah celebration. Each component is not mutually exclusive to the next.
Participant Empowerment – Allow your children, school classroom or youth group to create their own ritual, song or actions around Chanukah, which could focus on the lighting and enjoyment of the Chanukah lights. You can share with them the major themes of the holiday – miracles, peoplehood, and perseverance, for example – and let them create! I can recall multiple instances when children left the experience wanting to sing their creation to their parents, excited to bring their own personal spark to the family Chanukah ritual. Empowering learners to create engages the learner.
Relationship building through inquiry – Ask everyone to think about such questions as: “What are miracles in your life?”; “When have you persevered through a struggle and it paid off?”; “What was your favorite Chanukah celebration growing up (or thus far in growing up?)”; or, “Share one object (other than a driedel) that represents what coming together each year to light the menorah means to you.” Participants can respond in pairs, and then each pair shares with the whole group. I’ve recalled instances when participants in such exercises shared how they had not realized until now how or why Chanukah was so meaningful and important to them. They expressed their appreciation of the opportunity to share and learn from others during this group process.
Meaningful Reflection – Building off the previous example, you can ask each member of your family, class, group or staff to bring a journal, pen/paper, or iPad to the menorah lighting each night and reflect on questions such as: “What do you love about lighting the menorah? “What part of the Maccabee story resonates with you?” or, “What else do you enjoy about Chanukah?” Professor Joe Reimer of Brandeis University reminds us that the learning from an experience doesn’t have to end when the experience ends. Creating a personal artifact or documented reflection from the experience can allow the participants to access the experiences after it’s over, further reflecting, learning, and engaging.
These approaches engage participants in a way beyond just showing or doing Chanukah. Children and learners of all ages are encouraged to inquire further into the details and traditions of the holiday. Allowing all participants to reflect, somehow document that reflection, and make it personal increases both the learning of the content and the personal connection to the experience. Personalization – particularly through creativity and sharing in groups that builds relationships – fosters one’s personal connection to the ritual and practices of Jewish life, to everyone else celebrating, and subsequently to k’lal Yisrael as a whole. This is what kindles that internal Jewish light that will keep the eternal light of Jewish life and peoplehood burning.
In a sense, the Sandler song could be all of these things: empowerment to create a new ritual (comical but also meaningful), building relationships with fellow Jews (and thus strengthening peoplehood) and being reflective through writing a song that put his personal stamp on the holiday. This likely wasn’t Sandler’s intention, though he could possibly have had Jewish experiential education on his mind!
In all seriousness, Chanukah has always been special, long before and after Sandler wrote his silly songs about the “Festival of Lights.” It was special because my family, teachers, and colleagues acted as experiential educators, empowering me and those around me to create, build relationships, and reflect – allowing me to truly experience Chanukah and thus learn and be “enlightened” from the experience.
What a wonderfully crazy opportunity to engage! Happy Chanukah everyone, and this year, give thanks too!
Mark Young is Program Coordinator of the Experiential Learning Initiative of the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education at The Jewish Theological Seminary.
Writer: Maya Bernstein
Why are innovations in Jewish education so critical? To reframe the question: if we believe that a Jewish education has something to offer our own community, and that individuals granted this education have something important to offer society at large, isn’t it our most important responsibility to ensure that this education is vibrant, creative, inspiring, relevant, thorough, and profoundly meaningful?
In a culture in which the structures and methodologies of education have been thrust into turmoil by an increasingly flat, virtual world; in which the smartest students graduating from high school are selecting to start their own companies rather than go to Harvard (and are being paid to do so by radical venture capitalists); in which the cost of education in general, and Jewish education in particular, is unaffordable for the majority of families; and in which researchers are showing that life skills, like flexibility, grit, perseverance, and healthy attitudes towards failure, are perhaps the more important aspect of schooling, the Jewish community has no choice but to address the impact of these new realities on its educational philosophy and systems.
“Innovation,” then, is not a passing fad, or hype. It is the word that is currently used to symbolize an approach and a set of tools that assist communities through critical growth and change processes. It does not imply that we need to abandon the old for the new, nor is it necessarily even new. The concepts used in today’s “innovation sector” are to some extent repackaging of concepts that have been used for decades and centuries. But they represent core values and approaches that are important as we attempt to stay nimble, flexible, and able to meet the complex needs of our community.
Here are some of the mindsets of innovation, culled from a variety of thinkers currently exploring and employing these tools in the business and social sectors:
1.Focus & Passion
Unless we can articulate why we care about our work, we will be unable to do our work well. It is critical to take the time to answer the “Who Cares?” question, and to answer it honestly. The expression of why our work is important, what value it brings, is the first step necessary for doing the work well. In his book Leadership Without Easy Answers, Ronald Heifetz writes:
People need inspiration and drive to step out into a void which only later is recognized as a place of creativity and development…The practice of leadership requires, perhaps first and foremost, a sense of purpose – the capacity to find the values that make risk-taking meaningful… Preserving a sense of purpose helps one take setbacks and failures in stride.
