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.

Prompt: Jewish Education: From Survive to Thrive

Download this White Paper as a PDF

Wordle - BernsteinWriter: Maya Bernstein

Why are innovations in Jewish education so critical? To reframe the question: if we believe that a Jewish education has something to offer our own community, and that individuals granted this education have something important to offer society at large, isn’t it our most important responsibility to ensure that this education is vibrant, creative, inspiring, relevant, thorough, and profoundly meaningful?

In a culture in which the structures and methodologies of education have been thrust into turmoil by an increasingly flat, virtual world; in which the smartest students graduating from high school are selecting to start their own companies rather than go to Harvard (and are being paid to do so by radical venture capitalists); in which the cost of education in general, and Jewish education in particular, is unaffordable for the majority of families; and in which researchers are showing that life skills, like flexibility, grit, perseverance, and healthy attitudes towards failure, are perhaps the more important aspect of schooling, the Jewish community has no choice but to address the impact of these new realities on its educational philosophy and systems.

“Innovation,” then, is not a passing fad, or hype. It is the word that is currently used to symbolize an approach and a set of tools that assist communities through critical growth and change processes. It does not imply that we need to abandon the old for the new, nor is it necessarily even new. The concepts used in today’s “innovation sector” are to some extent repackaging of concepts that have been used for decades and centuries. But they represent core values and approaches that are important as we attempt to stay nimble, flexible, and able to meet the complex needs of our community.

Here are some of the mindsets of innovation, culled from a variety of thinkers currently exploring and employing these tools in the business and social sectors:

1.Focus & Passion

Unless we can articulate why we care about our work, we will be unable to do our work well. It is critical to take the time to answer the “Who Cares?” question, and to answer it honestly. The expression of why our work is important, what value it brings, is the first step necessary for doing the work well. In his book Leadership Without Easy Answers, Ronald Heifetz writes:

People need inspiration and drive to step out into a void which only later is recognized as a place of creativity and development…The practice of leadership requires, perhaps first and foremost, a sense of purpose – the capacity to find the values that make risk-taking meaningful… Preserving a sense of purpose helps one take setbacks and failures in stride.

2. Profound Optimism

Global activist Lynne Twist, in her book The Soul of Money (pp 43-45), explains that we suffer today from a constant attitude of scarcity:

For me, and for many of us, our first waking thought of the day is “I didn’t get enough sleep.” The next one is “I don’t have enough time.” Whether true or not, that thought of not enough occurs to us automatically before we even think to question or examine it. We spend most of the hours and the days of our lives hearing, explaining, complaining, or worrying about what we don’t have enough of…Before we even sit up in bed, before our feet touch the floor, we’re already inadequate, already behind, already losing, already lacking something…We go to sleep burdened by those thoughts and wake up to that reverie of lack…

This “reverie of lack” is unfertile ground for creativity and exploration, the key ingredients of innovation, and it is not only rampant in society at large, but is an unspoken shadow in the Jewish community. Our passion for Jewish education cannot be grounded in a fear of Jewish extinction, of anti-Semitism, of intermarriage, or even of Jewish survival. Jewish life must be motivated not by what we are afraid of losing, or not having enough of, but by what it contributes to our lives. An attitude of optimism, of hope, of anti-lack, is critical for continued innovation in Jewish life.

3. Listen to the People & Collaborate

Innovation is a democratic process. It thrives on collaboration between people with different skill-sets, experiences, approaches, and beliefs. It assumes that the experience of a student in a school is as important as the perspective of the Head of School, and it creates opportunities to make the lesser authoritative voices heard. Innovations enter systems from a wide variety of streams, and it is more likely that insights and new ideas will emerge when there are multiple streams flowing into the system. IDEO’s Tom Kelly, in his book Ten Faces of Innovation, writes:

Go out and find some real people. Listen to their stories. Don’t ask for the main point. Let the story run its course. Like flowing water, it will find its own way, at its own pace. And if you’ve got patience, you’ll learn more than you might imagine.

In order to grow and stay relevant, we need to ensure that the widest spectrum of perspectives is included in the conversation and imagination of what might be.

