Placing Experience at the Center of Understanding Experiential Learning

This blog post was originally published on eJewish Philanthropy on September 1, 2014.

By Dr. Gabe Goldman

[Note: In this article, the terms “teacher” and “student” also include counselors, hike leaders, campers, trip participants, etc.]

There is a wonderful story about chavrutot (learning partners) who completely disagree about the meaning of the text they are learning. Their views are exactly opposite of each other so they go to their teacher to find out which of them is right. The first student goes into the rabbi’s study and presents his case. The rabbi tells him that his understanding is exactly right. He leaves and the second student enters the rabbi’s study to present his case. The rabbi tells him that his understanding is exactly right. He leaves and the rabbi’s wife enters and says, “Those boys were in total disagreement but you told each of them he was right.” The rabbi looks at his wife and says, “You’re also right.”

In many ways, the same can be said about the varied understandings of the qualities comprising Experiential Education. Over the decades, and with more frequency in recent years, Jewish educators/researchers have tried to pin down exactly what Experiential Education is. These efforts have led to the publication of multiple paradigms of EE, each with its own list of identifying characteristics. The differences among these paradigms do not mean that one is “right” while the others are wrong. Each of the paradigms holds truth for the persons constructing them because their formulations derive from their personal experiences. Thus, while all of the paradigms are “right,” what is collectively identified as Jewish Experiential Education has become an unwieldy assortment of attitudes, beliefs, characteristics, qualities and values. Jewish experiential educators simply cannot keep all of these attributes in mind, let alone bring them into play at all times.

Ironically, none of the paradigms currently in vogue actually focuses on what is in my view the single most important aspect of EE – the experience itself. This oversight comes, I think, from looking at the question from the perspective of what makes someone an EE teacher rather than what makes it possible for student to be experiential learners. Answering this question requires us to focus our attention on the nature and types of experiences that transform students from passive spectators to active and engaged learners. It is within this understanding that the truly unique qualities of EE are to be found.

Based on my two decades of experience in this field and the findings of a three-year study comparing EE and conventional teachers in Jewish formal and informal settings (see endnote) it is clear that three types of experiences serve as the foundation for experiential learning. These experiences are: A) Experience of Place; B) Experience of Teacher; C) Experience of Classmates. Noticeably missing from this is the experience of subject matter, which will be addressed later.

Experience of Place

One of the greatest differences between conventional education and EE is the role the learning setting, or physical space, plays in the educational process. In conventional education, the physical setting is merely a backdrop to the educational wisdom dispensed by the teacher. In EE, the physical setting generates experiences that lead to learning. Experiential educators understand the power of place to define the learning experience and they will often manipulate their environments to help bring about experiential goals. Any learning setting can be experientially enhanced – even the most ordinary classroom. Perhaps the best example of this is the way early childhood educators fill their rooms with images and artifacts that visually communicate the message that “Learning is fun.”

Experience of Teacher

One of the greatest differences between EE and conventional education is the way they conceptualize the roles of teachers and the relationship of teacher and student to each other. In conventional education, teachers teach and students learn; there is a one-way flow of knowledge. It is assumed that if students follow their teachers’ directions and do what their teachers require, they will learn. EE completely changes the teacher-student dynamic. As so many others have pointed out, EE teachers act more like guides than traditional teachers. This is a perfect analogy because guides require an absolutely different relationship with those they guide than that which exists between conventional teachers and their students.

In EE, students must trust their teachers. Just as we would not head off into the wilderness with a guide that we do not trust, likewise students will not participate in meaningful EE unless they trust their teachers. The Rule of Thumb in EE is that the greater the risk perceived by students (emotional, intellectual, physical or spiritual), the greater must be the level of trust they have in their teachers.

Anyone who has administered a school knows there are the “popular” teachers, the ones that all the students want to have. Based on the findings in the Three Year Study referenced above, it is clear that these teachers share certain qualities. I propose it is these qualities that serve as the foundation for students’ trust in their teachers:

  • They demonstrate that they care for their students as people.
  • They never use sarcasm or criticism.
  • They demonstrate respect for their students.
  • They demonstrate deep understanding about and passion for what they are teaching
  • They use humor as a communication and teaching tool.

Experience of Classmates

There is also a profound difference in the way students relate to classmates in conventional and Experiential Education. In conventional education, the relationship among students ranges from cooperative to competitive. Thus, conventional education does not necessitate students’ relating in any depth with one another. Even when conventional education has students working on group projects, it does not even require them to know the names of the people in their work group. This completely changes for students in Experiential Education. Success in EE is not possible without students trusting each other and/or engaging in experiences together and/or overcoming challenges together. And this level of cooperation first requires students to feel that they are accepted by others in the group, that their feelings and ideas will not be ridiculed or rejected, that they will not be ridiculed or rejected. The most common reason teens give for participating in any type of social or educational program is the desire to be with friends. The single most common reason teens give for not valuing an experience is that they did not feel a part of their group (likewise with Birthright trippers who did not value their trips). Given this strong social motivation, it simply does not make sense to ignore it by creating programs that do not seek to transform “classes” into “communities.” EE educators go out of the way to enable students to get to know each other, to discover qualities in each other to value, and to ensure there is an inclusive and accepting learning environment. This is a fundamental element in enabling students to become experiential learners.

Experience of Subject Matter

Quite simply, few students (prior to their college years) in either conventional or EE settings have an “experience” of subject matter. Even in informal settings, such as Jewish camps, where campers eagerly look forward to learning Israeli folk dances or how to scale climbing towers, their positive experience of these “subject matters” is largely determined by their relationship to their instructor and/or the members of their “chug” rather than by their desire to learn a particular skill. I would speculate that the overwhelming majority of readers of this article can better remember powerful experiences of places, of teachers and of classmates than of subject matters.

