Project-based Learning Offers ‘Deeper and Better’ Way to Teach Judaism

By Maayan Jaffe
reprinted from eJewish Philanthropy

“The prevailing narrative of Hebrew school that is boring, ineffective and chases people away is not true anymore,” says Anna Marx, project director for Shinui: The Network for Innovation in Part-Time Jewish Education.

According to Marx, today there are “lots of examples of how congregations with other organizations are experimenting with ways to transform Jewish learning.”

She says Shinui is working with more than 100 organizations and even more educators to help children learn Jewish lessons in “deeper and better ways.”

One of the newest methodologies is called project-based learning, a teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to an engaging and complex question, problem or challenge. According to Marx, the methodology moves students from the traditional Hebrew school setting of listening about Judaism to “really engaging in Judaism and taking ownership of it.”

With project-based learning, the teacher moves from lecturer to partner, Marx explains, and teacher and student work together to create a project.

Project-based learning is backed by research that confirms it is an effective and enjoyable way to learn and develop deeper learning competencies required for success in college, career and civic life, according to the Buck Institute for Education. For nearly a decade, it has been an accepted method of study in secular – and especially secular private – schools. However, according to Allison Gutman, director of youth and family learning for Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield, Mich., “this is still considered cutting-edge in the Jewish world.”

Gutman helped integrate a new project-based learning holiday curriculum at her Hebrew school, which she says is helping children to find “more joy” in the Jewish calendar. Rather than running through a high-level overview of each holiday at its time of year, her classrooms take a deeper dive into particular holidays and involve more hands-on learning time.

For Sukkot, for example, the students built their own kosher sukkot in whatever theme they wanted – disco, recycled-material, etc. They learned about the value of hachnasat orchim [welcoming guests], walked through the narratives of the ushpizin and experienced the intricate nuances of Jewish law.

Congregation Shaarey Zedek has 1,350 families and Hebrew school, in the past, was often relegated to its own little corridor. The sukkot brought the Hebrew school to the forefront and added value to not only the students, but members of the congregation, too.

Through a pilot program run by the Jewish Theological Seminary [ReFrame], Gutman was able to survey parents and students before and after instituting this new methodology. All of the data from the surveys, she says, supported the program.

“The payoff is just tremendous,” says Gutman.

In Pennsylvania, Rabbi Stacy Rigler is spearheading a program between her Reform synagogue, Congregation Keneseth Israel, and two Conservative synagogues, Adath Jeshuran and Beth Shalom, called JQuest B’Yachad. In this program, rather than learning about Judaism, the kids are participating in group dialogues, making proposals to synagogue leaders and participating as active members of synagogue tefilot.

“By working on projects that reflect real life activities, they create their own experiences – learn skills for their Jewish lives,” says Rigler, who notes that with the advent of smart phones and other technologies teaching methodologies have no choice but change. She said children learn very differently than they did in the past.

“Change is very doable and possible,” says Marx. “These are not isolated anecdotes, but broader trends that are occurring.”

Making Prayer Meaningful

Through ReFrame, JTS and The Davidson School aid educational leaders in planning new learning models that draw on the best of camps, Israel trips, and other immersive experiences. For the past two years, each ReFrame pilot community has picked an area of Jewish education they hope to improve on and have worked with ReFrame educators to achieve their unique goals.

Temple Israel Center, in White Plains, chose to work on tefillah. The goal of their project boiled down to two basic questions:

1. How do we create a tefillah experience that balances both kevah & kavanah (skills and spirituality)?

2. How do we create a prayerful person, someone who has both the skills to pray and the ability and desire to connect to God?

Together with the guidance of ReFrame, educators at Temple Israel Center set about implementing and experimenting with different methods to answer these questions. To that end, several components were introduced into the project. These included:

• Spotlighting the learning of individual prayers within the structure of a tefillah service. Through this students could explain in their own words what a prayer/ bracha means and how they can actualize them.

• Handouts and posters were made for different prayers that included translation and transliteration and incorporated associative imagery into their prayer to nurture kavanah; for example, pictures that express happiness for Ashrei.

• Reflective chevrutot and small groups convened to talk about their prayer experiences and offer guiding questions for conversations about how to improve tefillah and continue to inspire one another.

• Students used “mishkan” fabrics they made as part of their Torah learning together to create a specialized prayer space.

Some of the ways that several of the key attributes of Experiential Jewish Education were met can be seen in the below chart.

Findings from this  site project concluded that:

• Overall, students prefer praying in a community rather than alone.

• Students prefer using their own words when they are praying.

• Whether one prefers to pray alone or in a group is unrelated to whether one prefers to use a siddur or his/her own words.

• Boys are overrepresented among those who want to pray alone; girls overrepresented among those who want to pray in community.

• Boys are marginally more likely than girls to say that knowing the meaning of the prayers does not change the way they feel about them.

Truths About Jewish Camp

MyJewishLearning and the Foundation for Jewish Camp have collaborated on a “listicle” called The Fifteen Ways You Know You Went to Jewish Summer Camp.

Our favorite? Number 4: “For some reason, you have leadership skills.” Isn’t that one of the goals of experiential education? To learn something you can take deep into your core without fully realizing that you are learning?

Check it out for yourself. Which one’s your favorite?

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.