4. Be Creative

We take our work seriously, as we should. (After all, it’s no easy job having our core text direct us to be a “light unto the nations”). But we sometimes take ourselves too seriously for our own good. Yes, the education of our children is no game, no laughing matter. But unless we learn how to be more playful in its design, we may look up and realize that the kids have gone to play somewhere more fun. If we want to design inspiring, exciting learning experiences, we need to employ exciting, inspiring methodologies. Innovation thrives in playful soil. Our planning meetings, conferences, and board meetings can benefit from some more art, theater, outdoor experiences, from more play, to help re-train us to be more open, more relaxed, and even sometimes silly, because that is the state in which we can begin to be inspired and inspiring.

5. Be Patient

Real change takes time. As Chip & Dan Heath, in their book Switch: How to Change Things when Change is Hard, write:

Change isn’t an event; it’s a process. There is no moment when a monkey learns to skateboard; there’s a process. There is no moment when a child learns to walk; there’s a process. And there won’t be a moment when your community starts to invest more in its school system, or starts recycling more, or starts to beautify its public spaces; there will be a process. To lead a process requires persistence.

Innovation can happen only when we slow down, and feel that our challenges are no less important, but perhaps slightly less urgent.

6. Failure is Educative

What do successful people and ventures have most in common? Failure. Tina Seelig, a professor at Stanford University, in a talk on The Art of Teaching Entrepreneurship and Innovation, shared that she asks her students to “make failure resumes – the resume of their biggest screw-ups, personal, professional, and academic. And the idea is – it is OK to fail as long as you learn something from it.” The idea is also that if you don’t allow yourself to fail, you might not grow. Mark Zuckerberg, in his letter to Shareholders upon Facebook’s S-1 filing, says: “This means – take risks! We have another saying: ‘The riskiest thing is to take no risks.’ We encourage everyone to make bold decisions, even if that means being wrong some of the time.”

7. Stay Lean – Experiment, and Learn

Finally, we know that new ideas and projects can be tremendously resource-consuming. Often, this prevents us from tackling them – who has the budget to make the changes we ideally would like to see? This should not prevent us from making those changes. Instead, we should devise small experiments to test our ideas and assumptions, learn from them, be less afraid to make mistakes because there is less at risk, and then revise them, and try again. Only after we have run multiple experiments are we ready to ask for the investment of time, and capital and human resources, to make larger changes. In his book The Lean Startup, Eric Reis writes: “Successful entrepreneurs do not give up at the first sign of trouble, nor do they persevere the plane right into the ground. Instead, they possess a unique combination of perseverance and flexibility.”

Together, these mindsets, and the tools that come with them, can help pave paths that have the potential to lead us towards a better future. I believe that the first step in creating meaningful, necessary growth in our educational spaces is to educate and challenge ourselves to experiment with these approaches. This is a radical culture-shift for the Jewish community, and may on the surface seem deceptively simple. But the values of the innovation sector are actually very much aligned with core Jewish values; these are the values that have allowed our community to keep its traditions and beliefs alive through so many centuries, and our community can both gain from the innovation sector’s approach, and contribute to it. With an attitude of plenty, of hope, of patience and passion, and of willingness to laugh and get back on our feet each time we slip, who knows what we might build?


Maya BernsteinMaya Bernstein, the Strategic Design Officer at UpStart Bay Area, is a graduate of Midreshet Lindenbaum, a women’s Yeshiva in Jerusalem, Columbia University and Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, Maya has lived and taught in Belarus, Germany, Israel, and China. Maya blogs about the joys and challenges of modern motherhood for Lilith magazine.

Guest Post by Nancy Parkes

Change is hard. It takes time, patience, a lot of soul searching, and a community that is willing to take risks. It also takes some hand holding. I’m not sure anyone really tells you that when you first start any change project. Maybe they tell you that change is “necessary” if you want to stay relevant; or maybe they tell you that everyone is changing, so you better get on board, too; or maybe they tell you that it’s all about the money- that the driving factor behind the change initiative is economics.

Regardless of what they say, I want to let you know that change is hard- really hard. But it is also very much worth the blood, sweat, and tears (of both happiness and frustration).

The Temple Israel Center Religious School, now known as Shorashim, (Roots), has been involved in the process of change for the last five years. It began with The Experiment in Congregational Education as TIC reimagined what our Religious School could be. We moved this process forward with LOMED. LOMED is an initiative through the Jewish Education Project that guides synagogue schools in the creation and design of new kinds of learning experiences. It challenges educators and their communities to clearly articulate their vision and goals, and to rethink what education should look and feel like. We have been working with LOMED for the last three years and will continue to do so next year, as well. Through this process, LOMED has provided us with a mentor, a coalition educator who works with us 10 hour a week, and a cohort of over 50 synagogues to learn from and with. Change takes a team effort in every sense of the word.

