Originally posted at ejewishphilanthropy.com
by Aaron Starr
Most conversations about Jewish education focus on the “how” and rarely get to the “what.” Should we invert the two?
When those of us who are leaders in the world of Jewish education seek to define and, consequently, improve synagogue-based schools, we appropriately desire to engage the most cutting edge of educational delivery methods – and, for marketing purposes, to be known by our methodology. Consequently, the prevailing trade literature overwhelmingly focuses on the latest strategies for reaching our students, but focuses little on the content that qualifies as a successful Jewish education.
Unfortunately, discussing educational delivery methods before ascertaining how we can possibly teach our students the skills, knowledge and emotions necessary to live meaningful Jewish lives and give them the opportunity to express their Judaism in less than six hours each week, is like asking at the Seder why on Shabbat we have two loaves of challah but at the Seder we have three pieces ofmatzah. Good questions … just not the “right” questions.
Rather, we as educational leaders in conjunction with our synagogue families must first decide the core elements of Jewish life that will hopefully serve as the foundation for the students’ lifelong Jewish learning. In the scope of the religious school year, our children cannot and will not learn everything they need to about Judaism; it is simply impossible. The core elements, then, must consist of 1) skills and knowledge we want our students to gain familiarity with, understanding of, and mastery over. But we have to make those decisions while admitting to ourselves that we have less than six hours per week of instructional time, and that realistically we cannot teach all that we want or even need to. Moreover, 2) the core elements must also contain uplifting opportunities for our children and their parents to engage in spirited Jewish prayer services and to perform significant acts of helping those-in-need, within that limited “Jewish time.” And, 3) we have to figure out how to inculcate the skills and knowledge and offer real time Jewish experiences while still employing every single creative and exciting educational strategy so that our students will truly love being Jewish.
Getting real about the fact that our synagogue-based youth education programs are no longer supplementary schools, but the primary source for our families’ Jewish expression is the greatest challenge facing religious school in the 21st century – not whether we should use computers or arts and crafts in the classroom.
In the best secular schools, teachers utilize a variety of instructional methods within one classroom. Why in Jewish schools do we often seek one approach?
A decade ago, family education was the rage; we were working tirelessly to engage adults and their children/grandchildren in either shared or parallel learning experiences, grappling with the fact that adults and children learn in different ways. Excitement over family education transitioned to discussions of the use technology in the classrooms. We spent tens of thousands of dollars to bring in school computer labs, wireless internet access, and trained our teachers how to integrate technology into the classroom and social media into their communication with parents. Now the latest buzz in best-practices is the camp-style approach to learning. We wrestle with the extent to which we use camp terminology (“counselors” instead of “teachers”), camp-style rewards (e.g., badges, buttons or ribbons), experiential and informal educational techniques, and the extent to which we integrate art, drama and music into our already short school week.
Of course, when used appropriately, all of these educational approaches are impactful. There is no doubt that methodology matters when it comes to educating our children about Jewish skills and knowledge, as well as imbuing them with a sense of ahavat Torah and ahavat Yisrael. In fact, we know every teacher ought to utilize all of these approaches: “Train a child in the way he is most apt to learn, and that child will not depart from what s/he has learned, even in old age” (Proverbs 22:6, paraphrased). In the secular world, the interdisciplinary approach to education is called differentiated learning or multiple-intelligences, and it is common practice that a teacher must engage in whatever style of instruction will best suit each of his/her students. Yet, unless our goals and objectives are clear and realistic within our limited frameworks, then the method of educational delivery employed becomes simply theater and the discussions in which we engage children and parents becomes a sharing of mutual ignorance.
In previous generations, Jewish families actively participated in the religious life of the synagogue and practiced Jewish rituals in their home. Now that this is no longer the case, what implications does that have for the religious school?
In most synagogue communities, Shabbat and holiday service attendance among families with children is down, compared to previous generations. In most Jewish homes the level of ritual observance is also waning; and, I believe, throughout our country, families should spend more time engaging together in acts of repairing the world. Thus, in addition to offering innovative educational approaches that teach and assess skills and knowledge, we must create within the scheduled religious school time age-appropriate, meaningful spiritual outlets and Tikkun Olam opportunities for our families. Synagogue schools must find the time to transform t’filah lessons from “just” practicing the words of liturgy to also include opportunities for children to actually pray; for most children, these t’filah sessions are their only formal opportunity for communal prayer. The liturgy is important though, and with the prayers our children have learned, schools can establish weekly services in which those children lead their parents in prayer – even if the services are Sunday morning rather than Saturday morning or Friday night. T’filahin the religious school must be both lab and practicum.
Synagogue leaders must clarify expectations of parents for home-based rituals. At Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield, Michigan, we recently began sending home one page fliers about each holiday that include not only the background on the holiday and the synagogue service schedule for those holidays, but 4-5 mitzvotassociated with each particular holiday. Never do we provide all the halachahassociated with each celebration, but we consciously choose to include in those fliers a few, specific rituals that can be accomplished. Increasing the practice of Judaism in the home and Judaism in the synagogue is a primary role of the religious school, but no longer can we assume that what the synagogue school provides is being reinforced or practiced in the home. We must give tools, ideas and resources to parents as well, and support our parents in their own personal journeys.