2. Profound Optimism
Global activist Lynne Twist, in her book The Soul of Money (pp 43-45), explains that we suffer today from a constant attitude of scarcity:
For me, and for many of us, our first waking thought of the day is “I didn’t get enough sleep.” The next one is “I don’t have enough time.” Whether true or not, that thought of not enough occurs to us automatically before we even think to question or examine it. We spend most of the hours and the days of our lives hearing, explaining, complaining, or worrying about what we don’t have enough of…Before we even sit up in bed, before our feet touch the floor, we’re already inadequate, already behind, already losing, already lacking something…We go to sleep burdened by those thoughts and wake up to that reverie of lack…
This “reverie of lack” is unfertile ground for creativity and exploration, the key ingredients of innovation, and it is not only rampant in society at large, but is an unspoken shadow in the Jewish community. Our passion for Jewish education cannot be grounded in a fear of Jewish extinction, of anti-Semitism, of intermarriage, or even of Jewish survival. Jewish life must be motivated not by what we are afraid of losing, or not having enough of, but by what it contributes to our lives. An attitude of optimism, of hope, of anti-lack, is critical for continued innovation in Jewish life.
3. Listen to the People & Collaborate
Innovation is a democratic process. It thrives on collaboration between people with different skill-sets, experiences, approaches, and beliefs. It assumes that the experience of a student in a school is as important as the perspective of the Head of School, and it creates opportunities to make the lesser authoritative voices heard. Innovations enter systems from a wide variety of streams, and it is more likely that insights and new ideas will emerge when there are multiple streams flowing into the system. IDEO’s Tom Kelly, in his book Ten Faces of Innovation, writes:
Go out and find some real people. Listen to their stories. Don’t ask for the main point. Let the story run its course. Like flowing water, it will find its own way, at its own pace. And if you’ve got patience, you’ll learn more than you might imagine.
In order to grow and stay relevant, we need to ensure that the widest spectrum of perspectives is included in the conversation and imagination of what might be.
4. Be Creative
We take our work seriously, as we should. (After all, it’s no easy job having our core text direct us to be a “light unto the nations”). But we sometimes take ourselves too seriously for our own good. Yes, the education of our children is no game, no laughing matter. But unless we learn how to be more playful in its design, we may look up and realize that the kids have gone to play somewhere more fun. If we want to design inspiring, exciting learning experiences, we need to employ exciting, inspiring methodologies. Innovation thrives in playful soil. Our planning meetings, conferences, and board meetings can benefit from some more art, theater, outdoor experiences, from more play, to help re-train us to be more open, more relaxed, and even sometimes silly, because that is the state in which we can begin to be inspired and inspiring.
5. Be Patient
Real change takes time. As Chip & Dan Heath, in their book Switch: How to Change Things when Change is Hard, write:
Change isn’t an event; it’s a process. There is no moment when a monkey learns to skateboard; there’s a process. There is no moment when a child learns to walk; there’s a process. And there won’t be a moment when your community starts to invest more in its school system, or starts recycling more, or starts to beautify its public spaces; there will be a process. To lead a process requires persistence.
Innovation can happen only when we slow down, and feel that our challenges are no less important, but perhaps slightly less urgent.
6. Failure is Educative
What do successful people and ventures have most in common? Failure. Tina Seelig, a professor at Stanford University, in a talk on The Art of Teaching Entrepreneurship and Innovation, shared that she asks her students to “make failure resumes – the resume of their biggest screw-ups, personal, professional, and academic. And the idea is – it is OK to fail as long as you learn something from it.” The idea is also that if you don’t allow yourself to fail, you might not grow. Mark Zuckerberg, in his letter to Shareholders upon Facebook’s S-1 filing, says: “This means – take risks! We have another saying: ‘The riskiest thing is to take no risks.’ We encourage everyone to make bold decisions, even if that means being wrong some of the time.”
7. Stay Lean – Experiment, and Learn
Finally, we know that new ideas and projects can be tremendously resource-consuming. Often, this prevents us from tackling them – who has the budget to make the changes we ideally would like to see? This should not prevent us from making those changes. Instead, we should devise small experiments to test our ideas and assumptions, learn from them, be less afraid to make mistakes because there is less at risk, and then revise them, and try again. Only after we have run multiple experiments are we ready to ask for the investment of time, and capital and human resources, to make larger changes. In his book The Lean Startup, Eric Reis writes: “Successful entrepreneurs do not give up at the first sign of trouble, nor do they persevere the plane right into the ground. Instead, they possess a unique combination of perseverance and flexibility.”
Together, these mindsets, and the tools that come with them, can help pave paths that have the potential to lead us towards a better future. I believe that the first step in creating meaningful, necessary growth in our educational spaces is to educate and challenge ourselves to experiment with these approaches. This is a radical culture-shift for the Jewish community, and may on the surface seem deceptively simple. But the values of the innovation sector are actually very much aligned with core Jewish values; these are the values that have allowed our community to keep its traditions and beliefs alive through so many centuries, and our community can both gain from the innovation sector’s approach, and contribute to it. With an attitude of plenty, of hope, of patience and passion, and of willingness to laugh and get back on our feet each time we slip, who knows what we might build?
