We Are All Educators

Originally published on hillel.org on 1/2/13.

I’ll never forget the first time I heard the term “experiential education.” Dr. Gabe Goldman explained the concept as part of a program at the Western Hillel Organization conference. Goldman taught that all experiences have the potential to be educative. The educator can make the experience engaging and interactive by creating the right setting, and asking questions that encourage and empower students to construct their own ideas based on the experience. As Goldman, who is the Director of Experiential Education at American Jewish University, began to explain this concept, my first thought was, “My work has a name!” My second thought was, “I want to learn everything I can from this guy before the conference is over.” Imagine my thrill when I discovered that “Principles of Experiential Education” was on the course list for my HUC-JIR program. This was my chance to discover the language and theories that support the work we do at Hillel every day.

When I say “we,” I am not only referring to rabbis or Senior Jewish Educators. One of the most powerful concepts I have come to understand throughout this course is that program and engagement professionals truly are educators. When we staff an alternative break or a Taglit-Birthright Israel: Hillel trip and facilitate follow-through programs, when we hang out with students at a social barbecue, or when we take a freshman out for coffee, we are – or can be – doing the work of educators. Seeing programming and engagement in the context of some of the theories we learned in class has inspired me to seek teachable moments in each of those settings. You don’t have to have “educator” in your title to organize programming and leadership opportunities that inspire learners to grow, to ask questions, or to change their perspectives.

Each of the experiential education theories had plenty to offer, and in this post, I’m going to focus on two in particular. The first is a set of learning steps for an experiential model, developed by Stephan Carlson and Sue Maxa, in their article, “Pedagogy Applied to Nonformal Education.” Although this article was published in a journal dedicated to the 4H program, the concepts apply to experiential education in a much broader sense. According to Carlson and Maxa, “Experiential learning requires both active cooperation of the learner and guidance from the leader…Experiences lead to learning if the individual understands what happened, sees the patterns of observation emerge, draws generalizations from these observations, and understands how to use the generalizations again in a new situation.”

Through the experiential model, learners:

  1. Do the activity (before being told or shown how)
  2. Share results and observations
  3. Process – analyze and reflect on the experience
  4. Generalize – relate the experience to a real-world example
  5. Apply – use what was learned in a similar of different situation.

Carlson and Maxa emphasize the importance of questioning in the process and generalizing steps. This is where a Hillel professional can facilitate meaningful discussion by asking questions that make the experience educational.

I also found Joseph Reimer and David Bryfman’s chapter in What We Now Know About Jewish Education to be particularly helpful in a Hillel context. Reimer and Bryfman state that, “experiential Jewish learning involves three distinct initiatives, each with its own set of goals: recreation, socialization, and challenge.” In recreation, they explain, “experiential Jewish education aims to provide its participants with social comfort, fun and belonging in a Jewish context.” Socialization “aims to provide the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to be an active member of the Jewish community.” Jewish educators also “aim to encourage participants to undertake the challenge of stretching themselves and growing towards a more complex participation in one’s Jewish life.” In short, experiential Jewish education programs should be fun and enjoyable, should encourage connection to Judaism and Jewish identity, and should challenge learners to get outside their comfort zones, “so they feel they are on a Jewish journey and not simply a member of a Jewish club.”

I can imagine that for some Hillel professionals, these theories may feel superfluous: “I already program this way intuitively; why should I name the process?” I propose that shared educational language provides us with a better way to communicate and learn from each other, and to learn from educators outside of Hillel.

At Hillel at Stanford, I enjoy using these and other theories to evaluate and to set educational goals for programs and engagement. I have Carlson and Maxa’s chart and Reimer and Bryfman’s initiatives tacked to my bulletin board so I remember to ask myself the right questions:

  • Does this reflection activity involve opportunities for generalization, so students connect the experience to the rest of their lives?
  • Does this experience offer enough balance between recreation, socialization, and challenge?
  • Do my questions invite students to construct their own learning?

Drawing on these resources, Hillel professionals can learn to seek and employ the teachable moments in each experience, whether it’s an alternative break orientation, a barbecue, or a coffee date. We are all educators; we just have to recognize the opportunities to educate.


