Hits & Misses: The Experiential Seder

By Zachary Lasker, Ed.D .

This Pesach I decided to experiment on family and friends with a creative, experiential approach to the second night seder.  Each year my father leads a full seder on the first night, complete with rituals, the telling of the story, and engaging conversation.  This year my parents were also slated to host the second night seder, and I suggested we detour from the traditional Haggadah, while still including the rituals that make the Pesach seder so distinct.  My dad’s response: “Sounds great – go for it!”  Note-to-self: Think twice before making suggestions.

As I started to brainstorm ideas, I was completely struck by the diversity amongst the guests list.  I used to feel like I lived in a relatively insular, homogenous bubble with family and friends who share similar backgrounds. The guest list totaled 18, and included many of the same family and friends with whom I celebrate Pesach each year.  Our group includes the typical range of ages (from three to an amazingly vital 90 year old), gender, and personality traits.  While the faces around the table remain mostly the same, our paths have diverged into a pretty wide spectrum of religious practice, sexual orientation, single parents and co-parent households, working professionals and stay-at-homers, a Jew-by-choice, and folks with minimal to much Jewish education.  The challenge of creating a meaningful seder for everyone was the exact same challenge many of my colleagues face in day-congregational-early childhood schools, camps, and elsewhere.  

My work at JTS’s William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education often focuses on the exploration of how to integrate an experiential approach to Jewish education into settings that extend beyond the often popular and successful summer camp and travel programs, in hopes of increasing levels of engagement AND substance in Jewish living and learning.  We are living in a time marked by busy schedules, the ability to customize our lives, shifting trends in individual and family identity, and an addiction to innovation.  Jewish educators must push themselves to be quite strategic in designing experiences that account for these trends and meet the needs of their learners.  The attributes of experiential education (see below) tend to be a good match for many of these realities.

To a certain extent, my experiment seemed redundant.  The Pesach seder is inherently “experiential” depending on how the leader navigates her guests.  My colleague, Dr. Jeff Kress, suggests that the developmental impact of an experience is maximized when it is marked by a combination of these six attributes:

  1. Strong relationships and sense of community
  2. Engagement of emotions and spirit
  3. Multiple entry points and opportunities for co-creation
  4. Scaffolded opportunities for reflection
  5. Connections with other experiences with similar goals
  6. Authentic integration of Jewish content (broadly defined)

The designers of the seder and Haggadah were at the forefront of this whole “experiential” craze by convening a group of people together for a spirited, multi-sensory night of questions, challenge, and Jewish ritual.  I figured I would kick-it-up-notch, designing a seder on experiential steroids.

Not Your Father’s Seder

I selected the theme “It’s the Journey, Not the Destination” for this revolutionary seder, aiming for our group to examine the extraordinary life lessons learned through the Exodus from Egypt.  I yielded to my belief that people typically gain more when they give, and therefore decided to divide the seder into segments to assign to each family unit to lead.  Each segment aligned with customary elements of the seder, and explored a different aspect of a journey.

Here’s how it was supposed to work:

  • Each family was emailed materials two weeks in advance, including a prompt, reflection questions, and suggestions for activities they might lead.
  • Families were asked to prepare a 5-15 minute portion of the seder based on the prompt and their life experiences.
  • Families were encouraged to keep in mind the diverse nature of the crowd, and to integrate songs (Jewish or secular), articles, or games.  Each family was also asked to pose one question to the group based on their prompt.
  • To promote group bonding and to keep the evening fun, families were divided into four teams and asked to complete a few challenge games throughout the night.  For example, during a round of Top Chef Charoset teams were asked to invent an original charoset recipe in five minutes using a mix of typical (apples, cinnamon, walnuts, sweet wine) and less suspected (citrus, ginger, various dried fruits, avocado, juice) ingredients.

Survey Says…?

The experience in the days leading up to and during the seder included both hits and misses.  By the time the evening ended I felt relatively confident that most of the crowd had an enjoyable time and felt more engaged by this creative approach than during a traditional seder.  The team challenges – a version of Telephone, Top Chef Charoset, 10 Plagues Sing Down – were a big hit.  The seder had us utilize different rooms around the house, and people seemed to enjoy the movement.  Our voices joined in raucous harmony for a wide range of songs.  People seemed to feel comfortable speaking up when they had something to share. However, I was less pleased with the extent to which guests seemed to reach my substance-based goals to learn something new about Pesach or reflect deeply on the journey of the Israelites as compared to their own life journeys.

Many leaders in education interested in an experiential approach acknowledge that it is often easier to build Jewish identity and community and more challenging to cultivate specific attitudes, beliefs, and practices.  The latter requires some emphasis on substantive content.  The “It’s the Journey, Not the Destination” seder was certainly meant to be an enjoyable and shared group experience, but I also aspired for guests to gain new perspectives on the plethora of Pesach rituals and customs and to consider how Jewish tradition might influence their decisions today.

