Overnight Camp IS Jewish Education

I write the Jewish Life blog for URJ Eisner Camp as part of my responsibilities as the Director of Jewish Education. Here’s one I wrote this summer.

When you think of providing a Jewish education for your child, you may think of teaching them about their heritage, building a relationship with Israel, and giving them a familiarity with Hebrew. You may think about conveying our core values and celebrating Shabbat. Or perhaps you think of cultivating their spiritual side and providing them with a robust Jewish community. Jewish summer camp can help you give your child a Jewish education in all of these ways. But Jewish overnight camp can also help you give your child a Jewish education by giving them the tools to grow into the best version of themselves and to live independently.

Dr. Michael Thompson in his book Homesick and Happy: How Time Away from Parents Can Help a Child Grow names eight things we cannot do for our children:

  1. Make them happy
  2. Give them high self-esteem
  3. Make friends for them or micromanage their friendships
  4. Successfully double as our child’s agent, manager, and coach
  5. Create the “second family” for which our children yearn in order to facilitate their own growth
  6. Compete with or limit children’s immersion in the digital and social media realms
  7. Keep them perfectly safe (although we can make them crazy trying!)
  8. Make them independent

Overnight camp, according to Dr. Thompson’s research, can give our children the freedom and environment to do many of these things for themselves.

Maybe learning to become an independent adult does not seem to fall into the realm of goals of Jewish education, but in fact, it does. The word Torah and the word for teacher (moreh/ah) and parent (horeh/ah) all come from the same Hebrew root for the word “instruct”. As parents, the Torah, or instruction, which we must give our children goes well beyond the world of Jewish ritual or even values. The Talmud teaches in Kiddushin 29a:

Our Rabbis taught: A parent is obligated to do the following for their child*: enter the child into the covenant of the Jewish people, redeem the firstborn [from service in the Temple], teach them Torah, find them a spouse, and teach them a trade. And there are some who also say that a parent must also teach their child to swim.

Some of these tasks seem obvious–we are obligated to help our children fulfil mitzvot as infants which they could not do for themselves. We want to help them step into adulthood by giving them a marketable skill and the ability to start their own families. But why should we teach them to swim? Perhaps because this is a skill that could save their lives.

I like to consider this reference to swimming more metaphorically. The ocean is a vast unknown. Its depths are mysterious, ever-changing, and unexplored. If we prepare our children to swim, we acknowledge that the world into which we will send them is unfamiliar to us; we cannot give them the exact tools they will need, nor can we protect them from every uncertainty, but we can prepare them by making them resilient and up to the task of facing the challenges the surely will encounter. This is our charge as Jewish parents, and this is what Jewish summer camp can help us do.

*This is an updated, gender-inclusive translation.

For more on this topic, listen to this podcast with psychologist Dr. Wendy Mogel, “Teaching to Swim Without a Pool.”

Jewish Learning Outcomes: A Text Study

During the recent “Striving for Shlemut” convening, I had an opportunity to learn from educators who were part of the Fellowship in Educating for Applied Jewish Wisdom. As they presented their new paradigm for Jewish education and modeled teaching using it, I was struck by the humility of the teachers and the brave willingness to shift focus from achieving particular outcomes to embracing questions and process. In this paradigm, learning is both a process and an outcome, a means and an end. These educators found the purposes of Jewish learning to be growth and striving towards wholeness, an orientation that lets go of perpetuating a particular type of Judaism. This is learning to help people thrive and, in turn, shape a community that contributes to shlemut (wholeness). This understanding of instruction (torah) is related to the way a parent (horeh/ah) raises a child– modeling ways of being and growing, providing fertile ground for exploration and development, and delighting in the surprises that inevitably develop. In light of this experience, I present three texts for educational leaders to consider. Where do you fall in your understanding of the purposes of Jewish learning? How does it affect the work that you do, the way you learn, and the way your learners grow as a result of your teaching?

*            *           *

Three stories from the Babylonian Talmud about teachers’ and learners’ responses to unpredictable outcomes relate to the discussion about the goals and outcomes of Jewish learning. The first text is found in Ta’anit 23a. After sleeping for seventy years, Honi the Circle-Drawer finds himself in the back of a classroom, hearing his own name invoked. “I am he!” he calls out in desperation. But the scholars do not believe him and give him no respect. This pains him so deeply that he prays for mercy and dies. Honi gives us the example of a teacher fixated on continuity; ironically evolution hurts him, while the students seem indifferent. Honi’s story stands in contrast to that of the man he encounters at the beginning of the text, confidently planting a seed that will not bear fruit for 70 years. Although this man will never see the fruits of his labor, he is committed to participating in the process.

In the second text, from Menakhot 29b, Moses asks God to show him the man who will one day interpret meaning from the crowns on the letters in the Torah scroll. When God allows Moses to see Akiva’s classroom, Moses cannot understand what is being said. When Rabbi Akiva’s students ask for the source of his teachings, Rabbi Akiva answers, “This is law given to Moses at Sinai.” This calms Moses. The continuity here is not in content but in identification, a voluntary binding to a tradition. This soothes the teacher and the student, as they both derive meaning from seeing themselves as part of something bigger. The outcome is unpredictable, but the process is constant.