Yet prayer and ritual experiences are not alone in their importance. When I came to Shaarey Zedek five years ago, we sought to make a bold statement about the role community service must play in our families and in our congregation. Thus we instituted Project Tikkun Olam: an annual family day of service for the entire Religious School. Each year we dedicate a full morning – three hours – toward repairing the world. While there are certainly learning opportunities built into the activities, the main goal is to provide service to those in need. Families with children of all ages call it one of the highlights of the Shaarey Zedek experience. Certainly, throughout the year each class of students engage in age-appropriate service learning opportunities. But, given our limited number of classroom hours and the lengthy list of skills and knowledge we hope to impart to our students, how can we add more of these important opportunities that not only allow for fulfillment of mitzvot but bring families together in such a powerful way, within the fixed religious school schedule? The situation is the same in all of our communities: religious school hours are families’ Jewish time. If schools do not schedule prayer and community service experiences in addition to study, the vast majority of Jewish children will not participate in formal prayer and large-scale acts of tikkun olam.
If examining our educational methodology is not the sole way of achieving success in the religious school, what must we do to create synagogue-based youth education programs that speak to the 21st century Jew?
For most educational leaders, we know how to write curriculum; we know how to establish the KNOWs, DOs, and FEELs our students ought to gain. But we are hard pressed, especially when we ask our teachers to use creative approaches, to accept the reality that we cannot teach everything we consider essential to living a Jewish life AND figure out how to give our families real-time Jewish experiences. No matter how creative or effective our faculty, there are not enough hours in the week, for example, to teach children how to read prayer-book Hebrew, write Hebrew cursive, and speak modern Hebrew. Let’s be honest: to try to accomplish a little bit of each is actually to fail at them all, and this is true whenever our curricula aim for tremendous breadth over meaningful depth. Rather, we must turn toward our families to partner with us in the creation of articulate mission and vision statements along with clear, assessable, realistic KNOWs, DOs, and FEELs so that we can create effective Jewish educational, spiritual and emotional avenues for our families. Only then, having established achievable goals that support the school’s mission and vision, may we decide the most successful differentiated learning approaches to accomplish our sacred lessons.
At Congregation Shaarey Zedek, we recently decided on eighteen specific stories from the Torah that we want mastered in our fourth through sixth grades. Mastery includes understanding the stories as literature, recognizing their role within the broader story of the Jewish people, and appreciating the dynamic interplay between Jewish life and our sacred texts. It means being able to explain specificmitzvot that come forth from the text, its p’shat or drash, and the modern-day fulfillment of those mitzvot. In other words, our students will be able to list the commandments of welcoming guests, visiting the sick, brit milah and kashrut asmitzvot found in the story of Abraham and Sarah welcoming the angels and expound upon, how as Conservative Jews, we understand and accept these mitzvotin a particular way. Delving deep into these eighteen stories, however, also means that there are countless other “important” stories, including a parashah byparashah study of the Torah that our children simply will not receive. Moreover, our Hebrew curriculum focuses almost exclusively on the Shabbat morning liturgy from the Torah service through the concluding prayers, as well as the Friday night dinner table rituals. During their time in religious school, our students might never be exposed in more than a passing conversation to P’sukei D’zimra, Kabbalat Shabbat or, sadly, learn to write Hebrew letters in cursive. But, given our time constraints, school mission and other goals, this is a reality we have knowingly chosen to accept. Then again, we recently began a process of Family Covenant: a sacred, personalized contract for accessible, meaningful, tangible steps toward greater, more mindful Jewish living in which their families might actively pursue such knowledge or experiences outside the religious school schedule.
Synagogue schools’ curriculum guides, mission and vision statements must clearly articulate its institution’s goals so that it can adequately provide for and assess its students’ learning. Moreover, the goals within those guides and statements must reflect the fact that – for most religious schools – there are less than six hours each week of the school year to educate children and their families. Such goal statements should reflect the reality – again, for most if not all schools, that the majority of our families do not come regularly on Shabbat and holidays, but on Sundays and midweek. And, finally, the Jewish community in America today is obligated to address the fact that religious schools are no longer supplementary schools, but the primary avenue of Jewish education and spiritual outlet for children and their parents. These are the key points of reality that a successful school must address to build a Jewish experience that is meaningful and relevant to 21st century families.
In less than six hours each week of the school year, we must help our students discover the knowledge of how Jews pray and create a forum for the experience of prayer. We must help our students develop a knowledge of Jewish ethics and provide for them the opportunity in time and resources to engage in mitzvot bein adam l’makom and bein adam l’chavero. We must help our students wrestle with sacred scripture and relate it to their hyper-assimilated, very modern lifestyle. These requirements are not native to the supplementary school model; they are new realities of Jewish life in 21st century America.
To be successful, the synagogue school must utilize camp-style experiences along with technology. The synagogue school must provide meaningful, engaging family education opportunities and reach out to parents and children individually. The synagogue school must offer its students art, drama, music, chevruta, and more. But creative educational methodologies alone will not succeed in inspiring a new generation of Jews. To be successful, synagogue curricula must be concise and practical with measurable goals and religious school teachers must employ every creative, multi-faceted educational strategy imaginable. Why is this religious school different from all other religious schools? Because it is a school that is asking all the right questions, and answering them as well.