With the guidance of LOMED, we have redesigned what our learning looks like and where it takes place. We have also redefined who our learners and educators are.

The first crucial step was to create a vision of education and to clearly define our priority goals, which are building community and living Jewishly. To build community, relationships had to be at the center of everything we did. As educators, we know just how important the educator- learner relationship is; however, there is a big difference between knowing it and being intentional about it. The same is true for building relationships between learners. Creating a safe, non-judgmental environment in which ideas and questions can be explored in depth means that there must exist relationships between learners.

To live Jewishly meant that the learning could not be confined to the classroom, and that creating relationships with parents and families was crucial. We also knew if we wanted what we were teaching to be lived, we needed to take learning outside of the four walls of the classroom. Where and when learning took place became the focus of many of our discussions, and important decisions and changes followed.

All the change that has taken place here at TIC was less about making “school more like camp” and more about aligning the design and settings of learning, the role of the educator, and the language that we use to our vision and priority goals. That took hard work- and it was worth every minute.

Guest Post by Sarah Attermann

When I was first approached to become a member of the Ramah Service Corps and create “Ramah style” programs to implement in the synagogue setting, I was thrilled. I would be given the opportunity to bring the magic of Ramah to others through experiences and activities often found only at camp. To me, Ramah has always been a place where campers are proud to learn and experience what it means to be Jewish, where they can participate in activities that make Jewish learning enjoyable, and a place where programs are innovative and fresh. It was my hope, that bringing this “Ramah approach” into the synagogue and school setting would allow the students to see that learning can be entertaining and worthwhile, and that more specifically, Jewish learning is not just found exclusively from textbooks or classrooms.

When planning programs for synagogues across the southeast region, I often found myself remembering activities implemented during past summers in camp. I planned an Israel exploration, where students learned about the culture, geography, and foods of Israel in a deeper way. Instead of just a surface-level understanding of the sites in Israel and learning about the various places in Israel, students dug their way through an “archeological dig” to find tiles that they could use to decorate wooden Jewish stars. For a more engaging way to learn about Israeli foods, students experimented in making their own hummus and participated in a blind taste test of homemade and store bought hummus. They learned Hebrew phrases to use when asking for food in the “Israeli restaurant” that we created. Students quickly saw that the features and ideas they learned in textbooks could come alive in the class. They became excited to continue learning about Israel and expressed hope about visiting Israel one day.

Like many activities in a school setting however, it is a challenge to get the students excited when first beginning programs. Students had to see that the activities offered a variety of experiential opportunities, and that there was more than just traditional classroom learning. Once students began having positive experiences in the activities, I found that that this momentum carried into future programs. In fact, students were stepping up to contribute Jewish knowledge of their own to the exercises. For example, when asked to decorate their favorite Jewish holiday on a cake, the students requested to include three facts about the holiday and how it is celebrated. The students were creating their own connections, taking an activity that was about creativity, and adding additional meaning to the experiences. It was truly amazing to see.

Looking back on the programs, I found that they not only increased student enjoyment of classroom activities, but also allowed the students to see that learning did not just have to take place in the classroom or with a teacher lecturing to them. The students also asked for more opportunities to participate in these “camp style” activities. It was at these moments that I knew that these students were not only learning the lesson, but were having a Jewish experience. They were becoming just as passionate as I am about these Jewish programs, and they wanted more. To me, it’s not just about teaching information to students, or participation in activities that implement Jewish values. Instead, it’s about blending the learning of Jewish values and ideals in a way that allows all ages of students to fully experience the subject matter, using a variety of techniques. Taking the idea of ‘learning Jewish’ into the more experiential ‘being Jewish’ brings a level of interest and excitement that is not usually seen in the typical classroom. This is something seen every day in the camp setting, and can be brought into the community setting. This is what I learned from Camp Ramah, and I am blessed to have been able to share it with others outside of the camp environment. I want the students to believe and feel excited about being Jewish and experiencing Jewish ideals and values. That is what I got from Camp Ramah, that passion and excitement, and to be given the opportunity to share that with future generations is truly an amazing experience.