Maya Bernstein, the Strategic Design Officer at UpStart Bay Area, is a graduate of Midreshet Lindenbaum, a women’s Yeshiva in Jerusalem, Columbia University and Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, Maya has lived and taught in Belarus, Germany, Israel, and China. Maya blogs about the joys and challenges of modern motherhood for Lilith magazine.
Change is hard. It takes time, patience, a lot of soul searching, and a community that is willing to take risks. It also takes some hand holding. I’m not sure anyone really tells you that when you first start any change project. Maybe they tell you that change is “necessary” if you want to stay relevant; or maybe they tell you that everyone is changing, so you better get on board, too; or maybe they tell you that it’s all about the money- that the driving factor behind the change initiative is economics.
Regardless of what they say, I want to let you know that change is hard- really hard. But it is also very much worth the blood, sweat, and tears (of both happiness and frustration).
The Temple Israel Center Religious School, now known as Shorashim, (Roots), has been involved in the process of change for the last five years. It began with The Experiment in Congregational Education as TIC reimagined what our Religious School could be. We moved this process forward with LOMED. LOMED is an initiative through the Jewish Education Project that guides synagogue schools in the creation and design of new kinds of learning experiences. It challenges educators and their communities to clearly articulate their vision and goals, and to rethink what education should look and feel like. We have been working with LOMED for the last three years and will continue to do so next year, as well. Through this process, LOMED has provided us with a mentor, a coalition educator who works with us 10 hour a week, and a cohort of over 50 synagogues to learn from and with. Change takes a team effort in every sense of the word.
With the guidance of LOMED, we have redesigned what our learning looks like and where it takes place. We have also redefined who our learners and educators are.
The first crucial step was to create a vision of education and to clearly define our priority goals, which are building community and living Jewishly. To build community, relationships had to be at the center of everything we did. As educators, we know just how important the educator- learner relationship is; however, there is a big difference between knowing it and being intentional about it. The same is true for building relationships between learners. Creating a safe, non-judgmental environment in which ideas and questions can be explored in depth means that there must exist relationships between learners.
To live Jewishly meant that the learning could not be confined to the classroom, and that creating relationships with parents and families was crucial. We also knew if we wanted what we were teaching to be lived, we needed to take learning outside of the four walls of the classroom. Where and when learning took place became the focus of many of our discussions, and important decisions and changes followed.
All the change that has taken place here at TIC was less about making “school more like camp” and more about aligning the design and settings of learning, the role of the educator, and the language that we use to our vision and priority goals. That took hard work- and it was worth every minute.
When I was first approached to become a member of the Ramah Service Corps and create “Ramah style” programs to implement in the synagogue setting, I was thrilled. I would be given the opportunity to bring the magic of Ramah to others through experiences and activities often found only at camp. To me, Ramah has always been a place where campers are proud to learn and experience what it means to be Jewish, where they can participate in activities that make Jewish learning enjoyable, and a place where programs are innovative and fresh. It was my hope, that bringing this “Ramah approach” into the synagogue and school setting would allow the students to see that learning can be entertaining and worthwhile, and that more specifically, Jewish learning is not just found exclusively from textbooks or classrooms.
When planning programs for synagogues across the southeast region, I often found myself remembering activities implemented during past summers in camp. I planned an Israel exploration, where students learned about the culture, geography, and foods of Israel in a deeper way. Instead of just a surface-level understanding of the sites in Israel and learning about the various places in Israel, students dug their way through an “archeological dig” to find tiles that they could use to decorate wooden Jewish stars. For a more engaging way to learn about Israeli foods, students experimented in making their own hummus and participated in a blind taste test of homemade and store bought hummus. They learned Hebrew phrases to use when asking for food in the “Israeli restaurant” that we created. Students quickly saw that the features and ideas they learned in textbooks could come alive in the class. They became excited to continue learning about Israel and expressed hope about visiting Israel one day.
Like many activities in a school setting however, it is a challenge to get the students excited when first beginning programs. Students had to see that the activities offered a variety of experiential opportunities, and that there was more than just traditional classroom learning. Once students began having positive experiences in the activities, I found that that this momentum carried into future programs. In fact, students were stepping up to contribute Jewish knowledge of their own to the exercises. For example, when asked to decorate their favorite Jewish holiday on a cake, the students requested to include three facts about the holiday and how it is celebrated. The students were creating their own connections, taking an activity that was about creativity, and adding additional meaning to the experiences. It was truly amazing to see.
Looking back on the programs, I found that they not only increased student enjoyment of classroom activities, but also allowed the students to see that learning did not just have to take place in the classroom or with a teacher lecturing to them. The students also asked for more opportunities to participate in these “camp style” activities. It was at these moments that I knew that these students were not only learning the lesson, but were having a Jewish experience. They were becoming just as passionate as I am about these Jewish programs, and they wanted more. To me, it’s not just about teaching information to students, or participation in activities that implement Jewish values. Instead, it’s about blending the learning of Jewish values and ideals in a way that allows all ages of students to fully experience the subject matter, using a variety of techniques. Taking the idea of ‘learning Jewish’ into the more experiential ‘being Jewish’ brings a level of interest and excitement that is not usually seen in the typical classroom. This is something seen every day in the camp setting, and can be brought into the community setting. This is what I learned from Camp Ramah, and I am blessed to have been able to share it with others outside of the camp environment. I want the students to believe and feel excited about being Jewish and experiencing Jewish ideals and values. That is what I got from Camp Ramah, that passion and excitement, and to be given the opportunity to share that with future generations is truly an amazing experience.
