Hidden Ingredients

Excerpted from MyJewishLearning

By Avi Katz Orlow

Teachers, curricula, grades, rulers, pencils, erasers, chalk, markers, handouts, hands up, heads up, mouths shut, black boards, white boards, smart boards, and (all too often bored) students: the ingredients of formal education. If we were to reject these in the name of awaking our children to the joy and splendor of Jewish life, we would be relegated to the realm of informal education. But calling it informal seems too limiting. By calling it informal we are defining this mode of education by what it is not, as compared to defining it by what it is. That is why I prefer to call it experiential education. But, what is experiential education? In general the core of excellent experiential education is plainly put: excellent education. But if experiential education does not follow the recipe of formal education, what is its secret in ingredient?

So even before I get started I want to say that I believe assessment, evaluation, and accountability are crucial to the educational project, but here I want to explore what positive things happen in the educational kitchen when we take away the grades and remove the perception of judgment. With this move away from presumptive hierarchy, the weight of the education needs to be born out on the shoulders of the relationships. It is only when the educators meet the students’ basic needs and achieve a mutual trust that we get cooking. In an environment where we are giving grades we need to be transparent, otherwise we run the risk of being unethical. How can a student be held accountable for something that they did not know that they were going to be tested on?

Click here to read the rest of the article.

This article was published in MyJewishLearning on March 13, 2014.

Rabbi Avi Orlow is the Director of Jewish Education at the Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC).

What is it About the Jewish Camping Model?

Camp is one of the dominant models used to examine what makes experiential education work. Successful Jewish camps are celebrated for their ability to impart core Jewish values and positive Jewish experiences to their campers. Many experiential programs and day school initiatives lean heavily on the research of what makes camp experiences so meaningful.

The Foundation for Jewish Camp and Ramah, two major players in the Jewish camp world, have contributed significant research.

A recent report by the FJC, in collaboration with the Jim Joseph Foundation, focused on an incubator program analyzing five different specialty camp programs over a six-year period. Some of the most consistent conclusions centered around the many ways camps are shaping Jewish youth today. These include campers’ increased amounts of “feeling Jewish,” general Jewish knowledge, building and maintaining Jewish connections, overall involvement in Jewish life, incorporating Jewish values into their lives, and  self confidence.

Similarly, the FJC’s One Happy Camper program, which aims to increase the number of Jewish youth enrolling in Jewish summer camp, found “compelling evidence that overnight Jewish camp is a proven means of building Jewish identity, community, and leadership.” In addition to general enthusiastic satisfaction with Jewish camp and, by extension, Jewish values, the study’s figures concluded that adults who attended overnight Jewish camp, “are 30% more likely to donate to a Jewish Federation, 37% more likely to light candles regularly for Shabbat, 45% more likely to attend synagogue at least once per month, and 55% more likely to feel very emotionally attached to Israel.”

All to say that Jewish camp has been consistently found to increase Jewish interest and involvement. Which is a widely known and celebrated fact. The question, of course, is what is it about Jewish camp? With camp season approaching, we’re going to launch a series examining just what makes camp so successful at hooking and developing Jewish interest.

There are many answers to this question. And in the coming weeks, we will look at different reasons why camp has succeeded in solidifying Jewish identity far beyond any other Jewish educational initiative.

A 2010 Camp Ramah study done by Jeffrey S. Kress, associate professor and academic director of the Experiential Learning Initiative at the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education, and ReFrame’s Evaluation and Assessment Advisor, offers one take on this. What is one of the reasons why camp is so memorable and religiously affirmative? Counselors. The relationship campers have with their counselors has tremendous potential to infect them positively, especially given that counselors often serve as role models. As Kress puts it, due to their exposure to encouraging counselors, “Campers are exposed to Jewish relationships and forms of Jewish engagement that they may perceive or experience differently than in the past.” Counselors are generally closer in age to the children than are congregational teachers, and can use this closeness to bond with their campers, effectively making camp an affirmative, life-changing experience.

This is part of a series exploring what makes camp so effective at inspiring Jewish youth.

An Experiential Tree Grows on Tu Bishvat

Tu Bishvat Tree Table

By Rabbi Jason Gitlin

Tu Bishvat, the New Year for Trees, connects the life of a person with the life of a tree.

In doing this, Tu Bishvat establishes a profound relationship between miracles of nature and how we live. The primary example of this dynamic is the seder developed by the Kabbalists as a way of observing the holiday. By creating a ritual rich in sensory qualities, the Kabbalists provided an engaging experience that not only celebrates trees and their fruit but sees in their very nature a potential for exploring our own personal and spiritual growth. Creating a “tree table” can serve as an engaging way of exploring that process.