On Hebrew School Change: An Opinion

By Rabbi Paul Steinberg

I hated Hebrew school as a kid. So, I suppose it’s kind of ironic, perhaps funny, that I now oversee a Hebrew school and am working so hard to develop a program that is meaningful and, dare I say, enjoyable.  Admittedly, it’s not easy.  It’s not easy because there is a lot for Hebrew school to contend with.  The hours of the day and competition with other extracurricular activities are just two of the major obstacles.  But let’s face it, a sweeping challenge is that Hebrew school is countercultural.  Heck, Judaism is countercultural, and Hebrew school may be the most explicit manifestation of its expression for most of our families.  That is to say, it is countercultural for a kid to go to another “school” after school and/or on Sunday mornings to learn about something that is hardly relevant or possibly totally irrelevant to the rest of their lives.  Hebrew, Tefilah, Shabbat, and Kashrut exist only within the walls of the synagogue for many of our kids.

This leads to why I am a bit skeptical of leveraging the camp experience as our model par excellence for a new Hebrew school paradigm.  Camp is a completely isolated experience from the world and there (like in Israel) Judaism is no longer countercultural.  It has its own culture, its own biorhythms, its own model of leadership, and there is an inimitable, calm independence kids get there.  Jews can be Jews all day and night there.  Let’s just remember: we have to “go away” for the camp experience. 

By the way, we also have to admit that, for a large number of campers, the Jewish component is their least favorite and many merely tolerate it. I know kids that refuse to go to Camp Ramah, or have abandoned it after one summer, because there’s “too much praying.”  In fact, many of us who have been to Ramah have witnessed or perhaps had to personally force teenagers to begrudgingly show up for their Yahadut class. I am certainly a Ramah fan and my family is a Ramah family, but we should be cautious as to not exaggerate its Jewish educational successes when staking our resources and ideas upon the model.

Looking to experiential education and informal, camp models to give us tools to address the challenges of Hebrew school is surely a good thing.  Before we go too far in changing our paradigm, however, let’s make sure we have implemented and applied the best practices that could accompany any program.  Here are a few:

 1.    Raising Prestige and Denying the Negative Stigma

It is too often that we hear of Hebrew school in negative terms. It is often devalued both implicitly and explicitly, even the butt of Jewish jokes.  Indeed, some of the recent conversations around Hebrew school take their assumptions of its failure too far.  The truth is that there is a lot of good happening in Hebrew schools that is often overlooked.  There needs to be a lot more “good-mouthing” about our Hebrew schools.  Student work should be held to standards of excellence and showcased throughout the synagogue.  The rabbi should get to know the Hebrew school staff and classes, and then exclaim from the bimah of the wonders of the learning and teaching that is going on.

Moreover, it is not uncommon for synagogue leadership to refer to the Hebrew school as an economic drain and that the synagogue “subsidizes” the Hebrew school.  That conversation needs to be turned upside down.  It may in fact be just as accurate to say that the Hebrew school subsidizes the synagogue.  A lot of the membership money comes from parents who simply want to enroll their children in Hebrew school, adhering to minimal years of B’nai Mitzvah requirements.  Most people don’t join synagogues for the services or the sermons. It is more common that they join for the school and, if they like it and find it worthwhile, they’ll continue to pay membership and stay. Thus, the culture and language around Hebrew school from the synagogue leadership must change, so that, instead of it being viewed as a separate appendage, it is referred to as a centerpiece of the mission of the synagogue and as the primary educational organ of the institution.  Increased prestige will improve the quality and social forces surrounding it.

 2.    Ongoing Staff Development

I came into the synagogue and Hebrew school world as a Director of Jewish Studies and Hebrew at a Solomon Schechter school.  The first thing that struck me about Hebrew school is that the teachers never met to discuss the program, student work, planning, or problems.  In fact, many of the teachers didn’t know each other.  I wondered how we were teaching and modeling community if the staff itself wasn’t a community.

Therefore, when I moved to running a Hebrew school, my first act was to establish a weekly, two-hour staff development meeting.  I trimmed down the budget, cutting many line items in half in order to pay my teachers to attend this meeting.  That’s right, my teachers are paid to learn and it has been worth every penny.

For those two hours, we study Jewish texts together, as well as discuss aspects of general education including developmental psychology, school vision, classroom management, and lesson planning.  We also make time for co-planning, sharing ideas, engaging in critical group protocols, and celebrating each other as colleagues and friends.  For me, as the leader, this is a lot of work to prepare, but I cannot imagine a school without ongoing meetings that involved genuine engagement, as opposed to monthly ones wherein policy paperwork is simply read aloud.

