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 

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.

Provocative Projects: Emergent Curriculum Practices in Jewish Early Childhood Education

The following article is reprinted from our eJournal, Gleanings, which explores issues in Jewish education.  This journal slices across the various settings/denominations of Jewish education, and draws on perspectives that span across the career trajectory of the educator from emerging to veteran.  

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

Provocative Projects: Emergent Curriculum Practices in Jewish Early Childhood Education
By Lyndall Miller

Anyone who works in early childhood education is familiar with the words developmentally appropriate practice (DAP). This phrase implies that the mental tools with which children approach the world evolve with age and experience, and our educational practices need to match these expanding abilities. We know from research and experience that young children are not just inexperienced adults. We also know that a “developmentally appropriate curriculum” is what we should be using in the classroom.

However, there is a possibility that the familiar DAP phrase is being used as a label to promote curricular units rather than a dynamic, authentic, responsive, and exploratory approach to curriculum development. If we examine the vast numbers of the classroom units on the seasons, community helpers, transportation, animals—the many subjects we teach—we find that they require children to be sitting and listening to the teacher for most of the lesson. The children may be asked questions, but their answers are then labeled “right” or “wrong.” Follow-up activities may include art projects, but these “creations” are virtually indistinguishable from each other. Sometimes, young children are given other follow-up activities in the form of worksheets—with colorful characters, perhaps, but which reinforce the search for the right answers of the teacher. It seems that “developmentally appropriate curriculum” can come to mean for us materials published for early childhood, or that we have in our files from previous years, or even from previous teachers—”appropriate” because we know that the children can do it, seem to enjoy it, and also seem to learn: they name the seasons or animals or put the coat and the mittens together, not the coat and the bathing suit (but wouldn’t that be more interesting?).

What we miss with this practical approach, besides creative answers, is the true philosophy behind the words developmentally appropriate curriculum. This philosophy is based on the tenet that young children learn by openly encountering, not just by doing. Therefore, an appropriate curriculum is one that allows the complex process of learning to grow from the interaction between the child’s thinking and his environment. Sitting and listening to us talk, making crafts, and certainly doing worksheets do not allow for this complex process to take place in a dynamic way. The child needs many chances to assess situations, choose his own actions, plan investigations and constructions, and learn from the results rather than always looking for someone else’s right answer. If he doesn’t get the opportunity now to experiment in a protected environment, how will he learn later to get the answers to his own most pressing questions? Will he still be looking to someone else to tell him what is right? We have such a wonderful opportunity to not only preserve but encourage the natural passionate enthusiasm in young children. They are inspiring to us.

So—we want to be gentle guides as the children explore our world and forge their own understandings. Fortunately, an increasing number of secular publications come out every year to help us structure our classrooms so that this can happen. The Project Approach, promoted in the work of Lilian G. Katz and Sylvia C. Chard, is a prominent example. But what about Jewish concepts and ideas? Do we dare take a chance on letting the children play out their explorations and investigations about Judaism? The answer is a resounding yes. The more opportunities we give them to use all their senses to perceive Jewish objects in many ways, to actually interact with authentic stories and concepts, and to explore and construct their own ideas about Judaism, the more they will weave it into the very patterns of who they are.

Having made this decision, how do we go about it? It is not easy finding good, truly developmentally appropriate curricula for the Jewish early childhood classroom. Many of the curricula published for introducing Jewish topics have the same difficulties mentioned at the beginning of this article—they use lessons that ask children primarily to sit and listen and respond with “right” answers, or to do crafts using templates and cutouts that all of the children use at the same time—with remarkably similar results. Other curricula, which are excellent, give broad general concepts, with only a few concrete examples of what to do in the classroom, and leave the rest up to us.

And, of course, that is where the responsibility must ultimately rest. Education is the result of the intimate and intense interaction between each individual child and his or her learning environment. It’s time for us to use our own senses as we observe our classroom children and see what interests them. We need to experiment with ways of helping them explore Jewish ideas—indeed, all ideas—in personal ways and on a daily basis. Only then will we know that we have done more than just add to their stores of knowledge, but instead have helped them grow according to the dictates of their own unique selves. Our tradition tells us that each person is a world unto himself or herself; it is our privilege as teachers of young children to be the observers of each child in the process of self-creation.

Lyndall Miller, MEd, MAJEd, MSEd, is the director of the Jewish Early Childhood Education Leadership Institute (JECELI), a collaborative effort between The Jewish Theological Seminary and Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion, in consultation with the Bank Street College of Education. JECELI is generously funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation.

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


All About Experiential (Jewish) Education: The Mystery Revealed

We are thrilled to share the very first edition of our eJournal, Gleanings, which explores issues in Jewish education.  This journal slices across the various settings/denominations of Jewish education, and draws on perspectives that span across the career trajectory of the educator from emerging to veteran.  

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

All About Experiential (Jewish) Education: The Mystery Revealed
By Mark S. Young

Experiential education is the mysterious term that has enveloped our field over the past decade. What are we educators, learners, administrators, and philanthropists supposed to do with this term? What are its meanings and nuances, and how have they been interpreted? What do the opportunities and potential of experiential education represent within our larger field of Jewish education? Let us also tackle the 600-pound gorilla: is experiential education really the silver bullet that will mollify our field’s challenges and woes?