Here’s one way to use a “tree table” as part of your seder:

  1. Gather a collection of fruits and nuts, including those with hard shells but soft interiors (walnuts, almonds, coconut), soft exteriors but a pit inside (dates, apricots, peaches), no shells or pits (fig, blackberry, carob).
  2. Put a table cloth on a table or the ground.
  3. Using your nuts and other elements of nature, construct a tree with four branches representing the four cups of wine and the four types of fruit that are eaten during the seder.
  4. Place fruit representing the respective categories at the end of each branch (hard exterior, soft exterior but pit inside, soft exterior and interior, and then no fruit at all).
  5. Go through each step of the seder by working your way up the trunk of the tree, using each branch to explain, and eat, the fruit found there and its significance.

The “tree table” has become a centerpiece of my own A Tu Bishvat Grows in Brooklyn seder. In this haggadah, we read from both Jewish text and the inspired work of Brooklyn’s own prophets and poets to celebrate the beauty and majesty of trees, their fruit and their significance as a metaphor for life and its seasons. In keeping with the seder’s Kabbalistic origins, the supporting Biblical text has been drawn from Song of Songs, whose themes of love and nature made it another central text to Jewish mystics. Meanwhile, Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and the poetry of Walt Whitman provide local roots and inspiration.

The Tu Bishvat seder’s ability to engage participants in an experience that is interactive, artistic, and socially and emotionally resonant makes it rooted in many of experiential learning’s core characteristics.

Rabbi Jason Gitlin is Project Manager for ReFrame.

Meet Sarah!


Meet Sarah Brokman, from Park Avenue Synagogue, on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

As Assistant Director of the Congregational School, Sarah writes the curriculum for third, fourth and fifth grades and supervises all of the teachers for those grades.

1. Where are you from originally?
I grew up in Livingston, NJ.

2. What’s your favorite thing about Jewish Experiential education?
My favorite thing about Jewish Experiential education is watching learners learn content knowledge through meaningful and joyful programming.

3. How would you describe your ReFrame experience in seven words?
Learning about each other’s growing, excellent programs.

4. What’s one educational tool you can’t teach without?
The Torah!

5. What’s your favorite part about the PAS community?
The vibrancy. Every day and every night there is something amazing going on. Being part of such a thriving Jewish community elevates our work.

6. What’s the best piece of advice you ever received from a teacher (Jewish or not)?
Dare to be crummy. (And DREAM BIG!)

7. What’s one way of making Shabbat more meaningful?
Taking time to unplug with your family.

Thanks, Sarah!

When Entrepreneurship meets Experiential Education

One of the benefits of studying experiential education is that certain components of it begin to color one’s life in areas outside of the (non-standard) classroom. Learning how to effectively and directly convey information in unique environments can not only impact the teacher-student relationship, but also the parent-child relationship, one’s relationship with friends, and even with one’s self.

Components of experiential education can also have impact beyond interpersonal relationships. The argument can be made, as Edward Cullen does in the below article, that experiential education hones and shapes more thoughtful and prepared business leaders. While Cullen’s argument relies heavily on business ideas and parlance, it is worth republishing to show the surprisingly far-reaching impact of experiential educational philosophy and how educators can apply its principles to their administrative and entrepreneurial efforts as well.

                                                  Reposted from LinkedIn.
By Edward Cullen

I failed. After working for one year on my startup, I could not understand how it quickly turned south after two successful pilots and an invitation to a prestigious startup conference to demo our product.

After failing, I re-evaluated the entire startup process and developed an experiential entrepreneurial framework to help support first-time entrepreneurs. Could we integrate the new field of entrepreneurial sciences with experiential education at the high school and college levels to produce a more prepared and effective business leader?

Here are four tips for integrating personal experiential education with entrepreneurship:

  • Ideation: Everyone has good ideas. The difference between success and failure comes down to validation. Can you validate those ideas and find a scalable business model? Go to Google, type in business model canvas, and download a template. Write out your idea to the best of your ability on the canvas. Then spend 20% of your time in flow validating the idea, but more importantly spend 80% of the time invalidating. Your idea will only become validated when you are out of the building and experiencing the actual validation from customer discovery. Get on the phone, set-up meetings, and talk to your target market.
  • Metrics: Know and experience your metrics. Most early-stage entrepreneurs fail to establish their unique business metrics. I know everyone has an emotional attachment to their own startup, but you must remove yourself and look at objective data. Write out metrics to accompany your business model canvas. Then consistently measure and modify them as you continue to accumulate customer feedback.
  • Build your experiments: You have to set up real-world experiments to test your idea. Utilize a five-step process: Formulate a hypothesis, choose a testing method, set up a goal, run the tests, and analyze the results.
  • Spend a day at a coworking space: So you are an entrepreneur? Good for you. Now prove it. I know everyone is consumed with their professional lives already, but take a day off from work and spend a day at a kick-ass coworking space with 100 other entrepreneurs like yourself. Check out Alley NYC and their daily offering, then spend $25 to experience your dreams rather than just talk about them. It is worth the day and plus you never know who you will meet.