Aaron Starr is a rabbi at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield, Michigan and past president of the Metropolitan Detroit Board of Jewish Educators. He is the author of Taste of Hebrew from URJ Press and Tradition vs. Modernity: The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) and Conservative Halachah, published in the Journal of Conservative Judaism.
Guest Post by: Rabbi Avi Katz Orlow
Excellent Experiential Jewish Education:
Activity for activity’s sake is not experiential education—it’s just an activity. Educational experiences should be intentionally designed to convey Jewish learning outcomes and values in an authentic way. In formal settings, a popular version of this process is “Understanding by Design.” It is essentially designing a program ‘backwards’. Educators need to begin with the goals and end with developing the activity itself. Regardless of how trivial the behavior may be, the activity must be founded on ‘big ideas’. Moving from just trying to socialize participants toward experiential education only happens with hyper-intention, using moments of ‘planned spontaneity’ to achieve carefully considered specific and concrete educational goals. Feedback is critical to ensuring that this is education and not merely activity. Not being able to rely on traditional tests and papers that are prevalent in formal education, experiential educators can and must utilize other forms of feedback for evaluation. Educators will only know if they have achieved their intended outcome if they build feedback mechanisms into their regular practice.
We are living in a time that cherishes the rare commodity of authenticity. To be authentic, Jewish content needs to be inherent to Jewish education. Educators should not shy away from content. Jewish education needs to be steeped in content that is relevant to all stages of life. Students know when something is “pasted-on” and inauthentic as compared to “passed-on” and heartfelt. Judaism and Jewish culture cannot be an afterthought, it can and should be integrated and inherent in the learning itself. Claiming something is a Jewish value by simply calling it one (for example, rebranding making sandwiches for the homeless as Tikkun Olam) is not sufficient to root this as a value in our tradition. This value claim must be in authentic dialogue with the text, stories, art, music, actions, and practices of the Jewish People.
Jewish values cannot be simply relegated to an area of content. Programs should use questions and activities to ensure that participants internalize the lesson and value by asking, “How is this valuable to me?” “How does this value have a Jewish context?” “In what way is this value Jewish?” “Is it valuable to me because or despite it being a Jewish value?” Excellent experiential education does not only leave room for reflection, it demands thoughtful consideration and discussion of the meaning of activities and experiences. This experience must evoke the tension between something having been a Jewish value throughout history and it being valued by Jews today. This reflection aims at orienting the participant, helping him/her realize a new knowledge or skill, and inspiring him/her to make enduring commitments to meaningful action.
People often describe successful Jewish educational experiences as “life-changing.” The focus of this education is personal transformation and individual growth. Relevance is a key component of any Jewish educational experience. Whereas in formal educational environments the course of study often follows the text, it is often the opposite in experiential education. Text plays the role of reacting, commenting, and transforming the students’ narratives. As the Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig said, “it is learning in reverse order, a learning that no longer starts from the Torah and leads into life but the other way around: from life…back to the Torah.” Revelation is not limited to something that might or might not have happened long ago at Sinai; it is something that is happening in the learning experience itself today. Textual learning is integrated in and is a manifestation of the relationships in our lives. In this context, all learners can access and feel ownership over Jewish Text. The educator needs to trust the educational process. Like the two teams who excavated Hezekiah’s Tunnel starting at each end of the tunnel and then meeting in the middle, experiential educators must negotiate the tension between reacting to the students and reaching the ‘big ideas’ (see #1). The educator needs to maintain the trust of each student and also trust that they will navigate a meaningful path for the group.
We are the People of the Book. Does that mean we are limited to books as our only mode of learning? In order to engage each student the educator needs to provide a variety of entry points for learning to meet the diversity of learning styles of their students. As Howard Gardner has written about, there are multiple entry points for diverse learners (See graph below). There are many different ways to shine and a variety of ways to contribute. The diversity of participants — range of interests, preferred learning modalities, special needs —should be accounted for when developing experiences. Authentic education succeeds in its mission when educators honor the idiosyncratic talents and interests of each student while maintaining a clear view of the common obligations and goals. To understand this idea of Multiple Intelligences in its most natural sense, please watch this video “Animal School” by www.raisingsmallsouls.com
While we tend to associate ritual exclusively with religious life, excellent Jewish experiential education is replete with its own rituals. Rituals help place the student in a context of Jewish time and help create Jewish space in which they can focus and create meaning. Done well, rituals help communicate the desired values and a sense of tradition. In understanding, creating, and enacting effective ritual it is essential that the educators are intentional in their planning, designing, implementing and facilitating programs that challenge their students to learn, grow, and develop. These rituals need not be sacramental in nature. In bringing together the timely and the timeless they are teeming with meaning. Rituals serve as vessels in which memories are cultivated and optimally transformed into habits to be utilized long beyond the educational context.
Mihály Csíkszentmihályi described “Flow” as the optimal place where we are behaving within our abilities while also being challenging enough to maintain our interest (See below graph). When people are in flow, they are completely immersed and engaged in one task, enjoying it to the point that they lose track of time. In other words, when people are in flow they do not realize that they are learning because they are having fun. Engaging Jewish educational settings are first and foremost safe spaces, and therefore they are the ideal places to encourage the sort of ‘productive discomfort’ that emerges from feeling appropriately challenged. Experiential Jewish education pushes learners to grow in this safe but challenging space. Games are excellent tools for getting students to experience flow. Games based on trivia should be avoided. Education that is solely driven toward data acquisition often misses getting or keeping students in flow.