By Rabbi Paul Steinberg
I hated Hebrew school as a kid. So, I suppose it’s kind of ironic, perhaps funny, that I now oversee a Hebrew school and am working so hard to develop a program that is meaningful and, dare I say, enjoyable. Admittedly, it’s not easy. It’s not easy because there is a lot for Hebrew school to contend with. The hours of the day and competition with other extracurricular activities are just two of the major obstacles. But let’s face it, a sweeping challenge is that Hebrew school is countercultural. Heck, Judaism is countercultural, and Hebrew school may be the most explicit manifestation of its expression for most of our families. That is to say, it is countercultural for a kid to go to another “school” after school and/or on Sunday mornings to learn about something that is hardly relevant or possibly totally irrelevant to the rest of their lives. Hebrew, Tefilah, Shabbat, and Kashrut exist only within the walls of the synagogue for many of our kids.
This leads to why I am a bit skeptical of leveraging the camp experience as our model par excellence for a new Hebrew school paradigm. Camp is a completely isolated experience from the world and there (like in Israel) Judaism is no longer countercultural. It has its own culture, its own biorhythms, its own model of leadership, and there is an inimitable, calm independence kids get there. Jews can be Jews all day and night there. Let’s just remember: we have to “go away” for the camp experience.
By the way, we also have to admit that, for a large number of campers, the Jewish component is their least favorite and many merely tolerate it. I know kids that refuse to go to Camp Ramah, or have abandoned it after one summer, because there’s “too much praying.” In fact, many of us who have been to Ramah have witnessed or perhaps had to personally force teenagers to begrudgingly show up for their Yahadut class. I am certainly a Ramah fan and my family is a Ramah family, but we should be cautious as to not exaggerate its Jewish educational successes when staking our resources and ideas upon the model.
Looking to experiential education and informal, camp models to give us tools to address the challenges of Hebrew school is surely a good thing. Before we go too far in changing our paradigm, however, let’s make sure we have implemented and applied the best practices that could accompany any program. Here are a few:
1. Raising Prestige and Denying the Negative Stigma
It is too often that we hear of Hebrew school in negative terms. It is often devalued both implicitly and explicitly, even the butt of Jewish jokes. Indeed, some of the recent conversations around Hebrew school take their assumptions of its failure too far. The truth is that there is a lot of good happening in Hebrew schools that is often overlooked. There needs to be a lot more “good-mouthing” about our Hebrew schools. Student work should be held to standards of excellence and showcased throughout the synagogue. The rabbi should get to know the Hebrew school staff and classes, and then exclaim from the bimah of the wonders of the learning and teaching that is going on.
Moreover, it is not uncommon for synagogue leadership to refer to the Hebrew school as an economic drain and that the synagogue “subsidizes” the Hebrew school. That conversation needs to be turned upside down. It may in fact be just as accurate to say that the Hebrew school subsidizes the synagogue. A lot of the membership money comes from parents who simply want to enroll their children in Hebrew school, adhering to minimal years of B’nai Mitzvah requirements. Most people don’t join synagogues for the services or the sermons. It is more common that they join for the school and, if they like it and find it worthwhile, they’ll continue to pay membership and stay. Thus, the culture and language around Hebrew school from the synagogue leadership must change, so that, instead of it being viewed as a separate appendage, it is referred to as a centerpiece of the mission of the synagogue and as the primary educational organ of the institution. Increased prestige will improve the quality and social forces surrounding it.
2. Ongoing Staff Development
I came into the synagogue and Hebrew school world as a Director of Jewish Studies and Hebrew at a Solomon Schechter school. The first thing that struck me about Hebrew school is that the teachers never met to discuss the program, student work, planning, or problems. In fact, many of the teachers didn’t know each other. I wondered how we were teaching and modeling community if the staff itself wasn’t a community.
Therefore, when I moved to running a Hebrew school, my first act was to establish a weekly, two-hour staff development meeting. I trimmed down the budget, cutting many line items in half in order to pay my teachers to attend this meeting. That’s right, my teachers are paid to learn and it has been worth every penny.
For those two hours, we study Jewish texts together, as well as discuss aspects of general education including developmental psychology, school vision, classroom management, and lesson planning. We also make time for co-planning, sharing ideas, engaging in critical group protocols, and celebrating each other as colleagues and friends. For me, as the leader, this is a lot of work to prepare, but I cannot imagine a school without ongoing meetings that involved genuine engagement, as opposed to monthly ones wherein policy paperwork is simply read aloud.