The final text is Bava Metzia 59b, in which the kashrut of an oven is being debated. In this argument between Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Eliezer, God supports the ruling of Rabbi Eliezer repeatedly through miracles that defy nature (a carob tree uprooting itself and moving, a stream reversing its flow) and finally a voice from heaven that clearly expresses support for Eliezer’s argument. But Rabbi Yehoshua declares “[The Torah] is not in heaven,” meaning the teaching is now in the hands of the students to interpret. The story concludes with Rabbi Natan encountering the prophet Elijah years after the incident. He asks how God (so clearly overruled!) reacted at that time to Rabbi Yehoshua’s behavior. Elijah’s response is, “God smiled and said: ‘My children have triumphed over Me, My children have triumphed over Me.’” Here we have a Teacher who delights in the continuing revelation manifest in the ongoing adaptation and changing understandings of the teaching.

As you consider these stories, locate yourself on the spectrum of process and outcomes, questions and answers.

Questions to consider:

  • Which depiction resonates most with you?
  • When have you found yourself reacting as Honi, Moses, or God? As Rabbi Yehoshua or Rabbi Eliezer? What were the factors that contributed to your reaction?
  • In a situation like the debate in the third text, what other reaction can you think of that would be in line with your understanding of learning and learning outcomes?

Shavuot 5778: Torah from the Heart

Our synagogue had a wonderful event on Shavuot eve in which people shared their personal Torah. Each person spoke from the heart, and we experienced learning about ourselves and each other as the community opened their hearts to each other and made a sacred and safe space to do so. I’m so grateful I was invited to be a part. Here are the words I shared.

Adele Faber, co-author of the parenting book How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk (among many others) explains how we often deny children’s feelings. “I’m tired!” they say. “But you just took a nap!” we respond. She taught me that both things can be true. And two things can be true for the same person at the same time—she explained how important it can be for a child to hear, “You love your new baby sister, and you also wish she would go away.” This non-binary way of thinking can be liberating.

Sometimes what is in our heart is conflicted. As the musical Avenue Q puts it, “The more you love someone, the more you want to kill them.” The Torah I have learned is not a Torah of either/or. It is a Torah of both/and, of holding two conflicting ideas at once.

Our tradition teaches us this. Shamor v’zachor b’dibur echad, we sing in L’cha Dodi. In one utterance, we heard both keep Shabbat and remember Shabbat. Eilu v’eilu divrei Elohim chaim—both these words and those words (which appear to conflict) are the words of the living God. Biblical scholar Robert Alter explains that the contradictions in the Torah are not the result of messy editing or unsophisticated thinking but reflect an essential truth; like a “post-Cubist painting which gives us, for example, juxtaposed or superimposed, a profile and a frontal perspective of the same face.” This is the artist’s way of representing a complex reality. He goes on to explain, “the biblical outlook is informed, I think, by a sense of stubborn contradiction, of a profound and ineradicable untidiness in the nature of things, and it is toward the expression of such a sense of moral and historical reality that the composite artistry of the Bible is directed.”

The Torah of both/and teaches that we don’t only have the potential to be or feel or experience two things, but that we do perceive, feel and identify as two things at the same time. Let me suggest a few of these contrasts which I experience for you to consider for yourself.

I accept the truths of science and the truths of the Torah.

I am a part of a community and apart from it.

I am thankful for the time I have with certain people and in certain places, and at the same time I mourn what might have been when it turns out differently than I had hoped.

I both love Israel and am critical of it.

I can exert my power while at the same time I give it away.

I can be on a diet and feel completely satisfied. (Just kidding!)

I am simultaneously safe and vulnerable.

I am both productive and procrastinating.

I am certain, and I am open to having my mind changed.

I am both privileged and persecuted.

I am whole, and I am broken.

I am right, and I am wrong.

I am at once a teacher and a learner.

Embracing both/and is not trying to please everyone or a refusal to commit. It is rather an attempt to express a larger truth about the messiness of life, the diversity of experience, and our capacity to live with complexity.

A Mindfulness Mindset in Parashat Sh’mot: Reflections for Camp

This weekend I was supposed to be up at Eisner Camp with a cohort of folks working on bringing mindfulness to camp. (I’ve written about this initiative before.) Unfortunately, the snow has caused us to cancel the retreat. When it rains, we get wet, but when it snows…we stay home! What’s a Jewish educator to do when she has prepared some thoughts on the weekly parasha, only pertinent to the week we read Parashat Sh’mot? Thanks to this blog, I can post it here for all of you.

 

When I looked at the Torah portion this week, I focused on a “mindfulness mindset”, meaning the way that a mindfulness practice can affect the way one approaches life, learning, teaching, and camp. I chose a few sections of the parasha to focus on, each one highlighting a different aspect.