Unfortunately, there is pressure on Jewish experiential educators to “bulk up” their subject matter. There is an implication that failing to articulate measurable, content goals indicates lack of learning. This pressure is leading Jewish educators to treat EE as though it is simply a technique to achieve the same goals one finds in the most conventional Jewish supplementary schools. Jewish educators are using the laundry lists of EE characteristics and practices as blueprints for focusing on intellectual development.

EE process is being turned into EE product.

One of the central doctrines of EE is that learning from experience is phenomenological with learners bringing a host of personal attitudes, knowledge, fears, doubts and so forth to their learning. It is wrong as well as impossible to shape experiences like funnels in which students are dumped in and more or less come out with the same lessons learned.

Below are two scenarios I would ask you to consider. They concretize the ideas presented above. Each one takes place at sunrise on a mountain peak in Joshua Tree National Park. Each scenario involves hiking a group of eighth grade students to the top of the peak as a prelude to their morning service.

In the first scenario, upon arriving at the top of the mountain, students are told to find a partner and answer the questions on the assignment:

  • Find the blessing for seeing a beautiful natural event in your Siddur and say it if you think it applies to your present experience.
  • Look out over the landscape and pick out one natural feature that interests you.
  • Does it make a difference to you if you pray outside vs. in a synagogue?
  • Imagine you are Moses on Mt. Sinai. How would you feel?

Students are then given 15 minutes to do the assignment. When they are done, the teacher brings them together for a 20 minute, semi-lively discussion about their answers. This is followed by students conducting the morning service and a trip back down the mountain.

In scenario two, upon arriving at the top of the mountain, the teacher congratulates students on making the early morning hike and jokes with them about waking so early. She tells students they are on the mountain to have a “mountain experience” and that it is something different for everyone. She reminds them to use all of their senses – to feel, hear and smell their surroundings. Student head to a private place to have their experience and are called to return 20 minutes later and share their experiences.

One student describes seeing the shadow of a mountain, that it was awesome. A girl describes how the landscape changed colors as the sun rose. A boy says he actually heard a crow’s flapping wings. Others talk about feeling “closer to God.” One student remembers the words from the morning service, Mah rabu ma-asekah – “How magnificent are Your creations.” As students describe their experiences, the discussion embraces feelings about praying, about praying outdoors, about being in wilderness, about Jacob’s statement “I knew not that God was in this place.” After students hold their morning service, they share their feelings about their experience of praying on top of a mountain.

Though there are extraordinary differences between these two scenarios, according to current EE paradigms both incorporate EE qualities – i.e. small group discussions, clear goals (scenario #1), teaching with intentionality, follow-up reflection on the experience and so forth. What distinguishes the two scenarios, however – and this, as I have attempted to argue and illustrate, is the key to truly understanding EE – is that the magic of EE is found in the relationships students develop with place, teacher and/or fellow students. Simply put, if students do not develop these relationships, they ultimately experience nothing – or next to nothing.

What is required of EE teachers is to provide opportunities for their students to have these three types of experiences and to have faith in the central doctrine of experiential learning – that all students learn from their experiences in ways most meaningful to them.


The Three Year Study of Jewish Experiential and Conventional Educators in Formal and Informal Educational Settings was presented at the Symposium on Experiential Education Research (SEER) – 41st International Conference of the Association for Experiential Educators, 2013.

The Study was carried out between 2005-2009 with graduate student researchers observing conventional and EE educators in Jewish schools, camps and on outdoor trips. Observations ranged in time from two hours in a single classroom to several weeks in summer camps. Observations focused on such factors as: types of teacher student interactions; student interactions amongst themselves; types of questions asked by teachers and teachers and so forth. Techniques employed included: timed observations of student engagement; proximity studies of learning space; use of teaching props and other efforts to enhance teaching. Written surveys, evaluations and follow-up interviews were employed to a limited extent to help explain anomalies in observation data and to get clearer insight into teacher and student behaviors.

Dr. Gabe Goldman is the Director of Experiential Education at the Pittsburgh Agency for Jewish Learning and the Founder of Outdoor Jewish Classroom.

Meet Emily!


Next up is Emily Kruskol, from IKAR in Los Angeles.

As Assistant Director of Education, Emily supervises and coordinates IKAR’s family learning program, oversees their specialized experiential education program, and help the Directors with administrative tasks. She is currently studying for her double Master’s in Jewish Education and Jewish studies through Hebrew College, with an emphasis on experiential education.

1. Where are you from originally?
Agoura Hills, CA.

2. What’s your favorite thing about Jewish Experiential education?
Allowing learners to connect to Judaism through fun and interactive lessons.

3. How would you describe your ReFrame experience in seven words?
Interactive. Experimenting. Connection. Learning. Insightful. Passion. Jewish.

4. What’s one educational tool you can’t teach without?
The Torah and my set of “Teaching…” books from A.R.E. (Teaching Torah, Tefillah etc.)

5. What’s your favorite part about the IKAR community?
IKAR has created a “way into” Judaism for people of all different backgrounds and beliefs.

6. What’s the best piece of advice you ever received from a teacher (Jewish or not)?
Trying teaching in other settings to make sure that you enjoy what you do.

7. How can one make Shabbat more meaningful?
I find that no matter where I am, it’s important to at least mark Shabbat by lighting candles on Friday night and then building on that.

8. Your favorite Jewish holiday?
My favorite Jewish holiday is Shavuot, I grew up knowing nothing about the holiday and in college was exposed to it. I think it has so many layers to it and it gave us our most important Jewish resource!

Thanks, Emily!

Prayer-ful Students

By Nancy Parkes

Our learners at Temple Israel Center eagerly enter our prayer space open to the possibility of connecting to something greater than themselves. Some close their eyes; others sit in deep meditation; and still others chant the prayers as they feel, comprehend, and deeply connect to the words. When the experience and prayer service is finished, our learners leave on a higher plane than when they arrived, and feel an inner sense of peace.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if this was the reality for all of our learners all of the time? Tefillah (prayer) is difficult to teach for so many reasons: there is the constant tension between keva (fixed structure) and kavanah (intention); communal and personal prayer; fixed times for prayer and spontaneous prayer; teaching the skills and meaning of prayer while also creating the opportunity for a spiritual experience.