This seems to be an area where funding could play a large role. National philanthropic organizations could be helping to train lead educators to be staff developers and assign individual staff development consultants to each synagogue (the Hebrew program NETA, has such a development model). Hebrew school staff development workbooks and guides could be created. We need to incentivize our talented and bright young people to teach in Hebrew school and paid staff development is one way to do it. Simply put, we haven’t yet invested in developing the “textpeople” that we need our Hebrew school faculty to be. This will have a profound impact on the teachers, inspiring them, nurturing them, and growing their sense of self-worth in the community, which reverberates throughout the whole community.
3. Parental Investment
Ultimately, all educational roads lead back to the home. Heschel is to have once said, “Judaism is caught, not taught.” That has actually become the catchphrase of our program. It means that everything we do, and especially everything parents do and say about Hebrew school is being learned. If mom complains about the hours of Hebrew school or the schlepping carpool, it sends a message to the child about its value. If a child brings home a mezuzah that she made in Hebrew school, which goes in the trash the next day, while the 100% math test is posted to the fridge for weeks, it sends a message to the child. If the dinner table conversation is always about school, homework, TV, or sports and it’s never about Torah or Israel, it sends a message to the child.
First, parents need to be involved and valued “prosumers” (as Jonathan Woocher called it) in the Hebrew school. There need to be committees and task forces to do the kinds of things that such committees do in any good school. They should be fundraising, organizing staff appreciation events, recruiting, setting up community and class events (e.g., Sunday brunch in the sukkah, Shabbat meals at people’s homes, Purim booths, arranging oneg for children and family Shabbat services) and acting as a sounding board for the administration. They need to learn the program and communicating the mission to other parents and constituents.
Second, parents need to have their own learning opportunities. Not as the general part of the adult education program, but just for them. This can be family education, but it also has to be education just for parents. They represent their own constituency, with many interests that are specifically relevant to them about parenting and family, for working parents and single parents, and how Judaism provides wisdom and guidance in these areas. We need broad educational opportunities for all parents, but also parent havurot. This group needs to be a valued group and given more places to connect with one another and their Judaism.
4. Re-orienting B’nai Mitzvah
American Jewry has created a monster out of the B’nai Mitzvah. B’nai Mitzvah dominate much of synagogue life. They impact the spiritual life through Shabbat services; they dominate the financial life through enrollment and B’nai Mitzvah fees; they effect the social and cultural life through the parties and programming calendar; and they deeply influence the educational goals of the Hebrew school. All of this is an institutional disaster waiting to happen, as institutional loyalty wanes and the cheaper route of private tutoring and ceremonies become more popular.
Focusing specifically on the educational influence of B’nai Mitzvah, we discover at least two significant problems. One is that we risk reducing the entirety of Hebrew school and Jewish education to preparation for a performative ceremony. This diminishes our enduring educational goals toward transmitting a sense of positive Jewish identification and connection. Furthermore, it sends a message that once the Bar or Bat Mitzvah is over, so is the Jewish education, violating the fundamental Jewish values of Torah Lishmah and life-long learning for the sake of spiritual and moral betterment. This is why the post-B’nai Mitzvah dropout-itis phenomenon is so heartbreaking.
Secondly, the emphasis of the B’nai Mitzvah in our educational program damages Jewish prayer and spirituality by virtue of the fact that prayer is reduced to reading and chanting skills. There are countless Jews who have spent months, even years, preparing for their Bar or Bat Mitzvah – a ceremony of prayer – yet they are repulsed by Jewish prayer, finding it dull, meaningless, and irrelevant. B’nai Mitzvah need to remain a spiritual lifecycle event for the whole family and disconnected from the Hebrew school; the Hebrew school cannot be viewed as a B’nai Mitzvah training lab. This issue is largely an organizational structural issue, which can be fixed.
Much of what I have said above is nothing new. We have just not asserted the political will to make the necessary changes. Educational directors may complain about such issues, but, for whatever reason, many synagogue boards have not acted upon them. There are cultural and organizational solutions that will require taking some risk, maybe even a financial risk in restructuring some costs and dues as they apply to Hebrew school families. I am suggesting that taking such risks are necessary because the long term sustainability of our synagogue and Hebrew school model is in jeopardy; a programmatic change in the Hebrew school is a mere scratch on the surface of the major sociological and organizational problems at play.
So, given the foregoing discussion, is there anything at all that we can learn from camp? Of course. Camp has a way of offering independence, autonomy, and power to its campers and young counselors. Campers, especially as they grow older, have great say in their projects and programs. Genuine project-based learning happens at camp. This is not simply assigning projects to kids to complete, but asking them to create something that meets both their interests and the teacher’s educational goals. Then they are asked to develop it and employ outside skills and higher-level understanding, such as application, synthesis and evaluation. The counselors or teachers are facilitators – “guides on the side” rather than “sages on the stage.” Ron Berger writes about this clearly in his book An Ethic of Excellence. Hebrew school should be a project-based learning endeavor that incorporates formal, informal, and experiential learning models, utilizing technology as an ally.
Again, any model or solution we raise will require the four points mentioned above because ours is ultimately a sociological and cultural challenge, not a programmatic one. We should feel compelled to collaborate on these issues on national, communal, and institutional levels. There are a lot of wonderful people in the world of synagogues and Hebrew schools, and I pray that we will progress with hope and enthusiasm into this new dimension of Jewish life in America.
