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.