Excellent Jewish experiential education is an interactive process. Learners should be encouraged to listen to one another and engage in respectful and meaningful dialogue. When appropriate, the role of the educator is to validate, contextualize, challenge, and help students refine their questions. Staving off the urge to answer questions, educators model the ability to sit with the questions and create the space for the students to come to their own answers. Educators need to value questions over answers because they keep the conversation going to ensure long term impact. This means that educators need to move evaluation of this education from verifying data acquisition to determination of the quality of questions.
Where formal environments demand certain structure and hierarchy, excellent experiential educational environments invite participants to challenge these roles. Whether these relationships are between peers or role models, participants have the opportunity to play with and reimagine their new roles in the group. Since so much learning happens in these moments, educators need to give a lot of attention to the social and emotional dynamics of the group. This system works because there is a tight learning loop where young participants see older participants and aspire to become like them. This ‘role model continuum’ keeps participants’ attention and devotion at every level of the educational process. As students and staff get older they model this by taking on more responsibility in shaping their environments. The nature of this dynamic and collaborative environment mandates that the educators abandon being the “sage on the stage” and opt for being the “guide on the side”. Optimally this manifests the teaching of Rabbi Chanina when he said, “I have learned much wisdom from my teacher, more from my colleagues, and the most from my students” (Ta’anit 7a). This dynamic challenges the charismatic leader to step back (tzimtzum) and make room for other voices. This in turn fosters a vital community in which all the participants feel an urgent sense of belonging.
Experiential Jewish education is aimed at creating a web of experiences that foster personal growth and develops skills, relationships, and knowledge of Jews of all ages. Educational settings are often limited to a fixed time and space. Immersive environments lend themselves to excellence in experiential education and are much more porous. Educators are ideal role models selectively using aspects of their personal lives to instruct students. Experiential educators care about their students as individuals, and understand that the text of their narratives extend before and after a particular experience or program. Given the enmeshed nature of this learning community (see #9) care is necessary to maintain appropriate boundaries given that these lines are intentionally blurred.
Growth and reflection occur in a dynamic communal setting. Educators must address the needs of each learner. Excellent experiential education capitalizes on the unique benefits of group dynamics. This group is often experienced through a smaller subunit. At times, this smaller group feels like a nurturing surrogate family or a competitive team. Sometimes educators will have to limit the choices of different entry points for different students to foster the group experience. The culture of this larger group may or may not look like the tradition of Jewish life, but it needs to be a rigorous culture that is in conversation with this tradition. Consciously or unconsciously, over time this learning community is creating culture that needs to last beyond the framework of the educational experience. Ideally participants see how they will continue to grapple with these ideas and be involved with this group throughout the course of their lives.
Powerful learning is about relationships. It is only when educators meet the students’ basic needs and achieve a mutual trust that the ‘magic’ can really happen. In establishing this trust, educators do not demand transparency in the experience. Where formal education often relies on direct instruction, experiential education happens with a certain kind of ‘indirect instruction’. The deepest learning often happens when educators help students get out of their own way in the service of their learning. This works when educators trust that the process will yield future revelations and breakthroughs in learning. (See forthcoming article on ‘deferred revelation’)
Ackerman, David (1998) ‘The Educating Moment’ in Judaism and Education: Essays in Honor of Walter I. Ackerman, ed. Haim Marantz, Beer-Sheva, Israel: Ben-Gurion University of the Negev Press.
Bryfman, David and J. Reimer What We Know About Experiential Jewish Education, What We Now Know about Jewish Education.
Chazan, B. (2003), ‘The Philosophy of Informal Jewish Education’ in The Encyclopedia ofInformal Education, www.infed.org/informaleducation/informal_jewish_education.htm.
Kress, J.S. (2012) So, You Want Your School to Be More Like Camp? http://www.thejewishweek.com/editorial_opinion/opinion/so_you_want_your_school_be_more_camp
Kress, J.S. (2013) What is Experiential Jewish Education?http://blog.jtsa.edu/reframe/2013/03/18/what-is-experiential-jewish-education/
Litman, Lesley ( 2013) Prompt: What are the implications of experiential education on curriculum design?http://blog.jtsa.edu/reframe/2013/04/09/prompt-what-are-the-implications-of-experiential-education-on-curriculum-design/
Orlow, Avi Katz. Tail of Two Jewries: Some Innovative Lessons From Chris Anderson and Jewish Summer Camp. Journal of Jewish Communal Service. Jewish Communal Service Association of North America (JCSA). Spring 2011: 184-193. http://www.bjpa.org/Publications/details.cfm?PublicationID=13803
Reimer, J. (2003) ‘A response to Barry Chazan: The Philosophy of Informal Jewish Education’, The Encyclopedia of Informal Education, www.infed.org/informaleducation/informal_jewish_education_reply.htm.