Sh’mot 1:1-4, Names and gratitude

Why begin with names? In this touching commentary,  Rabbi Bradley Artson of the American Jewish University reflects on the purpose and effect of starting this section of the Torah with a list of names. He notes that while long dedications in books or thank yous in speeches can be tiresome, they signify what we value about each individual and the power we have to impact others’ lives.  He writes, “You can see that a list of those people who contributed to who you are today would be tremendously long. To other people, your list would also be boring. But each of us cherishes such a private list of gratitude, since that list represents the many facets of our own personality. By insisting that we endure several such lists, the Torah opens us to recalling our own dependency on others, and also spurs us to be such influences for those people whose lives we can touch.” Gratitude is both a starting point for mindfulness as well as an outcome of it. When we notice how others have touched our lives, we feel appreciation as well as the potential to (as we say at camp) “Be the one” who others think of when they make their lists.

Sh’mot 2:11-15, Appreciating different perspectives

When Moses sees a Hebrew slave being beaten by an Egyptian taskmaster, he rises up to defend the slave and commits murder. The next day, Moses is shocked that the event is known among the slaves. Moses saw no witness to his actions, even though the obvious witness is the slave who he defended! It is amazing how our own perspective can blind us to the experience of others. In our work with the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, we are often reminded, “Other people are not failed attempts at being you.” This adapted quote from anthropologist Wade Davis originally referred to other cultures, and was apparently apt for the ancient Egyptians. In his commentary on the Torah, Plaut quotes philosopher André Neher’s description of Egyptian artwork: “The scenes depicting slavery and forced labor are brutal in their massiveness. Human beings are so closely packed and piled upon each other that they appear as a single whole yoked as such to its work, without any individuality at all.” Moses is part of Egyptian royalty, even though he knows his roots. In this scene, Moses is taking the first step in appreciating the perspective of others when he attempts to right the injustice he sees. But, he cannot comprehend the individual experience of the Hebrew.

In this story of becoming a nation, the Jews are not a singular mass but a community of individuals. In this parasha the word Ivrim, “Hebrews”, is oddly spelled with two yuds. Also cited in the Plaut commentary, 19th Century Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains that this unusual grammatical construct in which the singular is not absorbed into the plural form shows that the Jews were individuals as well as a group. This appreciation for the individual experience is central to a mindful approach. We invite others into experience, but we don’t dictate it, and we don’t have expectations of what that experience will be. We practice listening with full awareness and try to cultivate an appreciation for a diversity of experience.

Sh’mot 3:1-3, Curiosity about experience, interest in one’s inner world, embodied awareness

In this scene, Moses has a revelation about God through a vision of a bush that burns but is not consumed. To me, this section reflects Moses’ growing curiosity about his experience. Daniel Rechtschaffen reminds us that the goal of teaching mindfulness to children is their growing interest in their own inner world. Sometimes when we meditate, we practice repeating the following: (Inhale) “What’s this?” (Exhale) “Don’t know.” Similarly, Moses exclaims in chapter 3, verse 3, “I must turn aside to look at this marvelous sight! Why doesn’t the bush burn up?” It is this curiosity that opens Moses up to revelation, which is his and his alone.

Moses is next instructed to remove his sandals. Perhaps this can further be tied to curiosity about embodied experience. Where in the body do emotions lie? What is going on in my body at this moment? Taking of our shoes helps us to feel the sensations of grains of sand or blades of grass beneath our feet, our bones spreading to support us on the earth.

A lot of attention is paid to Moses’ objections to God’s request. It seems foolish that Moses challenges God, raising the issue of his speech impediment; even God says (essentially), “I know you have a speech impediment. I make speech impediments!” But God doesn’t correct Moses’ speech. These objections may be the first signs of Moses’ attention to his inner life, as he verbalizes his feelings. In mindfulness practice, we are taught to “notice what you notice, feel what you feel”, and then to continue to experience it rather than cling to it or run from it. At camp, we can help campers to experience something unpleasant, get curious about it, and learn from it, rather than rush to fix it.

Sh’mot 1:9, Becoming a People

Pharoah refers to Am B’nai Yisrael, the first time the people of Israel are referred to as a nation. Throughout this d’var, I have touched upon the balance between individual experience and community. At camp, we are a group of people each trying to “Be the one.” Many people refer to camp as a place where we can live Jewish lives and experience Judaism holistically, and they see this as a unique strength of camp as a Jewish educational experience. Some of you know that I’m doing my doctoral research on the evolution of Jewish education at camp, and I’ve been interviewing various people who have been involved in camp from an educational perspective over the past 25+ years. Recently a respondent suggested that our Jewish camp experience transcends time. Each summer we experience the quintessential Jewish story– a group of individuals coming together to figure out what it means to be an enduring people, with both individual and communal revelations that bind us together through shared values and experience.

A close attention to individual experience partnered with an awareness of the cosmic significance of our being is also part of a mindfulness mindset. This insight gave me personally a new perspective and sense of purpose for my work at camp, and I hope you find some meaning in it as well. I’d love to hear your perspective in the comments. Stay warm, and Shabbat shalom!