This seems to be an area where funding could play a large role.  National philanthropic organizations could be helping to train lead educators to be staff developers and assign individual staff development consultants to each synagogue (the Hebrew program NETA, has such a development model).  Hebrew school staff development workbooks and guides could be created.  We need to incentivize our talented and bright young people to teach in Hebrew school and paid staff development is one way to do it.  Simply put, we haven’t yet invested in developing the “textpeople” that we need our Hebrew school faculty to be.  This will have a profound impact on the teachers, inspiring them, nurturing them, and growing their sense of self-worth in the community, which reverberates throughout the whole community.

3.    Parental Investment

Ultimately, all educational roads lead back to the home.  Heschel is to have once said, “Judaism is caught, not taught.”  That has actually become the catchphrase of our program.  It means that everything we do, and especially everything parents do and say about Hebrew school is being learned.  If mom complains about the hours of Hebrew school or the schlepping carpool, it sends a message to the child about its value.  If a child brings home a mezuzah that she made in Hebrew school, which goes in the trash the next day, while the 100% math test is posted to the fridge for weeks, it sends a message to the child.  If the dinner table conversation is always about school, homework, TV, or sports and it’s never about Torah or Israel, it sends a message to the child.

First, parents need to be involved and valued “prosumers” (as Jonathan Woocher called it) in the Hebrew school.  There need to be committees and task forces to do the kinds of things that such committees do in any good school. They should be fundraising, organizing staff appreciation events, recruiting, setting up community and class events (e.g., Sunday brunch in the sukkah, Shabbat meals at people’s homes, Purim booths, arranging oneg for children and family Shabbat services) and acting as a sounding board for the administration.   They need to learn the program and communicating the mission to other parents and constituents.  

Second, parents need to have their own learning opportunities.  Not as the general part of the adult education program, but just for them.  This can be family education, but it also has to be education just for parents.  They represent their own constituency, with many interests that are specifically relevant to them about parenting and family, for working parents and single parents, and how Judaism provides wisdom and guidance in these areas.  We need broad educational opportunities for all parents, but also parent havurot.   This group needs to be a valued group and given more places to connect with one another and their Judaism.

 4.    Re-orienting B’nai Mitzvah

American Jewry has created a monster out of the B’nai Mitzvah.  B’nai Mitzvah dominate much of synagogue life.  They impact the spiritual life through Shabbat services; they dominate the financial life through enrollment and B’nai Mitzvah fees; they effect the social and cultural life through the parties and programming calendar; and they deeply influence the educational goals of the Hebrew school.  All of this is an institutional disaster waiting to happen, as institutional loyalty wanes and the cheaper route of private tutoring and ceremonies become more popular.

Focusing specifically on the educational influence of B’nai Mitzvah, we discover at least two significant problems.  One is that we risk reducing the entirety of Hebrew school and Jewish education to preparation for a performative ceremony.  This diminishes our enduring educational goals toward transmitting a sense of positive Jewish identification and connection.  Furthermore, it sends a message that once the Bar or Bat Mitzvah is over, so is the Jewish education, violating the fundamental Jewish values of Torah Lishmah and life-long learning for the sake of spiritual and moral betterment.  This is why the post-B’nai Mitzvah dropout-itis phenomenon is so heartbreaking.

Secondly, the emphasis of the B’nai Mitzvah in our educational program damages Jewish prayer and spirituality by virtue of the fact that prayer is reduced to reading and chanting skills.  There are countless Jews who have spent months, even years, preparing for their Bar or Bat Mitzvah – a ceremony of prayer – yet they are repulsed by Jewish prayer, finding it dull, meaningless, and irrelevant.  B’nai Mitzvah need to remain a spiritual lifecycle event for the whole family and disconnected from the Hebrew school; the Hebrew school cannot be viewed as a B’nai Mitzvah training lab.  This issue is largely an organizational structural issue, which can be fixed.

Much of what I have said above is nothing new.  We have just not asserted the political will to make the necessary changes.  Educational directors may complain about such issues, but, for whatever reason, many synagogue boards have not acted upon them.  There are cultural and organizational solutions that will require taking some risk, maybe even a financial risk in restructuring some costs and dues as they apply to Hebrew school families.  I am suggesting that taking such risks are necessary because the long term sustainability of our synagogue and Hebrew school model is in jeopardy; a programmatic change in the Hebrew school is a mere scratch on the surface of the major sociological and organizational problems at play.