By Rabbi Joshua Rabin
I have never been comfortable with the question, “How we can make schools more like camp?” Yes, Jewish camps and other experiential programs are blessed with many elements that create holistic Jewish experiences leaving children with a warm feeling inside of them. However, camps are not bound by the parameters by which most schools operate, balancing the needs of general and Jewish studies in day schools, and trying to make Jewish education a priority amidst countless others in congregational schools. In truth, I find this question insulting to educators who do not work in camps, as it implies that educational institutions can only learn from camps, and that camps need not learn from anyone else.
Joseph Schwab writes that all educational experiences contain four “commonplaces”: the learner, the teacher, the subject matter, and the milieu (or context). When we think about how to use what is best about camps in schools, or vice versa, we cannot ignore the role that context plays in constructing an educational experience. For example, while a Jewish studies teacher at Schechter School and a staff member at USY or Camp Ramah might impart the same ideas about Shabbat to the same child, the context in which the child receives those ideas immeasurably impacts how the child interprets those ideas. By extension, when we are making the claim that schools need to become more like camp, we cannot forget that teaching Shabbat in a camp context is fundamentally different than teaching Shabbat in a school context. As educators, since we can identify strengths and weaknesses to teaching in each context, our task is to use the relative strength of each context to maximize the entirety of a child’s Jewish education.
As a result, rather than asking how school can become more like camp, we should ask how educators can teach one another how to use context to create robust educational experiences that are diverse and distinct. For example, a congregational school or day school will never be able to replicate the living and learning environment created at USY or Camp Ramah, yet experiential educators from USY or Camp Ramah are uniquely suited to help those schools see where their curriculum can offer more experiential opportunities for Jewish growth. At the same time, while a summer camp cannot develop the rigorous standards and benchmarks that should exist for a child who attends day school from kindergarten through grade twelve, day school educators can help educators in experiential settings see opportunities to create a more defined progression of skills, understandings and concepts to students each kinnus, each summer session, or each summer trip. No matter the subject, Jewish educators must see all the assets that each educational setting can bring to a person’s Jewish education, and then use the distinct advantages of each context to collaborate with other educators to maximize the potential of every Jewish educational institution.
Famously, my teacher Jack Wertheimer writes that we must “link the silos” to increase the impact of Jewish education. While Professor Wertheimer uses this term to outline the importance of creating connections between Jewish educational institutions, I would add that an equally important priority in Jewish education must be “tearing down the silos” of assuming that one style of education belongs in camp, another in school, another in synagogue, and so on. The more we highlight the unique strengths found in each educational context, the more educators will feel challenged to maximize the effectiveness of every Jewish educational experience, and allow different institutions to impact Jewish learners in many and varied ways.
USY Education in a Congregational School Setting
Guest Post by: Amy Dorsch
Reframe Key Question: What obstacles might stand in the way of ReFraming Jewish education in complementary schools to be more experiential? How would you overcome those obstacles?
Congregational Supplementary schools are faced with challenges to restructure and reimage their content, goals and mission. For families that prioritize Bar/Bat Mitzvah preparation, the complaint may be that learners will not be siddur fluent (content). What looks like “silliness and games” may not be regarded by parents or seasoned educators as educationally valuable (method). Learners who are encouraged to “do Jewishly” or perform Jewish values and concepts through action, are often not given the opportunity at home to reinforce the Jewish life skills they encounter through experiential learning. Thus, Judaism becomes knowing without doing, learning that ends once the learner has left the classroom or the school.
Solutions? United Synagogue Youth offers a number of approaches to educate experientially and transform content to action. In a USY setting, learners are obtaining knowledge by experiencing the content emotionally, physically, spiritually, socially and intellectually. Due to this “whole person” experiential learning approach, USYers are empowered to weave Judaism into their everyday lives. How is this done?
Participation can either be through short term chapter programs or higher impact weekend retreats or immerse summer experiences. Although Congregational school mirrors the time frame of a lower impact chapter program, the following examples are a start as to how congregational schools can still apply USY experiential methods and ideas to “reframe” the short term program for higher impact.
Diverse methods that speak to the learners allow deeper impact without the immerse longer term program.
Reality dictates that most congregational schools are limited by time and do not necessarily have the luxury of long term high impact programming such as a USY Convention or Summer Experience. The aforementioned ideas are rooted in concepts that can in fact be applied to a two hour congregational school experience. USY illustrates how congregational involvement can be more experiential even on a short term basis. These experiences, shared by a community of learners and taught by encouraging and caring role models can transform a two hour “extracurricular activity” into an inspiring way of life.
Originally posted at ejewishphilanthropy.com
by Aaron Starr
Most conversations about Jewish education focus on the “how” and rarely get to the “what.” Should we invert the two?
When those of us who are leaders in the world of Jewish education seek to define and, consequently, improve synagogue-based schools, we appropriately desire to engage the most cutting edge of educational delivery methods – and, for marketing purposes, to be known by our methodology. Consequently, the prevailing trade literature overwhelmingly focuses on the latest strategies for reaching our students, but focuses little on the content that qualifies as a successful Jewish education.