Take Aways

What follows are the lessons I learned from this experiment in experiential education, to be applied to my next time with this type of seder or to other attempts at experiential education.

1.     Ease People Into New Experiences

Experiential learning pushes some people out of their comfort zone.  While more formal or direct teaching methods (ex: taking turns reading from the script of the Haggadah) may fail to inspire or engage learners, they also are better prepared to participate.  Some of my guests were put off and/or overwhelmed by my sharp change of course, announced in the same email that contained an overly detailed assignment.   Once gathered, I think those who knew me best and/or had camp experience got into the groove rather quickly, while those less familiar kept their guard up longer.

Change requires some degree of consensus building, preparation, and orientation.  Some people will need pretty explicit assurance that the goals of experiential learning are just as substantive as more traditional approaches, an observation I hear frequently from congregational school directors who share that some parents are suspect that experiential learning is nothing more than fun games and fluff.  While I think it likely that my same guests would be more open to this approach a second time now that they endured(?) the first new seder, I recommend that educators contemplating a shift to experiential methods take a soft, deliberate approach rolling out changes in conquerable chunks.

2.     Be Aware of How Time is Prioritized 

The initial response that I received from the seven participating family units was fascinating.  The guidelines I prepared estimated a minimum of 30 minutes of preparation time required, and included a request that guests email me a brief summary of their plan a few days in advance.  Each family shared an appreciation for my attempt to be creative.  Four of the seven immediately confirmed that they would prepare accordingly.  The other three family units shared a concern that their schedules and full plates would likely prevent them from preparing as requested.

Frankly, I was pretty disappointed by the “I’m very busy” replies.  While I respect my family and friends greatly, I believe “I’m too busy to…” is often a way of saying, “This is not a priority for my time.” Most people are unquestionably very busy, but when we are each forced to distinguish between time we must spend in a certain way (eating, sleeping, showing up at work or school) versus time we choose to spend in a certain way (screen time, social and leisure activities, volunteer time) most of us are able to prioritize our time to find an extra hour when properly motivated.

…And this is precisely the issue!  As Jewish educators we must negotiate the importance of Jewish living and learning amongst the many other ways learners can choose to prioritize their time.  We cannot take for granted that families will find the extra hour just because that is what we want.  Rather, we must think creatively about how we market our experiences and structure the contact time we need.  In my case, one of the guests suggested that family units be given some final prep time at the start of the seder.  I immediately obliged, although that presented its own challenges (see below for ground rules).  I am not suggesting a “throw in the towel” solution, but also know that the educator must take the initiative to seek the balance.

3.     Clarity of Goals and Guidelines 

Simply stated, some of my initial prompts lacked clarity and contained too much information.  I assembled the seder in about 48 hours, and didn’t take the proper time to ensure that my materials were clear and succinct.  I also relied solely on email communication, when my guests deserved some voice-to-voice attention.  Too often experiential educators think they can get by with rushed preparation.  “People get this stuff” or “The details aren’t so important as long as people have fun” are assumptions that come back to haunt us.

4.     Ground Rules

Once the evening was under way I violated the basic “Classroom Management 101,” notion of establishing a few basic ground rules to my self-inflicted pressure to keep the evening light and breezy. An experience can be organic and fun, but still rest on a few basic ground rules to ensure a certain level of respect and focus.  Random examples (connection to the events of the Pesach evening in question are completely coincidental):

–      Pets are welcome, but must remain outside while the program is in session
–      All cell phones/electronic devices go in a basket while the program is in session
–      One person talks at a time

5.     Have a Plan for Assessment

My critiques of this program and the general shortcomings of substantive learning are based purely on observation and gut instinct, which is precisely one of my general concerns about experiential education.  Does this list of signs of success look familiar?

–      Participants are smiling and walked away with inside jokes
–      Lots of noise indicates that people were “into it” and “had something to say”
–      The food was good
–      Folks are coming back for more

I don’t want to dismiss these signs, which certainly indicate enjoyment.  I also don’t want to confuse “they are coming back” with “they learned what I had planned.” True that this was THE seder, and not a simulated experience where it might be more natural to build in techniques of assessment.  Nevertheless, my experiment would have benefited from techniques such as:

–      Summary questions at the end of each segment of the seder
–      Chevruta conversations where people needed to share back on what they learned or heard
–      Some type of verbal or written journaling activity
–      …and more

Critics of experiential education are right to question the full scope of our accomplishments without some concrete evidence of learning.

I applaud Jewish educators experimenting with experiential techniques and look forward to learning from other successes and challenges.

Dr. Zachary Lasker is director of Melton & Davidson Education Projects at William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of The Jewish Theological Seminary. Previously he served as Camp Director for Camp Ramah in California.

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