It is an honor to greet you as the opening writer for The Davidson School’s inaugural issue of Gleanings, an education newsletter that offers insights, reflections, and challenges to the field of Jewish education. In this issue, we invite you to explore articles—by our faculty, staff, students, alumni, and guests—that revolve around experiential education, a concept that has captivated our field.

What I found most interesting while reading these fantastic pieces, perhaps frustrating at first but empowering after I thought about it, is that these articles do not provide a clear-cut answer to any of the above—intentionally. Rather, they propose fascinating ideas, share program models, narrate personal stories, and suggest new questions. I find this refreshing and pertinent. Our contributors model what we discuss here at The Davidson School about experiential education: that it is about 1) learners discovering, exploring, and understanding on their own terms; 2) facilitators and learners feeling empowered to cultivate and strengthen relationships with each other and the content; 3) the intentionality of our work, focusing on our goals and deciding the best techniques and modes of pedagogy to most effectively achieve our goals, and 4) reflection, the notion that we must take the time to examine, question, and wrestle with our experiences so we can extrapolate the key learning and conceptualizations from them.

The Davidson School has been all about experiential education for decades. We educate students in our graduate programs and participants in our multitude of professional development institutes about Dewey, Vigotzky, and the principles of constructivist learning. The Davidson School expanded this focus thanks to the generosity of the Jim Joseph Foundation, its education grant to The Davidson School, and the launch of our Experiential Learning Initiative in 2010. The initiative is a five-year project that has given scholarships to 34 of our MA students so that they may enroll in a cohort specifically oriented to “Jewish experiential educators,” involved in intentionally designed fieldwork projects, internships, cohort activities, and special courses. Brianna Spatz, a student of The Davidson School, shared some reflections and recent experiences in the field, which appear in this issue. The Experiential Learning Initiative has also engaged 38 mid-level professionals in Jewish Community Centers (JCCs) throughout North America in conversation and training about experiential education and its connection to leadership, through the lens of Jewish content. But an ultimate goal of the initiative has been to move forward the learning, understandings, complexities, and simplicities of Jewish experiential education (JEE; or experiential Jewish education [EJE], take your pick) to the field at large. Truly, our subsequent projects—such as ReFrame for synagogue education—are doing just that. Rabbi Jason Gitlin, our ReFrame project manager, and Dr. Zachary Lasker, director of education projects for the Melton Research Center for Jewish Education and of The Davidson School, glean their stories and insights for us here as well.

What might be most inspiring about the following articles, however, is that they take the mystique of “What is experiential education?” out of the equation by tackling the term itself. Dr. Jeffrey Kress, interim dean of The Davidson School and my partner in directing the Experiential Learning Initiative, encourages you to take the experiential Jewish education challenge, looking beyond the words to the goals of our work. We should look beyond trying to define or understand the term experiential education or figuring out how to bring experiential education to our institutions; rather, let’s focus on our educational goals—specifically, how we can best impact the development of our learners (youth, teens, and adults), and how some of these concepts can get us there—without obsessing over experiential as a term. Lyndall Miller, director of The Davidson School’s Jewish Early Childhood Education Leadership Institute (JECELI), offers a similar take from the perspective of early childhood development.

I have been inspired over the past three years as coordinator of our Experiential Learning Initiative to realize that experiential education—like any good form of learning, and quite frankly, like any good form of leading—means to take the time to truly understand oneself as a learner, educator, and leader. You, as the participant, matter to the conversation; and you, as the participant, have a responsibility to engage. You, as an educator and leader, have an accountability to engage others, not just to transmit; and by engaging, the transmission occurs so much more successfully—and with excitement. Certainly Ray Levi’s piece on the experiential approaches to learning within our Day School Leadership Training Institute (DSLTI) exemplifies this lesson.

Finally, there is an even bigger relationship at stake beyond the learner, facilitator, and content, and that is with the community at large. Rachel Meytin of BBYO provides her own working model of engaging with teens’ experiences and interests through the building of connections not only between teens and the content, but between an individual and the larger Jewish (and non-Jewish) community. Truly, our work is about expanding the network and group identifications, not merely strengthening one’s own individual experiences and learning.

We hope you glean much from the pieces that make up the inaugural issue of Gleanings. But more importantly, we hope you are left with new questions to explore, ideas to pursue, and challenges to overcome. Our initiative has been all about experimentation, innovation, questioning, and reflection. In the spirit of experiential education (or whatever we shall call it—again, read Jeff Kress’s piece), I invite you to a journey here that is fulfilling, inspiring, and experiential. Shalom.

Mark S. Young is the program coordinator of the Experiential Learning Initiative at the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of The Jewish Theological Seminary. The Experiential Learning Initiative is a five-year project generously funded and supported by the Jim Joseph Foundation.

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


Chanukah, Eight Crazy Nights for Jewish Experiential Education

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.