The 13 Dynamics in Israel Education http://www.theicenter.org/aleph-bet
People involved in supplementary or congregational school education – administrators, teachers, parents and even learners – know that instructional time is short and precious. When describing the challenge of time, I often revert to the following analogy. In our school at Beth Tzedec Congregation in Toronto, learners begin a two day per week program in 2nd grade for a total of three and three quarter hours of instruction per week. Multiply this number by our 26 week school year, and then by 6 years until graduation in 7th grade, and the total is 600 hours. This is equivalent to the number of instructional hours that a child in Jewish day school will receive in the Jewish Studies half of their curriculum in one year. This succinctly sums up the challenge of maximizing available time.
It is clear to me that it is near-impossible to impart everything we want a Jewish child to know in only 600 hours. This means that educators must make careful selections regarding subject matter (as stated by Rabbi Aaron Starr), but it also means that methods of instruction are built around different goals – we are now seeking ways to create interest in Jewish life so that learners will continue to seek out their own Jewish experiences once they leave the walls of our institutions.
Participating in the first ReFrame Design Lab at the Jewish Theological Seminary only reinforced my commitment to this principle. Seeking innovative, experiential and informal (pick your term) ways to convey subject matter – and more importantly, create positive associations – is at the heart of what ReFrame is seeking to accomplish. As easy as it is to agree with this logic, the Design Lab also demonstrated how challenging it is to move from logic to reality.
Take, for example, the challenge of teaching Hebrew, specifically reading and decoding Hebrew. Unlike topics such as Jewish holidays or Prayer, or even acquiring a spoken language, learning to read presents challenges for experiential education. Furthermore, many supplementary school settings tie reading Hebrew to the Siddur, meaning that a learner might figure out the tune and words to a prayer orally long before their reading becomes proficient. By attempting to double-up content, a natural action given limited time, educators are assuming that learners are achieving proficiency when they may in fact be falling behind. Additionally, in settings where modern conversational Hebrew and what I will call Mishnaic Siddur Hebrew are both being taught, we are asking learners to acquire one-and-a-half languages, as there are differences between ancient and modern Hebrew that are challenging for children to discern.
Our ReFrame working group attempted to tackle some of these challenges. We first discussed the pros and cons of using the Siddur as a Hebrew text and determined that this doubling-up likely did more harm than good. We then were left with the question of what text to use instead. Our brainstorm produced a few interesting results, yet nothing approached the level of experiential-ness that can be achieved in other subject matters. We also acknowledged the challenge of teaching two different versions of Hebrew, though we did agree that focus can be placed on the commonalities in each dialect.
What might be some ways to take the principles of experiential education and apply them to reading and decoding Hebrew? How can learners be assisted in working towards the acquisition of both Siddur Hebrew and modern Hebrew, all in an environment that engrains positive experiences and puts them on the path for continued Jewish engagement?
Daniel Silverman is Director of Education & Family Programming at Beth Tzedec Congregation in Toronto
Writer: Cheryl Magen
One of the greatest criticisms of Jewish supplemental education has been its failure to teach Hebrew as an active, living language. Instead, the importance of actual language acquisition was subsumed by a focus on acquiring “siddur-Hebrew,” which left students unable to use Hebrew to communicate. This sort of supplemental Hebrew education was generally tied into a short window of time that children were available to continue their education in much the same format as their public/private school education. It consisted of classrooms, teachers, books, lesson plans, homework and tests. Although this model proliferated for decades, the expanding world of experiential education has much to add to the way we view learning.
Experiential education in the form of camps, youth groups and the like, has been extremely successful in transmitting knowledge and creating deep connections to Jewish living. However, experiential education generally existed in parallel with more traditional supplemental education, with very little crossover between them. Merging the two has value not just in strengthening one modality of education, but in strengthening the holistic and year-round approach to Jewish learning and living, resulting in a more symbiotic relationship than it has in the past.
With regard to mastering Hebrew language skills, the optimal approach is to merge the two seasons (school year and summer) in order to reinforce the acquisition of language. Language is acquired from an early age by immersion, environment, repetition, Total Physical Response (TPR) and motivated need.
TPR is a language acquisition strategy that emphasizes on the coordination of language and physical movement. TPR’s goal is to mimic the way young children first learn language, in that early interactions between parents and children often often took the form of speech from the parent followed by a physical response from the child. Thus, in TPR, instructors give commands to students in the target language, and students respond with whole-body actions.
The method is an example of the comprehension approach to language teaching. Listening serves a dual purpose: it is both a means of understanding messages in the language being learned, and a means of learning the structure of the language itself. Grammar is not taught explicitly, but is induced from the language input.
Learning a language through traditional supplemental education curricula is, by comparison, much harder, because it comes from the outside in. Sitting down to learn a language through vocabulary, grammar, reading and testing is a much harder and less effective way to learn a language, although such activities are certainly important components of the educational process.
However, TPR can be effectively used in a supplemental education environment, to achieve positive results. For example, TPR can be used in synagogue schools, which often emphasize siddur literacy, by using it as part of the choreography of prayer. Standing up, sitting down, bowing from the knees or waist, twisting side to side, kissing your fingers to touch a sefer Torah are all examples of total physical response. If we teach the movements along with the words and/or music, the learning can be deepened and reinforced.