Unfortunately, discussing educational delivery methods before ascertaining how we can possibly teach our students the skills, knowledge and emotions necessary to live meaningful Jewish lives and give them the opportunity to express their Judaism in less than six hours each week, is like asking at the Seder why on Shabbat we have two loaves of challah but at the Seder we have three pieces ofmatzah. Good questions … just not the “right” questions.
Rather, we as educational leaders in conjunction with our synagogue families must first decide the core elements of Jewish life that will hopefully serve as the foundation for the students’ lifelong Jewish learning. In the scope of the religious school year, our children cannot and will not learn everything they need to about Judaism; it is simply impossible. The core elements, then, must consist of 1) skills and knowledge we want our students to gain familiarity with, understanding of, and mastery over. But we have to make those decisions while admitting to ourselves that we have less than six hours per week of instructional time, and that realistically we cannot teach all that we want or even need to. Moreover, 2) the core elements must also contain uplifting opportunities for our children and their parents to engage in spirited Jewish prayer services and to perform significant acts of helping those-in-need, within that limited “Jewish time.” And, 3) we have to figure out how to inculcate the skills and knowledge and offer real time Jewish experiences while still employing every single creative and exciting educational strategy so that our students will truly love being Jewish.
Getting real about the fact that our synagogue-based youth education programs are no longer supplementary schools, but the primary source for our families’ Jewish expression is the greatest challenge facing religious school in the 21st century – not whether we should use computers or arts and crafts in the classroom.
In the best secular schools, teachers utilize a variety of instructional methods within one classroom. Why in Jewish schools do we often seek one approach?
A decade ago, family education was the rage; we were working tirelessly to engage adults and their children/grandchildren in either shared or parallel learning experiences, grappling with the fact that adults and children learn in different ways. Excitement over family education transitioned to discussions of the use technology in the classrooms. We spent tens of thousands of dollars to bring in school computer labs, wireless internet access, and trained our teachers how to integrate technology into the classroom and social media into their communication with parents. Now the latest buzz in best-practices is the camp-style approach to learning. We wrestle with the extent to which we use camp terminology (“counselors” instead of “teachers”), camp-style rewards (e.g., badges, buttons or ribbons), experiential and informal educational techniques, and the extent to which we integrate art, drama and music into our already short school week.
Of course, when used appropriately, all of these educational approaches are impactful. There is no doubt that methodology matters when it comes to educating our children about Jewish skills and knowledge, as well as imbuing them with a sense of ahavat Torah and ahavat Yisrael. In fact, we know every teacher ought to utilize all of these approaches: “Train a child in the way he is most apt to learn, and that child will not depart from what s/he has learned, even in old age” (Proverbs 22:6, paraphrased). In the secular world, the interdisciplinary approach to education is called differentiated learning or multiple-intelligences, and it is common practice that a teacher must engage in whatever style of instruction will best suit each of his/her students. Yet, unless our goals and objectives are clear and realistic within our limited frameworks, then the method of educational delivery employed becomes simply theater and the discussions in which we engage children and parents becomes a sharing of mutual ignorance.
In previous generations, Jewish families actively participated in the religious life of the synagogue and practiced Jewish rituals in their home. Now that this is no longer the case, what implications does that have for the religious school?
In most synagogue communities, Shabbat and holiday service attendance among families with children is down, compared to previous generations. In most Jewish homes the level of ritual observance is also waning; and, I believe, throughout our country, families should spend more time engaging together in acts of repairing the world. Thus, in addition to offering innovative educational approaches that teach and assess skills and knowledge, we must create within the scheduled religious school time age-appropriate, meaningful spiritual outlets and Tikkun Olam opportunities for our families. Synagogue schools must find the time to transform t’filah lessons from “just” practicing the words of liturgy to also include opportunities for children to actually pray; for most children, these t’filah sessions are their only formal opportunity for communal prayer. The liturgy is important though, and with the prayers our children have learned, schools can establish weekly services in which those children lead their parents in prayer – even if the services are Sunday morning rather than Saturday morning or Friday night. T’filahin the religious school must be both lab and practicum.
Synagogue leaders must clarify expectations of parents for home-based rituals. At Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield, Michigan, we recently began sending home one page fliers about each holiday that include not only the background on the holiday and the synagogue service schedule for those holidays, but 4-5 mitzvotassociated with each particular holiday. Never do we provide all the halachahassociated with each celebration, but we consciously choose to include in those fliers a few, specific rituals that can be accomplished. Increasing the practice of Judaism in the home and Judaism in the synagogue is a primary role of the religious school, but no longer can we assume that what the synagogue school provides is being reinforced or practiced in the home. We must give tools, ideas and resources to parents as well, and support our parents in their own personal journeys.