Think of experiential entrepreneurial education as a pilot in a flight simulation. Before you can fly, you have to simulate what it is really like to fly. In simulating experiences, we invite our minds to open divergently to problem solve. The fading convergent model of education invites us to follow a singular set of facts to arrive at one right conclusion.

The contemporary model of divergent thinking invites us to see many conclusions and see lots of possible answers to a question.

Experiential education is at the forefront of a modernized approach to workforce development and skills-training to increase economic productivity.

Open your mind to a divergent model of thinking and continue to experience your entrepreneurial ideas rather than convergently trying to execute them.

Edward Cullen is the Director of Innovation at Fordham Foundry.

This post was originally published on LinkedIn on December 6, 2014.

Meet Ilene!


Meet Ilene Bloom, from Temple Israel Center in White Plains, New York.

As one of three full time community educators at Temple Israel Center, Ilene teaches and develops curriculum for the 5th grade, leads K-2nd grade Shabbat morning services,  teaches in the Havarah Torah high school program, and serves as the K-2 youth group advisor. In addition, she collaborates as a member of the education team to create community wide programming throughout the year.

1. Where are you from originally?
Wilmington, Delaware

2. What’s your favorite thing about Jewish Experiential education?
The opportunity to think out of the box and make your Jewish education ideas come to life in an interactive engaging way.

3. How would you describe your ReFrame experience in seven words?
An opportunity to reflect, innovate, and collaborate.

4. What’s your favorite part about the Temple Israel Center community?
I love how vibrant our community is and its willingness to always participate in cutting edge Jewish education.

5. What’s the best piece of advice you ever received from a teacher (Jewish or not)?
Meet your learners where they are.

6. What’s your favorite Jewish holiday and why?
Sukkot is my favorite holiday because it brings community together, gives us an opportunity to give thanks, and connect over a meal with family and friends in the Sukkah.

Thanks, Ilene!

One Educator’s Response to the Pew Report and the Jewish Future

This article is reprinted from eJewish Philanthropy.

By Nancy Parkes

I have read the reports and the responses. I have attended meetings and have discussed the findings of the Pew report with many of my colleagues and with experts in the field, all whom I would define as people who care deeply about the future of Jewish life in America.

And, like many others, I am concerned about the Jewish future. But not in the way you may think.

It is clear from the findings of the Pew Report that we still have work to do in making Jewish learning and life meaningful, engaging, and relevant for American Jews. I don’t believe that anyone would deny that. My issue with the articles and proposal presented by Steven Cohen and Jack Wertheimer is that there is absolutely no mention of the value and importance of supplementary synagogue education.

It is interesting that despite the Pew Report demonstrating that supplementary education in the high school years is indeed effective, the proposal makes no mention of supporting these programs. It does, however, mention day schools, Jewish camps, youth groups and trips to Israel.

I don’t know of one Jewish educator, lay leader, or Rabbi that would dispute that day schools and informal educational experiences are powerful influences in the lives of our young people. I certainly believe that they are. One of the reasons why these experiences are so effective is that they do not occur in isolation. As noted by Cohen and Wertheimer, “These programs work synergistically with each other and also with formal schooling during the critical high-school years.”

As a Jewish educator and director in a supplementary synagogue school, I would never claim that supplementary education alone guarantees or leads to Jewish engagement as adults. Why then is this the way so many evaluate our programs?

Educators and directors in the synagogue setting have done much soul searching during the past decade. We were told that our system was “broken”; that children and parents were not finding the joy in Jewish learning in our settings; and even more importantly, we were told that the learning that was taking place was not leading to Jewish living.

We took all of this to heart- because we were concerned and because we care deeply about the future of Judaism.

How did many of us respond? We made changes – significant changes – in the structure and design of our schools. We advocated for Jewish camp and even brought the camp experience into our schools. We made youth groups an integral part of our educational programming blending the formal setting with this valuable informal Jewish experience. Many programs now take teens on trips to Israel, and more and more programs take learning out of the traditional classroom setting. Perhaps one of the most significant changes that has been made is the education and involvement of parents. We involve them because we know that if Judaism is not relevant and meaningful for them, they as the decision makers, will not only remove themselves from Jewish life, but their children, as well.

With more than 60% of our families enrolling their children in supplementary educational programs, we know that much is at stake in the kind of educational experiences we create for our learners. So, what kind of message are they receiving by the silence – and worse, the negativity – leaders in research and education send them by not supporting their decision with funding? That they are not worth the investment? That they have made the “wrong” decision? That they care less about their child’s Jewish education?

I keep a running list of the negative comments I hear from lay leaders, clergy, and professionals in the Jewish world about supplementary education. Unfortunately, the list is long and continues to grow. Is it any wonder that less and less young people are going into the field of Jewish education, and why synagogue schools have difficultly finding educators and leaders for their schools? This kind of rhetoric perpetuates a self-filling cycle.