Pluralism, Dissonance, and Jewish Identity Formation

Originally published on hillel.org: 9/12/2012 

My introduction to Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) opened in a very Jewish way: with a question. “How can we, as Jews, be a part of and apart from American culture? That’s a rhetorical question right now, but I want you to start today, and then work on answering it for the rest of your life.” We laughed, but the asker, Rabbi Tali Zelkowicz, Ph.D., was right. As Jewish professionals, the questions we ask ourselves come with answers that change over time. This is because identities, communities, and ideals are anything but static. Rabbi Zelkowicz taught us to stop saying “Jewish identity” but rather to say “Jewish Identity Formation,” because identity develops throughout our lives. We need to recognize the moments of change, and meet people where they’re at. “Identity works as a process, not a product, and educators do not ‘make’ Jews,” she said, (and quoting Hillel the elder) “The rest is commentary.”

I’m one of sixteen students in HUC-JIR’s graduate education certificate program, which focuses on teens and emerging adults. This one-year “hybrid” learning program combines online and in-person learning, and began with a three-day intensive that included the Jewish Identity Formation course. While I’m starting my fifth year as a Hillel professional and my third at Hillel at Stanford, the other students in my cohort all work with teens. At first, I was concerned that much of what we learned might be a stretch to apply to Hillel. I was also concerned that the Reform focus would not address the issues of pluralism that Hillel professionals face in our daily work, where our community members are all over the religious spectrum. At times, varying views on diverse topics like taking pictures on Shabbat or women’s prayer at the Western Wall can create acute conflict that contributes to an underlying tension within the Hillel community. However, I was pleased to find that I’ve already gained tools that are very applicable to these challenges.

The Jewish Identity Formation class provided an interesting perspective on the “dissonance,” or conflict, between American and Jewish cultures. In conversations about our personal identity formation, we quickly noticed that moments of dissonance often strengthened or deepened our understanding of our Jewish identities. While the conflict is painful in the moment, dissonance is necessary because it moves us to take action to discover our Jewish identity formation.

For example, one student had endured a painful conversation about intermarriage with her rabbi, who refused to officiate at her wedding to a patrilineal Jew. She decided that inclusivity was an important part of her Jewish life – more important than having a specific rabbi officiate her wedding – and she found another rabbi whose beliefs about intermarriage were more in line with her own. That student learned something about herself from this moment of dissonance: that what really mattered to her was raising a Jewish family with her partner’s support. As it turns out, internal dissonance can be a wonderful opportunity for Jewish identity formation and personal growth.

Identity formation intensifies during emerging adulthood. Our students are trying to define themselves on a personal level and on a community level. They have their first opportunities to design their own Jewish experience, away from their families’ Judaism. They get to decide how much they want to be apart from and a part of American culture, as American Jews. That instability can be terrifying for emerging adults, and Hillel professionals can help to support the students as they navigate this uncertainty. We can support our students in a way that validates every variation of their practice, but more importantly, we can create a safe space to challenge those variations, and to provoke those moments of dissonance and transition that lead to further identity formation and growth. For example, a Jewish student who wants a Star of David tattoo would benefit from discussing the decisions with a Hillel professional beforehand. We can provide this student with perspective about Halacha (Jewish law) and tattoos, and we can ask the student why they want to get a Jewish tattoo in the first place. It’s not up to us to persuade the student one way or the other, but Hillel professionals can ensure that the student is making an informed, intentional choice.

I always try to come back from conferences, institutes, and other learning opportunities with a few nuggets of wisdom or new ideas, and with a question for further discussion. This week, my question was inspired by our conversation about dissonance, as it applies to pluralism. We know now that personal dissonance is necessary for individual growth, but what about dissonance within the community? A student’s internal struggle about what it means to be Jewish often becomes an external conflict with another student who has a different perspective. Statements like “you’re not really Jewish” or “your Judaism is outdated and sexist” are incredibly hurtful to a student who is just beginning to develop his or her own Jewish practice. If we can help our students navigate their personal moments of dissonance, perhaps they will have more compassion toward each other when they externalize the conflict.

Furthermore, if internal dissonance fuels identity formation, is it possible that external conflict also provides an opportunity for growth? When conflicts arise between students who celebrate Judaism in different ways, how can we help our students see the positive learning opportunities within the nodes of dissonance? And although we may or may not work on answering this question for the rest of our lives, this time, it’s not rhetorical. Please share your thoughts, answers, and further questions by posting a comment below. I look forward to continuing this conversation with you!