Language acquisition must be organic, systemic and holistic and focus on the acquisition of everyday linguistic rubrics that are natural to communication. From a young age, we are taking in all the language we hear and go through a “quiet period” until we are ready to say words and then put them together into short phrases and then into complete sentences. The people around us however, are not changing the way they speak; full sentences are being expressed, not just one word at a time, or even two or three words at a time. This exposure to natural language patterns is what helps us learn even before we, ourselves, are ready to be verbally expressive.
The AviChai Foundation granted the National Ramah Commission support for 5 years to increase active Hebrew language usage in all the Ramah camps (8 resident camps, 3 day camps) in North America. The resulting program, known as Daber, was instituted in 2009. Through Daber, we learned essential language acquisition strategies, all of which are more broadly applicable and could easily be translated for use in the supplemental school setting. Some highlight’s of Daber’s work thus far include:
There are very few remaining “Hebrew-speaking” camps – places which promote and expect routine activities to be conducted in Hebrew. In these remaining experiential learning laboratories, the emphasis has shifted from vocabulary words (single nouns) to whole phrases that can be used in a variety of settings. Instead of “It is time to go to the אגם , אוכל חדר, זריף “ filling in the one Hebrew word, the phrase, “_________ ל ללכת זמן.” allows the learner to master a phrase that can be repeated and used many times a day, rather than just the one word that is specific to a particular incidence. Even if you do not know the word in Hebrew for where you want to go, it is better to learn the תבנית first and then fill in the noun later.
Ahad Ha’am (1856-1927), a liberal Russian Jewish thinker and a leading Eastern European Jewish essayist, was one of the first to recognize the necessity of using Hebrew as a modern-day language to unite Jews all over the world. The Daber program’s Hebrew work does just that – working to ensure that Jewish children in a number of environments can be united by the common bond of language.
The key to any initiative is buy-in and modeling from the senior staff of the organization as well as thorough staff training and ongoing support. If it is a priority for the senior management team and they are willing to learn alongside their participants, willing to make mistakes and be vulnerable, willing to have fun and laugh along the way, then language can be built into the environment in important and intentional ways. In order for educators and leaders to succeed, staff members need to be trained to understand what language acquisition principles are and what the core components for successful integration look like. Appendix A provides the “10 Commandments” of successful implementation of training techniques. When staff members across the board utilize the same approach, the consistency reinforces the way language is acquired.
Other helpful elements that reinforced Hebrew:
In 2012, The Jewish Learning Venture in the Philadelphia area, requested that the Daber method be taught city-wide to teachers in supplemental schools to begin to infuse those schools with some of the principles that were successful in the camp setting. Several of the schools whose Directors of Education were committed to the goal of Hebrew infusion were successful in utilizing the Daber approach. Although these supplemental schools will always have the challenge of time constraints, Hebrew language is the basis for Jewish education and must remain high on the list of educational priorities. In the future, a partnering program for these supplemental schools could help to ensure greater access to the language-acquiring lessons that Daber has yielded thus far.
Cheryl Magen is on the education staff at the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education, serves as the educational consultant to the Ramah camps and is Director of the Master’s in Camp Administration and Leadership at Touro University Nevada. The official prayer book of Camp Ramah in the Poconos is Siddur Lev Yisrael, authored by director emeritus Cheryl Magen.
Writer: Rabbi Josh Feigelson
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
~ Mary Oliver, Wild Geese
Emerging Adulthood: Finding One’s Place
The blessing and curse of emerging adulthood is rooted in some basic biology.
By age 18, human beings are at their physical peak—fully developed, ready to exercise power, ready to reproduce. But the pre-fontal cortex of the brain—the part that enables us not to act on every impulse, but to consider the consequences of our actions—isn’t fully developed until age 25. Add to this mix that most young adults don’t have young children or aging parents to care for, and you find the description that Jeffrey Jensen Arnett once offered at a conference I attended: emerging adults are at the height of their physical power and the low-point of their social responsibility.
The blessing of this reality is that the whole world seems open to many emerging adults (setting aside for the moment the real socioeconomic and political constraints they face). These are years of possibility and experimentation, often undertaken with a high degree of energy, seriousness, and skill. Consider where we find emerging adults: they are professional athletes, musicians, congressional staffers, corporate junior associates, Teach For America corps members, and social entrepreneurs. The things they can achieve are extraordinary.
But that very openness can also be a curse. The world can seem so open that these years can result in aimlessness, as emerging adults try out various career possibilities and relationships, but don’t commit to any one of them in particular, paralyzed by FOMO (fear of missing out). In the wake of the Great Recession, the image of the college graduate living at his parents’ home without a job is one that too easily comes to mind when we think of emerging adults.
Somewhere between the blessing and the curse lies the driving force of emerging adulthood: the trick of finding one’s place in the family of things. Our task, as their professional, educational, and personal mentors, is to help them find that place. If we can do that, we can empower them to bring their intelligence and creativity into communal life.
Mentoring Emerging Adults
Emerging Jewish adults are increasingly the products of experiential education. They have been campers and camp counselors, Birthright Israel participants, youth group members, engaged in various Hillel initiatives, and potentially involved in ongoing experiential education through communal living programs like AVODAH and Moishe House, community learning, prayer, and activism. This is a world many of them know, a world in which many of them are comfortable.