Supplementary schools matter – and they do make a positive difference in the lives of our families. Can they be better? Absolutely. But, they need support to do so.

Here is my proposal:

  • Stop the negative narrative. Leaders and clergy need to become vocal advocates for supplementary education, whether it is from the pulpit, in writing, or at conferences.
  • Be our partners. We need more leaders and clergy to truly be our partners in creating the educational excellence that we all want. If your synagogue school is not a place that you would send your own child, how can you work with your educational team to make it so?
  • Encourage people to consider Jewish education as a career. We need more Jewish educators – in all settings. We need to do a better job at reaching out to those who we believe could make a difference in the Jewish world of informal and formal Jewish education. We also need more scholarships dollars to help those who wish to become Jewish educators to realistically be able do so.
  • Provide mentorship and consulting for supplementary education directors. Change is hard, and it’s even harder when you are doing it on your own.
  • Collaboration. Jewish camps and youth groups “work.” So does supplementary education when it is combined with these informal experiences. More conferences should be held which bring leaders in these fields together to think about how they can truly collaborate to bring powerful experiential education to the supplementary school setting, while also encouraging our children and teens to attend camp and become active members in youth groups.

I am not an alarmist, but I do believe that supplementary schools matter and that the lack of support that they receive and the negative narrative that is perpetuated is indeed, in the words of Cohen and Wertheimer, “a condition that is dire enough to warrant the serious attention of anyone concerned about the Jewish future.”

This article first appeared on eJewish Philanthropy on December 3, 2014.

Nancy Parkes is the director of congregational learning at Temple Israel Center in White Plains, New York, and serves as a mentor for first-year graduate students at the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of The Jewish Theological Seminary, where she received a master’s degree in Jewish Education in 2006. Temple Israel Center is currently working with JTS and Reframe.

Alternative Models of Religious Schooling

The exploration of alternative models of religious schooling is a constant conversation in the Jewish education world. Specifically within the synagogue structure, many alternate learning models have emerged over the last several decades, through camps, projects, community initiatives, and family programs.

A recent article in the Jewish Journal of Education by Dr. Isa Aron examines this trend. Aron, a Professor of Jewish Education at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, zones in on the current offerings for students in kindergarten through pre-bnei mitzvah age. She examines five models of alternative learning: family school, community as school, informal/experiential programs, the after school model, and lego-like models. She presents three curricular innovations: project based learning, learning organized around the interests and abilities of the students, and Hebrew through movement. (To access the article, click here.)

Additionally, Aron identifies four different questions that can be seen as the conceptual foundation for these alternative models.

1) How can the school compensate for the paucity of Jewish practices at home?

2) How can the school compensate for the Jewish neighborhood, in which “everyone knows your name?”

3) Why are Jewish camps perceived as being both more enjoyable and more effective than Jewish schools?

4) How can supplementary Jewish education be made to work for busy families?

It can be helpful for educators to reflect on how these questions affect their community and the work they are attempting to do.

To access Dr. Aron’s full article in the Journal of Jewish Education, click here.

The Importance of Setting

One of the unique innovations of experiential education is its upending the typical classroom setting. Hallways, gymnasiums, sanctuaries, and the outdoors are just a few of the places where some of the most effective experiential learning can take place.

During a recent ReFrame webinar with our pilot communities, we explored how various settings can convey an effective experiential experience to learners.

Take ReFrame’s Experiential Jewish Education Walkabout in your own setting to reflect on how space can inform the content of the learning and different environments can promote certain behaviors and experiential learning goals.


Meet Aily!


Say hi to Aily Leibtag, from Beth Tzedec Congregation in Toronto!

As Beth Tzedec’s Youth Director, Aily runs a variety of programs to help youth of all ages feel connected to Beth Tzedec Congregation and the entire community.

1. Where are you from originally?
Dundas, Ontario, Canada

2. What’s your favorite thing about Jewish Experiential education?
Making learning come to life in a different, meaningful, and lasting way. And arts and crafts, of course!

3. How would you describe your ReFrame experience in seven words?
A chance to stop, think, and move forward.

4. What’s your favorite part about the Beth Tzedec community?
The people. They manage to take a 2,600 family shul and make it feel like a 500 family shul.

5. What’s one way of making Shabbat more meaningful?
Make Shabbat a unique day in the week. Pick something to do that you don’t normally do during the week (or the opposite, pick something you always do during the week and take a pause on Shabbat). Do that something with family and friends.

6. What’s your favorite Jewish holiday and why?
Rosh Hashanah. I love the idea of starting over. It is amazing to take time to reflect.  I also can’t go wrong with the delicious food and meals with family and friends.

Thanks, Aily!