What Is Summer For? Reflections on the Relationship between Day School and Camp

Here’s an article I wrote for the current issue of the day school journal, Prizma.  Enjoy, and tell me what you think!

Imagine you are welcoming your students on the first day of school after many of them have been at Jewish summer camp. What is going through your mind?

A) I hope they didn’t forget everything they learned last year! Maybe they learned even more in the 24/7 Jewish educational environment of Jewish camp.

B) I can’t wait to see how they’ve matured socially and emotionally after living in community with friends, negotiating intense feelings and close relationships.

C) Summer camp is an adventure! I can’t wait to get to know these kids and see how their new experiences will enrich our classroom learning.

As day school educators and possibly camp educators as well, your hopes for what your students can learn and how they will grow over the summer are tied to your conception of camp, the potential for learning there, and camp’s goals, in particular with relationship to school. The relationship between camp and school is one that has existed and shifted since the beginning of summer camp. The educational goals of camp can be seen along a continuum in relation to the education that takes place in school. Just as you may have wanted to choose more than one of the responses in the above thought experiment, these goals combine in various ways, and there is overlap in categories along the continuum.

Camp in Place of School

On one end of the continuum, camp is meant to take the place of school when school is out, addressing the loss of learning gains that might occur over the summer when assessed through standardized testing (sometimes referred to as the “summer slide”). In the history of both secular and Jewish camps, this goal is a prominent one. In addition to camp’s beginning (most often traced to Frederick William Gunn in 1861 as an outdoor education component of a school program), the rise of camping was in part due to urbanization and industrialization, when fewer children worked on farms and an increasing number attended school with a fixed summer vacation. Camp took hold as part of the educational movement of American Progressivism. In the Deweyan school of thought, camp serves as a laboratory of learning by doing.

Advocates of camp as an extension of school argue that campers can potentially learn more or better during the summer months in the all-inclusive, creative and hands-on environment of camp. For example, summer reading programs have been designed to integrate into the camp day and address any summer learning loss, and recent efforts in Hebrew immersion in day camps seem successful in achieving their goals. Often the promise that camp will give campers an academic advantage is a selling point for parents.

A category along the continuum that exists primarily in Jewish camps but not as prominently in the secular camping world is camp in place of school as a venue for education, that is, the claim that the Jewish education and experience to be had at summer camp is superior to what can be achieved in Jewish schooling. This conception of the educational goals of camp can result in episodes of camp that look a lot like school. Christian and Jewish summer camps describe similar phenomenon, in which the religious learning part of the day looks much like traditional classroom instruction, albeit in a natural setting, what Ramah Director David Mogilner called a “heder under the elms.” This presents a contrast wherein the rest of the camp day campers are immersed in play and experiential learning, but Jewish content is relegated to rather non-progressive educational models.

Alternatively, camps may seek an integrated model in which learning happens while kids are having fun. Here fun conflated with learning comes to mean that learning is less onerous. This stance can cause camps to eliminate time specifically devoted to Jewish learning in favor of an integrated model; this model has been shown to have mixed success. Sometimes the learning is neither broad nor deep—not every topic can be associated with a camp activity, and not much can fit into a fifteen-minute sound bite. At times the Jewish learning segment of an activity still feels like a formal lesson, albeit a shorter one, but one that still interrupts an otherwise fun and recreational day.

Camp as Complement to School

Another goal along the continuum is camp as a complement to school. In this case, camp is for addressing crucial developmental skills that are more peripheral to a formal school curriculum. This kind of learning includes social-emotional learning, such as self-regulating and negotiating interpersonal relationships; leadership development; and experience in the outdoors. Parents of campers and Jewish summer camps also proclaim the many social-emotional benefits of camp: increased responsibility, sense of self and interpersonal skills.

Related to this goal is the idea that camps and schools may be in dialogue with one another, influencing one another through people, scholarship and experimentation. Beyond experimenting with creative curricula and teaching that could make schools more engaging, some camp advocates argue for a shift in emphasis in formal schooling towards the social-emotional goals of education as a result of the educational model that camps provide. These thinkers assert that the positive emotional environment of camp, including close relationships with adult teachers and role models, primes campers for all kinds of learning.

Similar to the way that non-academic growth can complement the academic growth that occurs at school, camp seems to provide a context for Jewish living in a way that schools cannot. Experiential education, learning that comes out of and relates directly to lived experience, could fall under this category, as could Jewish learning that occurs when living a Jewish life in the context of a vibrant, fully encompassing Jewish community. We might call this conception of Jewish education at camp as camp in place of shtetl, family, or some other premodern, all-encompassing Jewish life. In this conception, as the original founders of camp felt that camp was a return to a more pure and holistic way of life before industrialization, some Jewish camp advocates see camp as providing a total Jewish experience that is no longer available in our segmented, modern, hyphenated lives.