These challenges are present whether the setting is a congregational school, day school, or camp. Camp and day school offer consistency and more time to develop the skills necessary to fully participate in a prayer experience, but consistency also can breed complacency. All settings pose the challenge of how to create prayerful people, not just people who know how to pray.

Tefillah can be a moving experience but, more often than not, it is an experience that is “performed” and spoken without emotion.

Is that prayer? Maimonides said, “Prayer without kavanah is no prayer at all. He who has prayed without kavanah ought to pray once more. He whose thoughts are wandering or occupied with other things need not pray until he has recovered his mental composure. “How often do any of us pray with such focus and intention? And, as educators, how do we create a prayerful person, someone who has both the skills to pray traditionally and the ability-and desire-to connect to God?

As Jews, we share a general knowledge and common language that allows us to effectively communicate with each other, learn from each other, and participate in our Jewish communities. Hirsch calls this “cultural literacy.”1 This holds true for prayer. In order to participate in any Shabbat, weekly, or holiday service, there are a certain set of skills that are necessary. As a result, the Hebrew curriculum at Temple Israel Center focuses a great deal on “siddur Hebrew.” Our learners work on their Hebrew reading and comprehension skills through their study of prayer. It is through their study of Hebrew and prayer that we also offer them the opportunity to reflect and question what they are learning. By doing so, we allow our learners to engage with not only a specific prayer, but with the concept of prayer itself.

To create prayerful people, instruction in reading and comprehension of Hebrew prayers is not enough. Just as importantly, the environment in which different kinds of prayer experiences are created needs to be considered. This is something we have experimented with quite a bit at Temple Israel Center. Currently, we pray not in the sanctuary, but in an open room that allows us to change the seating configuration. We also adorn this space with fabric decorated by the children. As part of our Torah curriculum, our third- to sixth-graders built their own interpretation of the Mishkan. The fabrics they made now beautify their prayer space.

We also changed our community prayer experience leaders. Initially, our leaders were our educators; that is, the adults in our community taught our young learners about prayer and instructed them on the skills needed to pray. They would lead by standing in front of our learners, directing them to certain page numbers and giving a brief introduction to each prayer. Now, our madrikhim, teens in the eighth to 12th grades, serve as our prayer leaders. These teens sit among our learners and, before beginning the recitation of a prayer, share their own personal thoughts about that specific prayer. Then, along with our learners, they pray. By “leading” prayer in this way, the material is learned in a more natural way through observation and personal interaction, and becomes internalized rather than simply acquired. Since our madrikhim are people that our learners respect and value as peers, there is a different kind of motivation to participate, and the power of teens demonstrating and living that which has been taught makes a strong impression.

Lastly, we spend quite a bit of time talking with our learners about God. We don’t shy away from their difficult questions, and often use the concept of keva (laws that tell us when to pray, what to say, and how to pray) to address the times when they feel most distant from God-when they are confused, angry, or sad. We explain that keva often give us the strength and words to communicate with God during the times when we least want to pray. This is a powerful lesson for our learners to embrace and understand.

We recently asked our third- to sixth-graders if they believed they were communicating with God when they prayed. Ninety-eight percent of our learners said “yes.” We also asked them why they felt it was important to pray as a community with fixed prayers and at fixed times-even when they “didn’t feel like it.” One learner replied, “When all of our voices are in song and prayer together, we become stronger as a community. And that allows God to hear us in a different way than when we pray on our own and with our own words.”

I’ll take that statistic and answer as an indication that we are doing something right. At least for now. Who knows how our learners will feel about prayer next week, next month, or next year when they are a year older. But I do know that we will continue to experiment and strive to achieve both keva and kavanah during our prayer experiences with the goal of creating people who not only know how to pray, but who are prayer-ful people.

This article is reprinted from the most recent issue of Gleanings, an eJournal run by the Davidson School that explores issues in Jewish education.

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 The Davidson School’s Reframe: Experiential Education in Congregational Schools initiative to bring experiential education best practices to the congregation’s learners.

Meet Allison!


Allison Gutman, a graduate of the Davidson School, is Assistant Director of Education & Youth at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield, Michigan.

Allison is responsible for overseeing and assisting a variety of educational and community programs at Shaarey Zedek, an inclusive, egalitarian Conservative Jewish congregation and spiritual community in Southfield.

1. Where are you from originally?
I’m a Michigan native! I grew up in Okemos, MI.

2. What’s your favorite thing about Jewish Experiential education?
The opportunity to meet and collaborate with so many educators who are doing amazing work in Jewish experiential learning.

3. How would you describe your ReFrame experience in seven words?
Inspiring. Collaborative. Imagination. Educator. Reflection. Goal. Learner.

4. What’s one educational tool you can’t teach without?
It sounds a little cheesy, but the tool I can’t teach without is Torah. I mean BIG Torah, not the 5 books but our canon of Jewish texts. You always need a mizvah, midrash, or matriarch to drive your learning.

5. What’s you favorite part about the Southfield Jewish community?
We are a very tight knit community. You know or are related to everyone. If you are Jewish in southeast Michigan, you are probably related to the person standing in line at the butcher shop next to you. Everyone is “family”.

6. What’s the best piece of advice you ever received from a teacher (Jewish or not)?
There is no such thing as a stupid question.

Thanks, Allison!

Active Experience for Transformative Leadership Development

By Ray Levi

“The one who studies in order to practice will be enabled to study and to teach, to observe and to practice.” (Pirkei Avot 4:5)

At first glance, the large lobby at The Jewish Theological Seminary seems to be the setting for a morning reception being held by the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education. Program directors and admissions personnel from JTS programs join representatives from various day school organizations—the Schechter Network, RAVSAK, Yeshiva University—and leaders of other Jewish educational organizations.