Experiential education, which partakes of certain characteristics of formal education but rejects others, aligns with one of the key realities of emerging adults: They are ambivalent about institutions. On the one hand, they rightly sense that legacy institutions frequently are more motivated by concerns about institutional self-preservation than mission or innovation. This leads to suspicion of institutional life. On the other, they are adept at navigating the institutional demands of large institutions (most notably universities and often large corporations), and some easily identify with institutional life.
All of this reflects the central motion of emerging adulthood, from what theorist Sharon Daloz Parks calls probing to tested commitment. The probing stage is one we recognize: trying out majors in college (even trying out colleges, or trying out time away from school); experimenting with internships, social networks, interests, romantic partners; testing professions, living arrangements, relationships. But eventually that probing settles down, and a firmer sense of commitment develops. “In the period of tested commitment,” Parks writes, “the self has a deepened quality of at-homeness and centeredness—in marked contrast to the ambivalence and dividedness of the earlier period.”[i]
We can choose to ignore this period of probing commitment, waving our hands as we say, “Our organization doesn’t have time for people who aren’t fully committed.” But that would be a mistake. Emerging adults have a great deal to offer: creativity unbounded by the constraints many older adults have; exposure to skills, theories, and approaches that they’ve learned in college; energy and enthusiasm. All of these can add a tremendous amount to our complementary schools, camps, and other educational settings.
Of course there are risks as well. Unboundedness by the past can mean that emerging adults aren’t aware of history. They may wind up reinventing the wheel. They may come to look at anything old as being obsolete, when in fact there’s plenty of old stuff (like Torah, for instance) of tremendous value.
The transition from probing to tested commitment is the work of mentoring, a word that is probably over-used these days. Mentoring isn’t a small thing. It is more than the occasional lunch or phone date with a senior colleague. Parks defines mentoring this way: “an intentional, mutually-demanding, and meaningful relationship between two individuals, a young adult and an older, wiser figure who assists the younger person in learning the ways of life.”[ii] A quality mentoring relationship creates the firm yet flexible space for emerging adults to probe, test, reflect, and develop a firmer sense of purpose and self, all the while developing respect for experience and tradition. That is, mentoring is the way young adults find their place in the family of things. Mentoring relationships also have positive effects on the older mentors as well, keeping them fresh, opening their eyes and ears. Older adults, too, need to reflect on their place in the world.
As Parks writes, the greatest success comes in not only one-on-one mentoring relationships, but developing mentoring environments, in which a network of mentors and mentees create a collective space in which to reflect together. Building such individual and communal relationships yields greater resilience, capacity for listening, and imagination, on both the personal and organizational levels.
We hear a lot these days about the crisis of twenty-somethings, the disconnect between older and younger generations. First I’d say that such talk of crisis is, as usual, overblown. But there is what to pay attention to. If we want to engage emerging adults in our communities and institutions, we have to do so not with the short-term aim of preserving our institutions, but with the more genuine aim of listening to and welcoming them into communal life. As individual educators and professionals, we need to become mentors. As a community, we need to develop an ethic and culture of mentorship, in which we welcome and value the gifts that all of us, young and old alike, bring to our collective work.
Rabbi Josh Feigelson is educational director at Ask Big Questions, and before that served as Campus Rabbi at Northwestern University Hillel. Ordained by YCT Rabbinical School, Josh also holds a BA from Yale University in music. He is currently working on a PhD at Northwestern about higher education and American Jewish life.
Setting: Camp Ramah in California
Time: Nightfall, mid-summer
Each year a haunting melody ignites a distinctly familiar tingle; the feeling is a clashing mix of sorrow and serenity. This melody is invoked just a couple times each year – between renditions of Avinu Malkeinu, Oseh Shalom, and Eli Eli – to tell a story of mourning. It sweeps through the outdoor chapel in which I sit with over 800 people for whom I care deeply, and bounces off the flashlights and paper-bag lanterns that dot the aisles. We sit on the ground, inevitably damp, and are carried into a day during which we ponder the destructive nature of sinat chinam (senseless hatred) and commit instead to tikkun olam (repair of the world). The melody is imprinted on my soul, along with the important messages of the holiday. It is Tisha b’Av, the annual day during which we recall a few distinct tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people. …and I’m willing to bet that “camp Jews” are amongst the only non-Orthodox in North America who can tell you about it.
For 18 straight summers I had the honor of working at a Jewish summer camp. Camp is where I came to embrace my professional journey in Jewish education. When I was a 19-year old counselor a supervisor referred to me as a “Jewish educator,” and I almost fell over. Jewish educators were the day school teachers who called my parents to report that I was misbehaving in class. Jewish educators were the Hebrew high school teachers who tried in vain to teach me the definition of a shoresh and who marked me down for the incorrect conjugation of verbs in hefeel (still haven’t figure that one out). How could this supervisor possibly mistake me for one of “them”? I was a camp counselor! I organized relay races, broke up fights, hosted camp fires, and told bedtime stories. I also taught kids the prayers of the Shachrit service, explained and modeled the customs of Shabbat, got my campers excited to lead birkat ha’mazon, and figured out clever ways to sneak Hebrew words into our spirited cheers. My camp had a very clear mission to engage kids in the ritual of prayer, the use of Hebrew, the observance of Shabbat, acts of tikkun olam, and a commitment to Israel. I realized that my bluff had been called, and that like it or not I was indeed a Jewish educator.