Camp in place of family can be found as a goal in secular camping today as well. In his book Homesick and Happy: How Time Away from Parents Can Help a Child Grow, psychologist Michael Thompson declares that camp can deliver on many of the things that parents want for their children but cannot actually provide. He argues there are eight things parents cannot do for their children (even though they try): make them happy, give them high self-esteem, manage their friendships or make friends for them, be their agent, manager or coach, be their second family, compete with children’s digital world, keep them perfectly safe, or make them independent. In this view of camp, camp counterbalances and counteracts the over-parenting that is stifling children’s independence and growth, independence and growth that will allow them to achieve and access the eight items above. The unencumbered and uncomplicated relationships of camp are also seen as a psychological benefit and a necessary antidote to inevitably fraught family relationships. Developing these close extra-familial relationships are key to adolescent development.

Camp as Other

A final category could be described as camp as totally other, or unrelated to school. In his list of the 10 elements that make camp powerful for children, Michael Thompson puts “Camp is not school (no tests, judgments, or evaluation)” at number two. According to Thompson, what camp is is even more significant: a place for play and imagination, an opportunity to choose, to be part of a larger community and connect closely with others and nature, and a chance to fully be one’s self.

It is not uncommon in the research on camps to find the word “fun” as describing the central goal of camp. Often the advocates of fun and play explain that people learn through play and object to “fun and games” as a critique or description that minimizes the important growth and learning that takes place at camp. They see this kind of unstructured free living as core to learning and becoming. In contrast to the conception of fun that leads to learning (particularly academic learning, which is usually seen as boring), “fun” may be understood as both an ends and a means. (This outlook is more popular in literature about the importance of play in early childhood, for example.) When fun is seen this way, campers can develop their own theology and practice through interaction and experimentation.

Along these lines, the education that takes place when one is having fun is learning as being, experiencing freedom of self, expression and exploration. “Fun” can be described as fully engaged, free, living of present experience, whereas formal Jewish education could be seen as learning about or preparing for the actual experience of living. Some proponents of camp as a totally different way of being and learning reject the current emphasis in education on measuring outcomes. They argue that this emphasis is contaminating and that children learn when they are engaged in solving problems in community and direct experiential learning. In light of this framing, might a potential goal of Jewish learning at camp be simply the unencumbered direct experience of the world and others? Could this be considered Jewish learning, if the experiences take place in a context of Jewish people and a community informed by Jewish values and rhythms?

At the crux of all of these models of school/camp is really a question of what Jewish education is for. As Jewish educators, are we trying to create more learned and practicing Jews (who perhaps know and practice the way we do)? Are we teaching Judaism in service of a better and enriched life for our students? Are we hoping our students will become creative contributors to our Jewish heritage, even if that contribution leads to Judaism looking different than it does now? If we might want some combination of all of the above, which goals are best met by school, and which by camp? Understanding our ultimate goals, not to mention those of our students, can help us answer the question of what summer is for, and then we will be able to promote or design the kind of Jewish learning that might take place during the summer break in line with those goals.

What Makes Prayer at Camp So Special?

Open your heart. Open to Me. Let My Presence rest on you.

The question of what makes prayer at camp so special has peppered both camp and synagogue innovation literature over the past few decades. There is an apocryphal tale of the camper returning home and insisting they could not celebrate Havdalah without a lake. Sales and Saxe (2004) suggest a few ideas: campers taking leadership roles, the presence of the Torah, creativity and kavannah. My own take comes out of the observations I have been able to make working at URJ Eisner Camp these past two summers; I came as someone with a background in Jewish education with an interest in the phenomenon of camp as well as someone who did not grow up at a URJ camp or any other Jewish overnight camp except for a few years in elementary school.

Recently I have had a new insight into this question. This is just a personal reflection; I invite your reactions on whether or not this resonates with your experience. Of course, prayer at camp is not always a positive or impactful experience. But when it is, it seems transcendent.

Camp has given me the opportunity to participate in the Institute for Jewish Spirituality’s educator initiative, Educating for a Jewish Spiritual Life. Through this experience over the past year, I have learned that cultivating an open heart is a core concept of Jewish mindfulness. Through our practice we explore how an open heart feels, physically and emotionally. We pay attention to the behaviors and attitudes which open our hearts, such as awareness and gratitude. An open heart leads to authentic prayer, genuine empathy, equanimity, and a capacity to love one’s self and others.

It seems to me that camp primes one’s heart to be open. The environment of camp, when it works, is one of safety and love. Campers move about confidently and freely. They know they can be themselves, whatever that means to them. Rules about how we treat others are front and center. Lifelong friendships are formed. Counselors offer unconditional love and care to their campers. In this environment, we can enter prayer with an open heart. Perhaps this is what Splansky (2006) is getting at when he says, “The sense of community precedes the praying.”

Jewish mindfulness also cultivates the capacity to provide a loving and safe environment for one’s self. As we sit, we concentrate on the phrases inspired by the Priestly Benediction, “May I be loved. May I be safe.”, as we envision those feelings and the people or places who have contributed to experiencing those feelings in our lives. This capacity is especially important when we face something unpleasant. When we have negative feelings, we try to hold ourselves with compassion through the experience. Similarly, there are times that camp life is dramatic or difficult, and camp holds you in those moments and helps you recover.