It is not, however, a simple reception. Rather, it is a class exercise. The participants are fellows in the Day School Leadership Training Institute (DSLTI) of JTS. This exercise is designed to help these new and aspiring day school heads learn to “work the room.” In a carefully planned learning experience, the fellows had previously met with mentors to identify those with whom they should touch base given the needs of their schools. They were advised on how they might gracefully join a conversation in progress, and break away to make additional contacts.

Following the reception, small groups of fellows, mentors, and guests sit together to debrief. This final component offers a rare opportunity for the fellows to talk about how they navigated the reception and to learn the perspectives, comfort levels, and strategies employed by people who regularly find themselves in such settings.

This session represents the best of DSLTI’s experiential approach to preparing the next generation of day school leadership:

• Providing fellows with the background that allows them to work with and guide colleagues, knowing the key questions to ask.

• Offering real opportunities to test their skills. This reception, while a planned exercise, provided important introductions to key players in the world of Jewish education.

• Encouraging our participants to be reflective educators who look back to understand processes and grow from their experiences.

The reception, involving interaction with Jewish educational leaders, is one of several types of experiences that are central to the DSLTI curriculum. Others include:

• Constructivist sessions that, for example, ask fellows to explore the congruence between mission, vision, and practice by viewing websites and publications, an exercise that replicates the work of accreditation teams that will visit their schools

• Consultancies in which fellows seek guidance about current challenges in their schools through formal protocols with their peers

• Sharing personal and professional Jewish journeys and examining how the Jewish mission of their schools is evident and visible

• Leadership roles for fellows who facilitate beit midrash, Spiritual Check-Up, and other sessions that focus on enhancing the Jewish component of a day school’s life

• Mentoring by respected heads of school, which offers ongoing opportunities to discuss questions from the fellows’ home settings. Fellows also shadow their mentors at school, observing the practical application of concepts learned.

Recognizing that the role of head of school is often a lonely one, the commitment to DSLTI fellows extends beyond the formal program. Thanks to generous support from the AVI CHAI Foundation, a strong alumni network has been woven. Alumni seek support from one another through an email discussion list, a rich source of online conversation. At alumni retreats, the DSLTI group members plan programs around their professional needs. With more than 100 institute graduates, one of the most moving sights at every Jewish day school conference is the clusters of DSLTI leaders seeking one another’s guidance—offering real-world advice for real- world challenges. These moments commemorate the culture of studying together that DSLTI builds as we learn from—and with—one another the arts of teaching, observation, and practice. Experiencing, practicing, and learning the skills and knowledge that day school leaders need, and reflecting on these experiences individually and collectively, makes DSLTI transformative for the fellows and ultimately for the schools they lead.

Dr. Ray Levi is a mentor in The Davidson School’s Day School Leadership Training Institute. He is head of school emeritus of the Heilicher Minneapolis Jewish Day School.

Seeking “Holy-istic” Educators

By Rabbi Jason Gitlin

I remember the first time I heard my teacher speak about his life as a stutterer. He told us that he felt incapacitated by his speech. At one of the most important moments of his life, he almost allowed the disability to engulf him and dictate his aspirations and goals.

Growing up a stutterer, I identified with his story of feeling inadequate—an emotion shared by everyone who faces any form of disability (meaning everyone). I was also both comforted and inspired by his ability to overcome its potential for limiting his choices in life. Instead, he modeled a way to integrate this aspect of himself into his spiritual development and identity.

While profound in itself, this story was just one of many ways this teacher captured the hearts and minds of students and made us feel connected to, even responsible for, one another. It was partly his character. Our teacher seemed to have access to all sorts of information and wisdom. Yet whenever he taught, it felt as though he was learning the material with us for the first time.

Despite his stature in the community, he conveyed a sincere humility for which he was widely respected. He managed to do this by regularly making us, rather than himself or the content, the most essential component of our learning. Projects, tasks, and activities were always being arranged that involved experiences connected to the ideas. By giving responsibility to everyone, he allowed us to understand that learning could be elevated to meaning-making through community and the insights we arrived at as a group. He loved to reflect on both our triumphs and tragedies, spinning yarns about our group into a series of stories he would tell, eventually sending us off at the end of our learning with a complete narrative that offered both personal and communal meaning.

If at this point my teacher sounds somehow familiar, it is because his name is Moshe Rabbeinu (“our teacher, Moses”), the Jewish tradition’s exemplar of a humble educator. This portrait of a teacher is deeply reflective of many of the foundational attributes of experiential learning and holistic education. It speaks to what, I believe, is Judaism’s profound relationship with these educational theories. It also helps explain why the educator described above is not just a monograph of Moses, but a composite of some of the most engaging and memorable teachers I experienced while learning in Jewish settings. These include holiday and Shabbat tables, batei midrash, camps, and tiyulim (trips) in Israel.

Experiential learning and holistic education trace their formal roots back to the work of modern scholars such as John Dewey and Maria Montessori, who sought to broaden education’s cognitive goals and emphasize its role in shaping an individual’s moral, emotional, physical, psychological, and spiritual dimensions. Holistic education promoted the belief “that each person finds identity, meaning, and purpose in life through connections to the community, to the natural world, and to spiritual values such as compassion and peace.” The ultimate aim of education in holistic learning is to help each person reach his or her potential, stressing what the American psychologist Abraham Maslow termed “self-actualization.”

Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, who was a contemporary of Maslow, began his tenure as the head of The Jewish Theological Seminary’s Teachers Institute and articulated a complementary conception and relationship with God. In his Questions Jews Ask, Kaplan wrote: “The cosmos is so constituted as to enable man to fulfill the highest human need of his nature . . . Man normally veers in the direction of that which makes for the fulfillment of his destiny as a human being. That fact indicates the functioning of a cosmic Power which influences his behavior (Reconstructionist Press, 1956; New York. 83–84).”