I doubt I will ever find a job as fulfilling as directing a Jewish camp. In thxc at setting my audience was pretty captive. Kids enjoyed their independence from the pressures at home, made lifelong friendships, and really got into the groove of Jewish living. I was lucky to work with some of the most creative, passionate Jewish educators who – literally – worked from dawn through dusk to create a safe, vibrant Jewish educational community. I had it easy, despite episodes of homesickness, challenges of bullying, anxious parents, and some pretty nasty outbreaks of illness (the 2009 season affectionately became known as “Swine ‘09” due to a norovirus/swine flu epidemic). My campers and staff were hungry for the Jewish learning and living that the summer provided.
Between summers I spent a lot of time visiting the synagogues, Hebrew schools, and day schools which the kids in my catchment area attended for purposes of recruitment. This also provided a great opportunity to connect with respected colleagues and to see my kids in their year round settings. Visits to the Hebrew schools grew increasingly discouraging over time. While these schools were run by some fantastic educators, the cards seemed to be stacked against them. The regularity of class time diminished, advancements in technology and customer service presented wholly new expectations from children and their families that seemed unconquerable, and trends in individual and family identity widened the diversity of the children in a way that made it hard to establish common ground. These challenges diluted the quality of these schools and made substantive learning nearly impossible.
I began to feel “guilty” that I had it so easy at camp and felt that I was falling short in two specifics ways. First, it seemed that my fellow camp directors and I had an opportunity to extend the power of the summer experience to keep our campers and staff engaged in Jewish learning throughout the year with a similar amount of ruach. If (most) kids love camp, why restrict its magic to the summer – especially at a point in time where social networks and technology, the ease of travel, and the power of imagination are tools to bridge distances and convert almost any idea into reality. I completely missed the boat when my phone calls to these schools focused solely on scheduling a recruitment visit, instead of a conversation about how we could work together to engage Jewish families.
Second, I felt that we camp educators had a responsibility to study our approach to Jewish education with the goal of identifying those techniques that can be applied to other settings of education in order to achieve similarly powerful results. In short, how could we help take the best that Jewish camp has to offer through our experiential approach to education and leverage it in year round settings?
Jewish camps with a serious commitment to a fun-filled education yield results that look similar to what Hebrew schools aim to achieve. Studies have shown an association between camp and a commitment to lifelong Jewish practice, support of Israel, synagogue/community involvement, and Jewish leadership (Keysar & Kosmin, 2004) (Sales, 2011). Anecdotally, I am motivated by experiences like the one with Tisha b’Av. Ask a camper or staff member who has observed Tisha b’Av a couple of times at camp to tell you about this holiday. Okay, so the first response you’ll get is likely: “That’s the day when we can’t eat, archery is cancelled, and we have to pray more.” Press them, and they will tell you about the reading of Eicha, the rituals of sitting on the ground and refraining from joyous music, the destruction of the Temple, and the importance of fighting sinat chinam. This seems like a learning outcome that any respectable Jewish educator dreams of achieving.
One primary reason for successes like Tisha b’Av is the staff members who work at camps like Ramah. From the trained professional Jewish educators who serve as directors and lead programmers to the emerging adults who serve as counselors – camp staff eat, live, and breathe experiential education. They get what it means to facilitate these experiences, they know how to set serious learning objectives using techniques that are active and fun, they honor the importance of community and friendship in the equation, they are emotional and spirited, and they blend Judaism into daily living in a way that is (Kress, 2013). Most of them are summer-only staff members, and we must ask how more can be recruited, trained, and empowered to translate their work from camp to schools.
It was incredibly hard to leave the camp world in pursuit of new professional challenges, but I am excited to be part of a team at The Jewish Theological Seminary who are committed to supporting the educators who are entrusted to steward congregational learning. Currently we are trying to reframe the approach in these schools to one that is more camp-like, or experiential, in nature. While I work with some truly awesome colleagues at JTS, we know that the best ideas for how to reframe our approach will come from the practitioners in the field who run and teach in these schools and/or who work at camp. Through our ReFrame initiative we will work with a broad scope of education leaders to more explicitly integrate the universal attributes of experiential Jewish education into congregational settings. We are bring a diverse set of stakeholders to the table so that what occurs in congregations will connect with other experiences through which families might navigate. Social media and online platforms will allow us to connect with anyone interested in this endeavor, and we will also seek out certain school to serve as sites for action-research where we can design, pilot, and learn from new models.
Dr. Zachary Lasker is Director of Melton & Davidson Education Projects at the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education for The Jewish Theological Seminary. Previously he served as Camp Director for Camp Ramah in California. Zach holds a doctorate in education leadership from the University of California at Los Angeles and a Masters in Education from the American Jewish University.
Cohen, S. M., & Kotler-Berkowitz, L. (2004). The Impact of Childhood Jewish Education on Adults’ Jewish Identity. Jerusalem: Hebrew University.
Keysar, A., & Kosmin, B. (2004). Research Findings on the Impact of Camp Ramah. New York: National Ramah Commission.
Kress, J. (2013). ReFrame White Paper: What is Experiential Jewish Education? New York: JTS.
Sales, A. (2011). Limud by the Lake Revisited. New York: Avi Chai Foundation.