In my experience, the meaningful power of camp prayer comes through the elements of love, safety, and holding with compassion; the setting, music, and logistics of the services alone do not have the power to open one’s heart. In these crucial ways, camp exemplifies what we try to do for ourselves through Jewish mindfulness practice.


Sales, A. L., & Saxe, L. (2003). “How Goodly Are Thy Tents”: Summer Camps as Jewish Socializing Experiences. Hanover: Brandeis.

Splansky, D. M. (2006). Creating a Prayer Experience in Reform Movement Camps and Beyond. In A Place of Our Own: The Rise of Reform Jewish Camping (pp. 151-172).

My Father Was a Wandering Aramean

I recently went looking for this piece I wrote back in 2006 because of the mention of Leon Wieseltier, and his quote is still the best part of the essay, I think. You can find the archived article here, but since I’m not sure how much longer it will be there, and I might want to find it again one day, I’m posting it here. Since I wrote this, I think I’ve become a bit of a relativist, embracing multiple expressions of Judaism, from knishes to Maimonides to many less stereotypical expressions, but that message to “Get into the fight” still seems to be a compelling and succinct rationale for Jewish education. Enjoy as we prepare for Passover, when we read this verse in the Haggadah.

Ki Tavo concludes the litany of laws reiterated to the people as they await entrance into the land. Details of a ceremony that must take place upon their entry into the Promised Land are given. In elaborate, even excruciating detail we learn about the reward for adhering to the covenant and the extensive, harsh rebuke for abjuring it.

Our parashah begins with a description of the offering the first fruits to be performed once the people enter and settle in the Promised Land. Approaching the priest in front of the altar, each individual recites a formulation with which we are familiar because of its appearance in the magid (telling) section of the Passover haggadah:

You shall then recite as follows before the Eternal your God: ‘My father was a fugitive Aramean.’ (Deuteronomy 26:5)

Is this statement a claim to a biological lineage or an exercise in religious imagination? This question is addressed in the Mishnah, which asks if a convert should recite the statement. While the prevailing conclusion is that they should not, Rabbi Judah argues that Abraham, “father of a multitude of nations” (Genesis 17:5), was also a convert and “father of all non-Jews who chose to become Jews” (Jerusalem Talmud, Bikkurim 1:4 in Fields, A Torah Commentary for Our Times, Vol. 3, 160). Maimonides agrees with Rabbi Judah in a response to an inquiry from the famous convert Obadiah. Maimonides tells him, “You should recite all the prayers just as they are formulated in the liturgy. Change nothing! …[E]veryone who accepts Judaism until the end of all generations…is a descendant of Abraham…There is absolutely no difference whatsoever between us and between you” (Cited in Fields, 161).

The open and unequivocal embrace of converts has implications for our understanding of what makes someone Jewish. Clearly, if one can become Jewish, Jewishness is not a factor of blood, race, ethnicity or lineage. This means that we cannot rely on our last name, physical characteristics or hereditary diseases to define us as Jewish. Nor can we rely on those who hate us and discriminate against us based on these things. Who would want to, you may ask. There are many Jews who are Jewish simply as a condition of their birth, like being short or left handed, it is a situation they must deal with, sometimes bringing pleasure and sometimes pain. Even if they are proud of their Judaism and association with the Jewish people, it is still a passive association, something they are rather than something they each day become.

What is Judaism, then? Is it a nationality, with a language, history and cuisine? The modern state of Israel has given new life to this line of questioning, including the claim that a full Jewish life can only be lived in Israel. But history does not support this assertion. Judaism is multi-dimensional and transcends any single category or definition. Having such things as a language and a country mean that Judaism is more than a religion.

On the flip side of our openness to conversion, it is hard to leave the Jewish people. “The Talmud, the fundamental source of rabbinic Jewish law and lore, does not recognize the possibility that a Jew might ‘convert’ to another religion and thereby cease to be a counted among the people of Israel. The covenant between God and Israel is seen as a contract binding for all time upon the descendants of those who stood at Sinai….” (Washofsky, Jewish Living, 47-48). But as we learn in Ki Tavo and others, there are conditions to this covenant.

If we follow God’s injunctions, we are rewarded and our lives are enriched. If not, the gruesome consequences are described in this week’s parashah. Perhaps there are more subtle consequences of leaving our rich tradition behind, of being ignorant to the requirements and rituals of Judaism. In an interview with Abigail Pogrebin, Leon Wieseltier rails against this ignorance. “Owing to the ethnic definition of Jewish life, there has occurred a kind of internal relativism among all things Jewish,” he says. “If we’re just a tribe, if we’re just an ethnic group, then all of our expressions are equally valuable, they all delightfully express what we are. ‘I like Maimonides, you like knishes, but we’re Jews together!’ Right? The philosophy, the food, it’s all a different way of being Jewish. … So in America now it is possible to be a Jew with a Jewish identity that one can defend and that gives one pleasure—and for that identity to have painfully little Jewish substance” (Stars of David, 156, 157). Wieseltier defines Judaism within the context of covenant, and that covenant comes with obligations. He challenges us:

“…[T]he Jews are a people, the Jews are a nation, the Jews are a civilization—but they’re all that because they are first and foremost a religion. That’s the source of the whole blessed thing. Except for our religion, we would not be a people. When Jews come to me with perplexities about the meaning of Jewishness, I say to them: Judaism. Just go to it; check it out, study this, study that, try this, try that, humble yourself for a while before it, insist upon the importance of having a worldview, develop reasons for what you like and what you don’t like, get into the fight. Get into the fight.” (Stars of David, 167)

Let us resolve to take up the fight, to engage with Judaism and play an active part in defining it.