Yet prayer and ritual experiences are not alone in their importance. When I came to Shaarey Zedek five years ago, we sought to make a bold statement about the role community service must play in our families and in our congregation. Thus we instituted Project Tikkun Olam: an annual family day of service for the entire Religious School. Each year we dedicate a full morning – three hours – toward repairing the world. While there are certainly learning opportunities built into the activities, the main goal is to provide service to those in need. Families with children of all ages call it one of the highlights of the Shaarey Zedek experience. Certainly, throughout the year each class of students engage in age-appropriate service learning opportunities. But, given our limited number of classroom hours and the lengthy list of skills and knowledge we hope to impart to our students, how can we add more of these important opportunities that not only allow for fulfillment of mitzvot but bring families together in such a powerful way, within the fixed religious school schedule? The situation is the same in all of our communities: religious school hours are families’ Jewish time. If schools do not schedule prayer and community service experiences in addition to study, the vast majority of Jewish children will not participate in formal prayer and large-scale acts of tikkun olam.
If examining our educational methodology is not the sole way of achieving success in the religious school, what must we do to create synagogue-based youth education programs that speak to the 21st century Jew?
For most educational leaders, we know how to write curriculum; we know how to establish the KNOWs, DOs, and FEELs our students ought to gain. But we are hard pressed, especially when we ask our teachers to use creative approaches, to accept the reality that we cannot teach everything we consider essential to living a Jewish life AND figure out how to give our families real-time Jewish experiences. No matter how creative or effective our faculty, there are not enough hours in the week, for example, to teach children how to read prayer-book Hebrew, write Hebrew cursive, and speak modern Hebrew. Let’s be honest: to try to accomplish a little bit of each is actually to fail at them all, and this is true whenever our curricula aim for tremendous breadth over meaningful depth. Rather, we must turn toward our families to partner with us in the creation of articulate mission and vision statements along with clear, assessable, realistic KNOWs, DOs, and FEELs so that we can create effective Jewish educational, spiritual and emotional avenues for our families. Only then, having established achievable goals that support the school’s mission and vision, may we decide the most successful differentiated learning approaches to accomplish our sacred lessons.
At Congregation Shaarey Zedek, we recently decided on eighteen specific stories from the Torah that we want mastered in our fourth through sixth grades. Mastery includes understanding the stories as literature, recognizing their role within the broader story of the Jewish people, and appreciating the dynamic interplay between Jewish life and our sacred texts. It means being able to explain specificmitzvot that come forth from the text, its p’shat or drash, and the modern-day fulfillment of those mitzvot. In other words, our students will be able to list the commandments of welcoming guests, visiting the sick, brit milah and kashrut asmitzvot found in the story of Abraham and Sarah welcoming the angels and expound upon, how as Conservative Jews, we understand and accept these mitzvotin a particular way. Delving deep into these eighteen stories, however, also means that there are countless other “important” stories, including a parashah byparashah study of the Torah that our children simply will not receive. Moreover, our Hebrew curriculum focuses almost exclusively on the Shabbat morning liturgy from the Torah service through the concluding prayers, as well as the Friday night dinner table rituals. During their time in religious school, our students might never be exposed in more than a passing conversation to P’sukei D’zimra, Kabbalat Shabbat or, sadly, learn to write Hebrew letters in cursive. But, given our time constraints, school mission and other goals, this is a reality we have knowingly chosen to accept. Then again, we recently began a process of Family Covenant: a sacred, personalized contract for accessible, meaningful, tangible steps toward greater, more mindful Jewish living in which their families might actively pursue such knowledge or experiences outside the religious school schedule.
Synagogue schools’ curriculum guides, mission and vision statements must clearly articulate its institution’s goals so that it can adequately provide for and assess its students’ learning. Moreover, the goals within those guides and statements must reflect the fact that – for most religious schools – there are less than six hours each week of the school year to educate children and their families. Such goal statements should reflect the reality – again, for most if not all schools, that the majority of our families do not come regularly on Shabbat and holidays, but on Sundays and midweek. And, finally, the Jewish community in America today is obligated to address the fact that religious schools are no longer supplementary schools, but the primary avenue of Jewish education and spiritual outlet for children and their parents. These are the key points of reality that a successful school must address to build a Jewish experience that is meaningful and relevant to 21st century families.
In less than six hours each week of the school year, we must help our students discover the knowledge of how Jews pray and create a forum for the experience of prayer. We must help our students develop a knowledge of Jewish ethics and provide for them the opportunity in time and resources to engage in mitzvot bein adam l’makom and bein adam l’chavero. We must help our students wrestle with sacred scripture and relate it to their hyper-assimilated, very modern lifestyle. These requirements are not native to the supplementary school model; they are new realities of Jewish life in 21st century America.
To be successful, the synagogue school must utilize camp-style experiences along with technology. The synagogue school must provide meaningful, engaging family education opportunities and reach out to parents and children individually. The synagogue school must offer its students art, drama, music, chevruta, and more. But creative educational methodologies alone will not succeed in inspiring a new generation of Jews. To be successful, synagogue curricula must be concise and practical with measurable goals and religious school teachers must employ every creative, multi-faceted educational strategy imaginable. Why is this religious school different from all other religious schools? Because it is a school that is asking all the right questions, and answering them as well.
Aaron Starr is a rabbi at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield, Michigan and past president of the Metropolitan Detroit Board of Jewish Educators. He is the author of Taste of Hebrew from URJ Press and Tradition vs. Modernity: The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) and Conservative Halachah, published in the Journal of Conservative Judaism.