Jewish Education for an Ever-Thriving People - Fall '10

By Miriam Heller Stern, Ph.D.
Dean of the Fingerhut School of Education

What’s the key to forging Jewish identity in the next generation of Jews? That is the $64,000 question in Jewish life today (although the stakes are arguably much higher). We are by no means the first generation of Jews to ponder this dilemma.  The great Jewish intellect Simon Rawidowicz famously described the Jews as “the ever-dying people,” explaining that our unceasing concern for the impending demise of the next generation is the very reason we continue to thrive.

Jews have often looked to Jewish education for the answer. Since the 1990’s, intermarriage statistics have caused Jewish policymakers to focus their attention more on how young Jews feel about being Jewish rather than what they know about Judaism. Thus the last two decades have brought increasing investment in informal Jewish education (specifically camp and Israel trips). Policymakers and funders have debated how to prioritize educational funds. New initiatives which engage learners "experientially" through the arts, through the environment outdoors and in social/recreational settings have received increasing attention and financial support because of their promise to positively impact Jewish identity. The result has been a communal tug of war over which type of Jewish education is more likely to promote Jewish identity – formal or informal, in schools or outside of schools.

This is not a new debate.  As is typical in the historical cycles of education reform, we’ve been down this road before. In the 1920’s for example, when a progressive Jewish educational center in New York called the Central Jewish Institute pioneered Camp Cejwin, the first self-identified “educational” Jewish camp, the board of directors was fractured by the dispute over which was worth funding, the camp or the school.  Camp advocates accused the supplementary school of being uninteresting to children and tedious at the end of their public school day and thus incapable of guaranteeing their Judaism. Meanwhile, school advocates accused the camp of being frivolous and fun with no real substance. The following comments by board members, which were usually accompanied by angry grandstanding and fist-waving, capture the essence of the two sides:

“If you think for one moment that you are going to make Jews out of children who go to camp for one week, you are mistaken!”
“Camp covers the multitude of sins of the Talmud Torah.” 
“Camp is [merely] the dessert after the meal.”
“Unless you can imbue them with the desire for a rabbi, what good is a rabbi? … If you don’t take the Jewish masses and create a Jewish environment at work and play you won’t have Jews. You can have all the rabbis preach and preach. It won’t do any good. This work, the camp does.” (sources courtesy of the Albert Schoolman Papers, American Jewish Historical Society, NY)

This contest over “which is more effective at making Jews, formal or informal education?” is old and enduring, but it is also a misleading and false dichotomy. We know that learning happens outside of classrooms; but we also know that “experiential education” does not only happen in camp and youth groups. The boundaries between the kinds of education that go on in different settings are being blurred, which begs the question of what modes of teaching and learning can be transported more fluidly between the settings. In other words, how can we introduce the so-called “magic of camp,” or to use more all-encompassing terms, “experience” and “active learning” into the classroom, and on the flipside, how can we bring the substance of school to informal educational settings?

The dilemma emerges when we focus so much on the goal of Jewish identity that we render Jewish knowledge less relevant; the flipside of course is when a school scenario overemphasizes Jewish cultural literacy such that the love of Judaism is sacrificed. At the Fingerhut School of Education, we advocate for a hybrid solution that is both substantive and experiential.

If we examine the root of what we mean by experiential education – that the most profound learning occurs in experience rather than vicariously or passively – then we can conclude that the possibilities of experiential education are not limited to outdoor and informal venues like camps, gardens and travel.  The setting is but one ingredient in a recipe for rich teaching and learning.

An illustration: Anyone who loves to read and write – the conventional basics of formal education – can describe to you a compelling experience they have had soaking in the words of a novel or penning their dreams on the page. We can turn reading a book into an educative experience if we invest the reading process with purpose and intention and create a physical environment conducive to reading (let’s imagine the places where we enjoy reading the most and create more spaces like that in schools). The academics among us take this love of reading for granted, but the reality is, many young people do not.
Being attuned to the experience of education is closely connected to understanding the experience of Jewish living.  Learning, like being Jewish, is most powerful when it is something we can simply live and breathe, when it feels organic, authentic, integrated into who we are. When I can apply my learning – be it philosophy, literature, mathematics, science or language – it becomes real, whole, a part of myself, and a gateway to my future learning.  As pioneer Progressive educators like John Dewey and William Kilpatrick taught us, “education is life.” The challenge for educators is, how do we, through our teaching scaffold “life,” make it meaningfully educative for those living it? To paraphrase Kilpatrick, the objective of purposeful education is to give learners a sample of the worthy life – a taste which blends the affective and the cognitive and draws learners into a life rich with engagement.

The Fingerhut School of Education houses several initiatives that support educators who are thinking about the role of experiential education in school settings.  An alumni-led Community of Practice at Shalhevet High School is designing an innovative “Experiential Beit Midrash” and tackling the challenging task of how to evaluate the “immeasurable” affective objectives of experiential education.  A Community of Practice of alumni who serve as informal educators across educational settings from day schools and religious schools to camps is forming to share best practices. Nearly half of our current Masters in Education students are interested in pursuing careers in experiential education—as environmentalists, musicians, social activists, and most importantly, visionaries; those bound for schools will feel well prepared to integrate more experiential learning into their classrooms and the school culture.

AJU is a natural home for these discussions given our commitment to translating sophisticated educational theory into practice in order to enrich Jewish life. The Brandeis-Bardin Campus serves as a living laboratory for experimentation, integration and innovation in Jewish education. There is great potential for further growth in this area; we have only just begun to answer the age-old question that will make us an ever-thriving people.