So, given the foregoing discussion, is there anything at all that we can learn from camp?  Of course.  Camp has a way of offering independence, autonomy, and power to its campers and young counselors.  Campers, especially as they grow older, have great say in their projects and programs.  Genuine project-based learning happens at camp.  This is not simply assigning projects to kids to complete, but asking them to create something that meets both their interests and the teacher’s educational goals.  Then they are asked to develop it and employ outside skills and higher-level understanding, such as application, synthesis and evaluation.  The counselors or teachers are facilitators – “guides on the side” rather than “sages on the stage.”  Ron Berger writes about this clearly in his book An Ethic of Excellence.  Hebrew school should be a project-based learning endeavor that incorporates formal, informal, and experiential learning models, utilizing technology as an ally.

Again, any model or solution we raise will require the four points mentioned above because ours is ultimately a sociological and cultural challenge, not a programmatic one.  We should feel compelled to collaborate on these issues on national, communal, and institutional levels.  There are a lot of wonderful people in the world of synagogues and Hebrew schools, and I pray that we will progress with hope and enthusiasm into this new dimension of Jewish life in America.

Camp and School: Context Matters

By Rabbi Joshua Rabin

I have never been comfortable with the question, “How we can make schools more like camp?” Yes, Jewish camps and other experiential programs are blessed with many elements that create holistic Jewish experiences leaving children with a warm feeling inside of them. However, camps are not bound by the parameters by which most schools operate, balancing the needs of general and Jewish studies in day schools, and trying to make Jewish education a priority amidst countless others in congregational schools. In truth, I find this question insulting to educators who do not work in camps, as it implies that educational institutions can only learn from camps, and that camps need not learn from anyone else.

Joseph Schwab writes that all educational experiences contain four “commonplaces”: the learner, the teacher, the subject matter, and the milieu (or context). When we think about how to use what is best about camps in schools, or vice versa, we cannot ignore the role that context plays in constructing an educational experience. For example, while a Jewish studies teacher at Schechter School and a staff member at USY or Camp Ramah might impart the same ideas about Shabbat to the same child, the context in which the child receives those ideas immeasurably impacts how the child interprets those ideas. By extension, when we are making the claim that schools need to become more like camp, we cannot forget that teaching Shabbat in a camp context is fundamentally different than teaching Shabbat in a school context. As educators, since we can identify strengths and weaknesses to teaching in each context, our task is to use the relative strength of each context to maximize the entirety of a child’s Jewish education.

As a result, rather than asking how school can become more like camp, we should ask how educators can teach one another how to use context to create robust educational experiences that are diverse and distinct. For example, a congregational school or day school will never be able to replicate the living and learning environment created at USY or Camp Ramah, yet experiential educators from USY or Camp Ramah are uniquely suited to help those schools see where their curriculum can offer more experiential opportunities for Jewish growth. At the same time, while a summer camp cannot develop the rigorous standards and benchmarks that should exist for a child who attends day school from kindergarten through grade twelve, day school educators can help educators in experiential settings see opportunities to create a more defined progression of skills, understandings and concepts to students each kinnus, each summer session, or each summer trip. No matter the subject, Jewish educators must see all the assets that each educational setting can bring to a person’s Jewish education, and then use the distinct advantages of each context to collaborate with other educators to maximize the potential of every Jewish educational institution.

Famously, my teacher Jack Wertheimer writes that we must “link the silos” to increase the impact of Jewish education. While Professor Wertheimer uses this term to outline the importance of creating connections between Jewish educational institutions, I would add that an equally important priority in Jewish education must be “tearing down the silos” of assuming that one style of education belongs in camp, another in school, another in synagogue, and so on. The more we highlight the unique strengths found in each educational context, the more educators will feel challenged to maximize the effectiveness of every Jewish educational experience, and allow different institutions to impact Jewish learners in many and varied ways.

Learning and Living: What USY Teens Can Teach Our Congregational School Teachers

USY Education in a Congregational School Setting

Guest Post by: Amy Dorsch

Reframe Key Question: What obstacles might stand in the way of ReFraming Jewish education in complementary schools to be more experiential?  How would you overcome those obstacles? 

Congregational Supplementary schools are faced with challenges to restructure and reimage their content, goals and mission. For families that prioritize Bar/Bat Mitzvah preparation, the complaint may be that learners will not be siddur fluent (content). What looks like “silliness and games” may not be regarded by parents or seasoned educators as educationally valuable (method). Learners who are encouraged to “do Jewishly” or perform Jewish values and concepts through action, are often not given the opportunity at home to reinforce the Jewish life skills they encounter through experiential learning. Thus, Judaism becomes knowing without doing, learning that ends once the learner has left the classroom or the school.