Purim: We Have Been Here Before

As we approach the holiday of Purim and find ourselves deep in this year’s bizarre election cycle, I find myself thinking back to different times. The article I wrote below was originally published in a weekly Torah commentary by the URJ back in December 2000 and is archived here.
Four election cycles ago was a different time entirely. On the other hand, we have heard these stories before. Jewish people have risen to positions of prominence and power even as a minority, Joseph and Esther being the two most obvious Biblical examples.
This year, in addition to a woman and a Jewish man seeking the presidency, a new Haman has emerged, a person whose ego makes him a demagogue and whose ability to incite hate makes him terrifying.
While things have changed, the last questions I raised give me pause today: “There were many times when Jews achieved levels of acceptance only to face later expulsion or worse. Is this cycle destined to repeat itself throughout history? What is its end? Where in that cycle are we now?”
I’m interested in your thoughts, so please tell me what you think in the comments.

Joe and Hadassah Lieberman: Viceroy of Egypt and Queen of Persia

The narratives of the Bible are in many ways archetypal stories of the human condition, repeated throughout history. This year, a Jew, Senator Joe Lieberman, was nominated as the Democratic candidate for vice president of the United States. Who could be more suited for this position in history than two people who bear the same names as our only biblical role models to have achieved levels of prominence in non-Jewish governments, namely, Joseph and Esther (whose Hebrew name was Hadassah)? Let’s explore these two models with regard to some specific issues raised in both the Tanach texts and in this year’s presidential race.

Piety

Joe Lieberman tends to refer to God in his speeches. In Parashat Miketz, the biblical Joseph constantly mentions God. When asked to interpret Pharaoh’s dream, Joseph replies: “Not I! God will see to Pharaoh’s welfare!” (Genesis 41:16), and in the course of the interpretation provided him by God, he mentions God three times. This piety so impresses Pharaoh and his advisers that Pharaoh chooses Joseph to supervise the food reserve (an ironic parallel to the issue of our budgetary surplus) because of Joseph’s relationship with God, and Pharaoh even refers to God twice as Elohim, the same way that Joseph does.

In contrast, God is not mentioned even once in the entire Book of Esther. Mordecai tells her: “Who knows, perhaps you have attained to royal position for just such a crisis?” (Esther 4:14), hinting that God directs the course of human events. How different or similar are Esther’s and Joseph’s approaches? Which one do you think is better suited for a politician in the U.S. today?

Family Values

Joe Lieberman was praised for his frank condemnation of President Clinton’s sexual infidelity and dishonesty. In rabbinic literature, Joseph is often referred to as “Joseph the Righteous,” having earned this title for refusing the advances of Potiphar’s wife, who then falsely accused Joseph, resulting in Potiphar’s having him thrown in jail.

There is a parallel story of an attempted rape in the Book of Esther. When Esther revealed to the king Ahasuerus that Haman was plotting to kill the Jews, the king stormed out and returned later only to find “Haman…lying prostrate on the couch on which Esther reclined.” (Esther 7:8) Do these two biblical stories serve to warn us that as Jews in a non-Jewish society, we run the risk of having the core of our identities violated?

Assimilation and Intermarriage

Both Joseph and Esther married non-Jews. Although each of them assimilated into the majority culture, they were both forced to confront their roots. When Joseph’s brothers arrived in Egypt, they didn’t recognize him. He swore by Pharaoh’s name (Genesis 42:15) and had called his “firstborn Manasseh, meaning, ‘God has made me forget completely…my parental home.'” (Genesis 41:51) Esther, too, hid her Jewish identity, and without Mordecai’s prodding, she would probably not have approached the king. On the other hand, each week parents bless their sons, expressing the hope that they will be like Ephraim and Manasseh, who, rabbinic tradition teaches, embraced Judaism even in Egypt. How does a Jew who has attained a position of prominence in the U.S. today affect the identity of other American Jews?

Cycles

Finally, we can speculate about how this year’s events might be viewed in the course of Jewish history. There were many times when Jews achieved levels of acceptance only to face later expulsion or worse. The tale of Joseph is a story of such a cycle—from favored son to slave and prisoner to the viceroy of Egypt. While Egypt, Mitzrayim in Hebrew, became the site of years of bitter Israelite slavery, it is also the place from which we were redeemed and led out to the Promised Land. Is this cycle destined to repeat itself throughout history? What is its end? Where in that cycle are we now?