However one chooses to conceive of and believe or not believe in God, Kaplan’s conception of the Divine offers a primary mission for Jewish living and learning that is in harmony with the goals of experiential and holistic education. Moreover, Kaplan’s conception is not just a modern innovation, but rather one deeply informed by traditional Jewish narrative and practices, both biblical and rabbinic.

Moses provides just one compelling example of how Jewish narrative provides a rich orientation for experiential learning and holistic educators. In his work on Informal Jewish Education, Professor Barry Chazan defined the holistic educator as “a total educational personality who educates by words, deeds, and by shaping a culture of Jewish values and experiences . . . His/ her role in this context is to create opportunities for those experiences and to facilitate the learner’s entry into the moments.”

In the journey of leading the Children of Israel out of Egypt, bringing them to Sinai and eventually to the gates of the Promised Land, Moses (with God’s help) facilitates a series of rituals, experiences, and moments that ultimately shape the Israelites’ identity and practice as Jews. He does this—as described in the examples above—by utilizing and relying upon attributes that have come to define informal and experiential Jewish education: personal and emotional dimensions of learning, strong relationships and community, a curriculum of experiences and values, and the integration of authentic Jewish content.

If invoking our tradition’s Prophet par excellence and the epic mythical events of the Bible seem too daunting or lofty, take heed. To engage in professional development around experiential education is not just about acquiring discrete skills and techniques that have proven effective in instilling Jewish learning and identity. This type of learning is an opportunity for educators to integrate a pedagogy that inspires them to think about the mission and narrative of Jewish life, further shaping their identities as both Jews and teachers, and benefitting the entire community through the creation of truly “hol-y-stic” educators and learners.

This article is reprinted from the first issue of Gleanings, an eJournal run by the Davidson School that explores issues in Jewish education.  

Rabbi Jason Gitlin (The Rabbinical School of JTS, ‘13) is project manager for ReFrame.

New Ways to Make Kids Excited About Camp

By Michelle Shapiro Abraham

What if you took a camp counselor – t-shirt and all – and dropped her in a synagogue? Instead of telling her to leave all that “campy stuff” at the door, invite her to bring it all in with her. Don’t stick her in a classroom on a Sunday morning to talk about camp for an hour, instead have her bring that “camp magic” year round to every activity and every kid in the building. Add a splash of “pied-piper” appeal and camp recruitment responsibilities and you have a Service Corps Fellow in action.

The Service Corps Fellowship asks the question, “What impact can a dynamic, excited camp staff person have on a congregation when he/she is focused on embodying camp in the community?” What can we learn from these Fellows about how to get kids interested in Jewish camp and build stronger Jewish communities?

Generously funded by an anonymous donor, the Union for Reform Judaism’s (URJ) Service Corps Fellowship places summer camp staff with at least two years of experience in synagogues for 4-5 hours a week during the academic year. Service Corps is a shared grant of the URJ and Ramah Camping Movements. Though each movement runs their own program, we share professional development programs, materials and learn from each other’s work.

Over the next two years, the program will ramp up from 25 Fellows in 2013-14 to 40 Fellows in 2015-16. URJ Service Corps Fellows are supported by camp professionals and a rabbi or educator in their assigned congregation and are charged with two main goals:

  • Cultivate an awareness of the power of camp in the congregation and encourage more students to attend Jewish summer camps.
  • Utilize best practices from Jewish summer camps including experiential education models, relationship building, and role modeling to engage students in Judaism and bring some of the “magic of camp” to congregational programs.

Though the data from year one is just coming in, we are now able to identify what success looks like and have a glimpse into a new and exciting approach to connecting children to camp and engaging them in Jewish life year-round.

Meet Jennifer. Jennifer is the one of the URJ Service Corps Fellows from URJ Greene Family Camp and is working at Temple Beth Shalom in Austin, Texas. Because of Jennifer’s work as a Service Corps Fellow, Temple Beth Shalom saw 36 campers attend URJ Greene Family Camp last summer and 50 kids enrolled for this summer, 15 of which are first-time campers. So what did Jennifer do? How did she (and other Service Corps Fellows like her) have this impact on camp enrollment with only seven months in the community? Wearing her camp T-shirt, Jennifer welcomes families each Sunday morning to Religious School. During the second half of the day, she helps teach chuggim (free choice activities) and includes camp lingo, activities and fun camp give-aways. She gets to know the kids and talks about how much she loves camp. When parents want to know more, she calls them and keeps in touch. She encourages students to join her at the URJ Greene Family Camp prospective camper weekend and spends time with them while they were there. She helps run a Camp Shabbat at the congregation, and takes part in other congregational programs (all in her camp T-shirt). In short, Jennifer is fully integrated as the congregation’s “resident camp counselor.” Jennifer is not alone – many of our Service Corps Fellows have become important parts of their communities and had a significant impact on camp numbers and student engagement with Jewish life.

We know from preliminary data that congregations that have been successful with Service Corps had a level of readiness before the Fellow started. Congregations that applied to this program were open to the idea of promoting camp and integrating experiential education. In most cases, at least one person on the professional staff spent time during their summer serving as camp faculty. Many ran a “Camp Shabbat” during the year, invited camps to do recruitment programs during the Religious School day, and integrated “camp-style” learning in to their education program. In addition, many of these congregations already offered some level of scholarships to help families with the expense of camp.

However, even with a congregation’s previous commitment to camp, Jenn and Service Corps Fellows like her have been able to have an impressive impact on camp recruitment numbers – an impact that all of those other efforts were unable to accomplish. So what is unique about the Service Corps approach and what can we learn from it for camp recruitment in all our settings?