Solutions? United Synagogue Youth offers a number of approaches to educate experientially and transform content to action. In a USY setting, learners are obtaining knowledge by experiencing the content emotionally, physically, spiritually, socially and intellectually. Due to this “whole person” experiential learning approach, USYers are empowered to weave Judaism into their everyday lives.  How is this done?

Participation can either be through short term chapter programs or higher impact weekend retreats or immerse summer experiences. Although Congregational school mirrors the time frame of a lower impact chapter program, the following examples are a start as to how congregational schools can still apply USY experiential methods and ideas to “reframe” the short term program for higher impact.

  1. Focus not only on “meaning,” but personal relevance presented in the language of the learner. USY’s approach to creative Tefillah engages the learner with the structured prayer service through various creative format such as “Ipod minyan,” Facebook Shacharit or Tefillah through Spiritual exercises such as Gospel Tefillah. For more details, check out USY’s creative Tefillah webpage.
  2. Active engagement with texts through “real life” application – USYers learn by doing. Active learning techniques such as role plays, debates and physical games and exercises engage the learners with the texts through “real life experiences.”  One recent, most impactful example of learning Jewish concepts through active learning is the USY Alternative Spring Break (Participant Blog and Press coverage can be found here). Congregational schools may run a similar type of volunteer or rebuilding program as a day-long option.  Another example of Jewish learning through application to life is the human board game “Game of Chai” that one USY region planned to teach the Jewish lifecycle (See USY Pinat Chinuch or Educator’s corner for program outline).
  3. Diversity of format or method- Examples of engaging learners through different format of active learning in USY include:
  • “Israel Instagram” – USYers used the Instagram concept to teach about Israel through various “lenses.”
  • Various or specific mitzvot can be taught through a 2-hour “Mitzvah auction” or “mitzvah point system” where Middle School aged learners earn beads for every time they are “caught” doing a mitzvah.
  • Media clips from popular TV and film can be applied to any Jewish concept (“Jewtube”).
  • Specific active Jewish decisions, such as Kashrut, particularly on our USY on Wheels summer program, can become an everyday decision; learners internalize and practice Jewish food choices, both purposefully and unconsciously. Kashrut is one example of transforming content to action, of Jewish choices becoming an everyday natural decision. Congregational schools may not have the continent as the classroom, but can use cooking demonstrations, Food Network programs, or a “Build-a-meal” trip to a grocery store to illustrate Kashrut as an everyday Jewish decision.

Diverse methods that speak to the learners allow deeper impact without the immerse longer term program.

  1.  Addressing the Social and Emotional Components of Learning- USY is social by nature, as is Congregational School. Many parents choose to send their kids to Congregational school specifically for the social component. However, our programs intentionally focus on the impact of connecting learners to each other and educators to the learners, socially and emotionally. A caring and committed youth advisor will motivate a USYer to return for a short term chapter program, just as a Congregational student will look forward to being part of the Congregational community because the teacher has invested in the getting relationships formed.  The role of the USY advisor is to impart knowledge or encourage skill building, while building meaningful relationships between students, between teacher and student and Jewish content. Relationship formation, especially at the foundation or chapter level, is a key component of USY experiential education. This relationship building is what keeps USYers connected to their Jewish experiences regardless of the future Jewish decisions they make. Concurrently, they often associate or connect these positive deep, meaningful human relationships to a relationship with Jewish content and experiences.  Congregational schools can address this key component to classroom education through interactive learning techniques, ice breaker or mixer games to teach, chevruta learning or learning outside of the classroom so that relationships are reinforced when removed from the location of learning.  An advisor who has not invested in relationship building, will not succeed at inspiring involvement and connection to Jewish life.  An integral component of Congregational teacher training is addressing the impact of social and emotional learning of learners.

Reality dictates that most congregational schools are limited by time and do not necessarily have the luxury of long term high impact programming such as a USY Convention or Summer Experience. The aforementioned ideas are rooted in concepts that can in fact be applied to a two hour congregational school experience. USY illustrates how congregational involvement can be more experiential even on a short term basis. These experiences, shared by a community of learners and taught by encouraging and caring role models can transform a two hour “extracurricular activity” into an inspiring way of life.