First – by walking around in a camp T-shirt and being known as “the resident camp person” we believe our Fellows put camp on the radar in a deep and meaningful way. There are a lot of things competing for attention in a congregation – the very presence of a Service Corps Fellow seems to keep camp at the top of that list. Since the Fellow is in the room, camp and “camp-style” learning is often a topic of conversation and considered in program planning.

A second reason for the impact of the Service Corps Fellow program might be called the “pied-piper” effect – children want to follow the young adult who is fun, welcoming and engaging. If they like their Service Corps Fellow, and their Service Corps Fellow says “follow me to camp,” (or “go to the camp I went to”) they are much more likely to go. When you add to this fun activities and good times with friends, you have a perfect mix to attract new campers and engage kids in Jewish life.

Lastly, is the relationship-building that our most successful Fellows have been able to cultivate. Camp staff are master relationship builders. They know how to build community in the first five minutes of bringing their kids together in a cabin and how to make “friendships that last a lifetime” in the short eight weeks of summer. When we, through professional development and support, tap into that knowledge, there is a powerful outcome. Service Corps Fellows are talking to kids and parents, working with teachers, and creating friendships as they go. When this relationship is seen as what “camp people” do, families are drawn to the larger summer experience to get more of the same.

These successes suggest some interesting approaches for camp recruitment in all of our communities. Can congregations tap a young adult already on their staff – such as a teacher or part time youth advisor – to become the “camp person”? If they embodied the camp spirit and talked openly about their love of camp, could we see the same results? Are there ways to frame existing youth group or family-based programs with camp language and branding and thus put camp on the radar for more of our families? Are there tools of relationship-building from camp that we can use in congregations and schools to build our community and help people feel connected? As we continue the Service Corps program and learn from both our successes and our challenges, we will continue answering these questions and identifying new ways to connect our children to powerful and immersive camp experiences.

Michelle Shapiro Abraham has worked in the field of Jewish education for over 20 years. Currently she serves part time as the Senior Program Manager for Camping for the Union for Reform Judaism, in addition to her work with the Foundation for Jewish Camp. She is also a member of the Experiential Innovation Hub at the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education, which emphasizes experiential Jewish education in various settings, including congregations.

This article first appeared on eJewish on June 11, 2014.

Take It in Three

The following article is reprinted from the first issue of Gleanings, an eJournal run by the Davidson School that explores issues in Jewish education.  

Dialogue on Jewish Education from The Davidson School
Issue 1, Winter 2014

Take It in Three
By Rachel Meytin

Judaism has  a lot of threes: three moments of daily prayer, three things on which the world rests (al haTorah, al haAvodah, v’al Gemilut Hasidim [Pirkei Avot 1:2]), and three historical divisions (Cohen, Levi, and Israelite)—three parts that together form the whole people of Israel.

Threes are poetic and easy to remember, and it’s unsurprising that they show up regularly in traditional and modern thought. They also provide ample opportunity for interpretation and extrapolation: What do two have in common that the third does not? Are they legs of a stool—equal in importance and priority, or do they grow on each other like concentric circles?

It is in this vein that  a new triad  for youth is suggested: Identify, Connect, and Improve—three core educational outcomes that BBYO calls the “educational framework.” Together, the three words describe the intended impact of youth participation. In other words, this is how we want our teens to be on their  own when  they leave our youth programs: we want our young alumni to be confident about their Jewish identity, connected to Israel and their local and global Jewish community, and committed to leading others and improving the world. But what does that really mean? And once we understand the words and the meaning, how do we break these big concepts down so that  a Shabbat service, a Saturday night social, and a weekday meeting can all be aligned to meet these big goals?

One way to explore this tripartite outcome is to see its parts as concentric circles, where growth occurs as we shift from one stage to the next. Even within each circle there are stages of growth, first internal, then local, then communal. We begin with the individual: in our central circle we focus on the experience a teen has within herself—her identification with Judaism. Then in the second phase, we push this individual to grow beyond herself and create community with other emerging individuals. Once within that second circle, having created a safe and supportive community, we require movement to the third level: looking outward and making the world better.

One of the differences between the concentric circles model and the stool is that the stool requires all three of its legs. With a concentric circle you could succeed at the two inner circles but not the outer—and that would not diminish the achievement for the first two. Would we feel we have succeeded if a teen excels at only two of these three? Can you truly connect to others and form meaningful communities without recognizing your own self and identity? Do we, as a Jewish community, think that it’s “good enough” if someone is proudly Jewish but doesn’t work toward making the world a better place? Can you be a Jew in isolation, without finding a community that shares and supports your values? Just like the metaphoric three-legged stool, the three parts of our “ideal” teen can only really be recognized in partnership with others—yet we also see the components as concentric circles with progression that  takes place as teens grow from an inward to an outward focus.

As the parts work together in this model, so these three outcomes come together and shape how programming is created. To play this idea out, let’s take Shabbat, something that directly falls into the first circle of an individual’s own connection to Judaism. However, Shabbat programming can reach its fullest potential when we recognize not only the individual experience but that of the community, the opportunity to strengthen relationships beyond  just sitting together in a room. We can look for ways that  Shabbat can model the ideal world, and that personal introspection can spur community action. When teens are ready to tackle their community’s largest issues, we can help them focus on issues that align most closely with their understanding of Judaism’s commitment to social justice. We can make explicit to teens the increased power that their individual selves have when they come together, in community, to serve and support each other.

Rachel Meytin is the director of Panim and Jewish Enrichment at BBYO, and holds an MAEd and an MBA from the American Jewish University.

From Chair Pose to Congregational School Poised for Change

The following article is reprinted from the first issue of Gleanings, an eJournal run by the Davidson School that explores issues in Jewish education and draws on perspectives from emerging and veteran educators.  

Dialogue on Jewish Education from The Davidson School
Issue 1, Winter 2014

From Chair Pose to Congregational School Poised for Change
By Zachary Lasker

This summer I was in Cleveland teaching a course on Jewish education, and after days of sitting my legs yearned to stretch. Nervously, I entered a nearby yoga studio. I’d only been practicing for 18 months. At home I had managed to overcome my insecurity as one of life’s least coordinated individuals by sticking with a few particular instructors. In Cleveland, I was out of my comfort zone—new location, new class, new teacher. We proceeded through a series of poses to which I was, thankfully, accustomed. Standing pose. Chair pose. Plank. As I settled into the core Downward Facing  Dog pose, my nerves melted into confidence. I could  walk into any yoga studio, and feel at home in my practice. How do they accomplish this? And why does  this question feel all too familiar?

How can we inspire our Jewish children across the world to seek out Jewish community, and be active in their practice? Settings of education may vary, but most aspire to cultivate some type of lifelong commitment to Jewish living and learning. An example of success might be a school, camp, or youth-group graduate who seeks out a prayer service at college, feels at home in the pews, and even stands up to lead now and then. If my experience with yoga in Cleveland became a college student’s story with Kabbalat Shabbat at Ohio State, then dayenu (“good enough for us”)!

Currently, I am exploring how congregational schools can be strengthened to cultivate within learners a positive Jewish identity and a commitment to a set of Jewish values, practices, and beliefs. The stakes are high. The majority of non-Orthodox children enrolled in a program of Jewish learning find themselves in part-time settings. Fortunately, congregational learning is receiving a lot of attention from Jewish professionals and parents who are  not satisfied with the current level of engagement. Folks are working hard to try out new ideas. In fact, the purpose of my trip to Cleveland was to teach a course titled The Best  of Camp in School Settings. As I settled into the next Chair pose, I wondered how Jewish educators could  learn from the practice of yoga.

Question: how is it that many kids sit through two to six weekly hours of instruction on Hebrew language, prayer, values, and holidays and retain very little, and yet, as an adult, I’ve logged a similar number of hours learning yoga and can enter any studio and participate?

Children are like sponges when  it comes to education: they have the capacity to learn a tremendous amount. Yet there are  challenges when  it comes to congregational schools. Hours of instruction decrease as schedules grow busier. Trends in 21st-century secular education are veering from a focus  on content toward skills  in critical thinking, teamwork, and the ability to ask questions and self-navigate to the answers. Regardless, there remains an expectation for congregational schools to focus  on b’nai mitzvah  preparation and a laundry list of subject areas. Important conversations are  taking place about the goal of these schools, and my focus  is on the support we offer educators to succeed.

Yoga instruction includes a range of goals from the mechanics of the poses to the life benefits of breathing and mindful intention. As an adult, I learned that when a yoga instructor calls out “Ardha Candrasana,” my mind translates “Half Moon pose”  and my body topples over as I balance on my right  hand  and leg with my left hand  and leg extended up (photos omitted on purpose). I can even explain  the benefit of this stretch. In the meantime, when congregational teachers call out “Lulav” and ask  about the four species, too many students are  like deer caught in the headlights.

I attribute my strides in yoga to a particular teaching style. Enter a yoga studio for your first class, and you will not see a desk, book, or whiteboard. Your tools  are  a mat,  blocks, and a blanket. When class begins, you engage in the practice of yoga. We need to practice or do Judaism with our learners in the same way that  they put their  hands to piano keys to learn music, dribble on the basketball court to become athletes, or dissect a frog as young biologists. How is it that  the same kid who struggles to recite the Amidah prayer can shine on the basketball court and recall statistics for players and games? Of course, part  of it is motivation.

I am self-motivated to take on yoga. Still, we spend a lot of time with kids on mastering the Amidah. How can we be more successful?

The simple answer is to engage kids in the many different forms of prayer and guide them toward opportunities in which to be prayerful, rather than  stick them behind a desk and force them to recite the words from a photocopy or textbook. Fortunately, many congregational schools are already moving past overly frontal techniques. The more mindful answer is to strategically employ the approach of experiential learning, currently at the center of many conversations about Jewish education. For years we have seen the fruitful impact of the experiential approach in the setting of Jewish summer camp or through organized trips to Israel. Current debates question whether experiential methods can be integrated more prominently in non-immersive settings where educators lack the luxuries of residential  living, lakes, and fields.

Experiential Jewish education is a broad approach, and not restricted to one particular environment. Dr. Jeffrey Kress, an expert at The Jewish Theological Seminary, explains experiential Jewish education as a combination of several attributes that  involve relationship building: entry  points for a variety of learners and engaging a person’s emotions, providing opportunities for reflection, and connecting with other life experiences. The practice of yoga is quite experiential—relationships are  formed with instructors, emotions are  engaged, there are  several opportunities for self-reflection, and instructors connect the practice to issues confronted outside the studio. While individuals interested in yoga can certainly attend a retreat, most learn within a limited number of weekly hours in a studio near home, conditions that are similar to the congregational school.

Conversations about an experiential approach to congregational learning often start with the question “How can we make Hebrew school more like camp?” This is a fine way to begin the conversation, but we need to be careful as we experiment with answers. People who expect to enter a school and see the exact same magic that can occur in a Jewish camp are doomed to disappointment. We cannot extract individual activities from camp, replicate them in a school, and expect the same outcome. A Jewish cooking activity is effective at camp because the hour spent kneading challah dough takes place in a larger context: the camper also sits near his cooking instructor during prayer services or joins her  for Israeli folk dancing before lunch, or he might  use his baked challah during Shabbat dinner that night. An experiential approach is more than  “hands-on learning.” There is a risk that a cooking elective in a congregational school will exist in a vacuum. It becomes “culinary education” and not “Jewish education.”

Most yoga instructors are  authentic experiential educators. As pedagogues, they are knowledgeable about the mechanics of yoga, appropriately challenge students while scaffolding us to success, assess progress and offer feedback, and draw connections between our practice of yoga and our daily lives. As classroom managers, they are generally patient and nurturing and bring  us together as a group, while also offering individual hands-on support as needed. Much of this success can be attributed to their training. A minimum standard requires 200 hours of training in areas ranging from alignment and anatomy to the science and art of sequencing a class, as well as how to offer hands-on adjustments. Many instructors receive a total of 500 hours to deepen their  abilities, and benefit from a greater amount of mentoring and practice teaching.

If we want congregational schools to adopt  an experiential approach, then our top priority must be to prepare teachers to integrate these techniques into their  pedagogy and classroom management. The profile for congregational school teachers varies greatly from emerging educators who teach while in college to adults for whom teaching is a secondary avocation.

Most bring some combination of interest, personal experiences in Jewish education, and varying levels of content knowledge. Few arrive with formal training in experiential learning. Those who have benefited directly from experiential programs have strong instincts, but need guidance on how to explicitly modify for settings that are not residential.

I am eager to continue my exploration of this approach, and giving thought to the art of yoga helps clarify some immediate needs. Leaders in Jewish education must allocate resources in time and funding  for the preparation of experiential educators on a local and national level. This preparation should certainly include the school educators, but must also  include other professionals in the synagogue community so that the school is truly embedded in a larger community. In turn, our educators have an obligation to collaborate internally and externally to ensure that  schools, camps, and youth groups take advantage of opportunities for joint training, programming, and communication as we steward families through an increasingly wide network of experiences.

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.


This article first appeared on eJewish on October 3, 2013.

Click here for a PDF version of Gleanings: Winter 2014, Volume I, Issue I 


Take the EJE Challenge! (It’s Not What You Think)

The following article is reprinted from the first issue of Gleanings, an eJournal run by the Davidson School that explores issues in Jewish education. This journal slices across the various settings/denominations of Jewish education, and draws on perspectives that span the perspectives of emerging and veteran educators.  

Dialogue on Jewish Education from The Davidson School
Issue 1, Winter 2014

Take the EJE Challenge! (It’s Not What You Think)
By Jeffrey S. Kress

Harry Potter and friends are on the run. They have already made it most of the way through the lengthy series, so they must be exhausted. Now they encounter a new challenge: whenever someone utters the name of the evil villain-who-shall-not-be-named, one of the villain’s henchmen pops up. The word itself serves as a GPS-homing device. Though only fiction, it is an example of words shaping reality.

Words also have power in the Jewish tradition. God’s creations emerge from God’s utterances: “And God said, ‘Let there be light.’ And there was light.” We all know the power of words to inflict pain through lashon harah or bullying. Saying that taunts are “only words” does little to assuage the reality he words trigger for the victim.

Words can also serve to cloud, confuse, or obfuscate reality. The builders of the Tower of Babel degenerated into chaos as a result of linguistic confusion. Even when people speak the same language, the meaning of words can be fuzzy when they are used to name concepts or categories that themselves are open to multiple interpretations. This often occurs with what we refer to as buzzwords. Two politicians, for example, can both claim to support freedom and democracy, yet have completely different viewpoints and platforms. We talk about the importance of Jewish identity, yet define it in many different ways. A professor tells a student a paper lacks substance, and the student wonders how exactly to fix that (More citations? More analysis? Additional recommendations and takeaways?). A consultant tells you that your workplace would benefit from more synergy among departments, and you wish the advice had been more concrete.

I am concerned that experiential Jewish education (EJE) is falling into this buzzy, fuzzy linguistic category. That is, it seems to be a term that is used with the assumption of shared agreement about its meaning, but in reality the term is used to refer to many different things. I am not speaking of academic attempts to pin down a meaning. Rather, I am talking about the everyday use of the term that I encounter with students, practitioners, and policy makers, and, yes, even academics. We have made some movement to avoid using the term experiential as a category of setting, and instead use formal or informal to describe settings (so one can have experiential education in formal settings and in informal settings). Beyond that, the term experiential, in my experience, is used as shorthand to refer to a Jewish education that

  • is fun, exciting, and/or engaging
  • is innovative, out of the box
  • involves some type of activity that gets people up and moving
  • encourages reflection
  • is based on the interests of the learners
  • includes art (song, drama, etc.)
  • employs group processes
  • is camp-like (a term that itself is used in multiple, fuzzily defined ways)
  • promotes Jewish identity (to use another buzzword)
  • is oriented toward emotions and attitudes
  • challenges the learner

And this is only a partial list.

I am not arguing here that the term’s ambiguity should compel us to find a consensus definition. Actually, I would love to see the opposite: instead of using the term, let’s use the idea-that-we-wanted-to-capture-by-using-the-term. So I would like to hereby issue the Experiential Jewish Education (EJE) Challenge: please stop using the term experiential Jewish education. Instead, use a different term that more concretely conveys your intended meaning. So, for example, instead of “I want to make my school more experiential,” one might say, “I want to give learners more opportunities to reflect on the relevance of the learning to their lives” and/or “I want to organize more activities that pull for student input, rather than have the flow of information constantly coming from the teacher.” Or whatever was really meant by using the phrase “more experiential.”

Think of the challenge as a variation of the popular game Taboo, in which one gives clues about a keyword to a teammate, but must avoid saying certain words in doing so. Yes, the result might be bulky, it may require lengthy description and more forethought—and it will be more challenging. But that’s the whole point—in the game and in the EJE Challenge. We can stop trying to impose definitions on the term EJE, and embrace the idea that it can stand for multiple, significant ideas that may not benefit by being lumped together in one term. It may be difficult, but try it—at least for a while. Next time you want to use the term EJE, think Taboo—and just say what you really mean.

Dr. Jeffrey S. Kress is the interim dean of the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of The Jewish Theological Seminary.



Click here for a PDF version of Gleanings: Winter 2014, Volume I, Issue I