When School Doesn’t Look Like School: Applied Judaism

Here’s my latest article in eJewishPhilanthropy. Looking forward to your responses.

 

Logo Matzah Ball MenschesThere is a lot of talk about changing the name, the times, the locations and the format of synagogue schools. But calling something experiential, changing the hours or even inviting the parents is not enough to make deep change in religious school. What is needed is a change in thinking.

Is school the right model for what we are trying to do in our synagogue education programs? Why do they exist? There is a lot for students to learn in order to be knowledgeable in Jewish practices, values and traditions. But children who can “get an A in Judaism” are not our ultimate goal. A person can become an expert in these areas without even being Jewish. Our goal is mastery of “applied Judaism,” demonstrated by students who are part of a Jewish community and can face the challenges of this life in a Jewish way. Let me give you an example of what this can look like within the bounds of a typical third grade Sunday morning religious school class structure. Here’s how the teacher described it:

In the synagogue kitchen, nineteen third graders gathered around the stainless steel island upon which was heaped bunches of leeks, onions, carrots, turnips, parsnips, and bundles of parsley and dill. On the stove behind them, four free-range chickens were simmering in big soup pots. Mamma Barbara, grandmother to one of the students and the guest of honor for the morning, stood at the head of the island, handing out peelers, instruction, and encouragement to eager hands. Within minutes, the floor was a mess of carrot tops and parsnip shavings that missed the compost bags. The smell of chopped onions brought tears to some sensitive eyes.

A sense of community, sometimes so hard to foster in a classroom setting, was everywhere one looked in this overheated kitchen. Kitchen tools were shared without a teacher’s guidance. One child held a hardto-cut vegetable for another to chop, while, across the way, another student warned his new friend to “be careful of the splashing soup” as she put her cut up celery into the pot.

Cleanup over and soup gently simmering on the stove, the class climbed the stairs back up the classroom, where Mamma Barbara told them the story of the recipe, passed down from her own great-grandmother through the daughters of her family, from a Russian shtetl to the suburbs of New Jersey. The soup (“Jewish penicillin,” Mamma Barbara called it) would now be strained, frozen, and ultimately delivered to the ill in our community by the sixth graders of our synagogue as part of their bar or bat mitzvah projects.

More than a kitschy hands-on activity, this effort coordinated by Jessie Losch at The Barnert Temple Congregation B’nai Jeshurun of Franklin Lakes gets to the heart of what applied Judaism in a school setting looks like. A few key components:

1. The school is not separate from the greater community.

In our scenario, students function as a class community within the context of the synagogue community. Mamma Barbara brought her family recipe and became part of the effort. In addition, the students planted chicken soup herbs in the synagogue garden to harvest for their soup under the direction of a synagogue member who is also a master gardener. Another group of expert adults facilitated the students in creating a Matzah Ball Mensches logo which will adorn the labels of every package of soup. As a mitzvah project, a sixth grader will serve as the liaison to the caring committee, coordinating delivery. K-2nd graders will create cards to go with the soup.

2. Judaism is not confined to a time of the week or a room of the synagogue.

The boundaries that often segment children’s Jewish life (Sunday mornings at the synagogue) were permeated by people and activities around making the soup and delivering it. Community members and older students joined in. The sick people who will receive the soup are not necessarily third grade classmates. Deliveries will occur on different days and in other places, and cooking and planting took place outside of the classroom, albeit on synagogue property.

3. Jewish values are put in action to solve real problems.

Students learned about taking care of the earth, dietary laws, and preventing the suffering of animals and then discussed how to make the soup in an ethical way. They studied Rabbi Akiva’s teaching on the power of visiting the sick: “He who does not visit the sick is like a murderer!” A connection to Jewish history and heritage was made real through Mamma Barbara’s recipe and family story. Empathy and care for the sick went from theoretical to real as eight year olds did what they could to help and provide comfort to those in need.

4. There are widening circles of involvement.

This project has grown since it was first initiated. The excitement of participating in real and meaningful Jewish acts that make a difference is contagious. Director of Lifelong Learning Sara Losch has invited other classes to be a part. Now the fifth grade class is involved in creating a book that will tell the story of this project to the recipient, including the mitzvot it teaches and the recipe for chicken soup. Students become teachers to community members and spread their learning.

Under the direction of Senior Rabbi Elyse Frishman, this synagogue has been in a constant cycle of experimentation, assessment and improvement. That being said, this experience of applied Judaism did not require a full restructure of the synagogue school. Jessie understands the world of her classroom as a part of a greater Jewish community. She incorporated the enduring understandings that were articulated for her class and asked herself: What would a student who integrated these ideas know/do/understand in the real world? Others were able to get involved and see how this project could connect to their efforts as well.

Applied Judaism is my term for a way of thinking about Jewish learning and its purposes. Judaism is not a subject matter to be mastered in our schools; it is a salve for the human condition. At the heart of Jewish education is a belief that being Jewish, living in a Jewish way, makes life more meaningful, more enjoyable, and more beautiful. With the right approach, children can experience this and enrich the whole community, even within the context of a conventional Sunday morning program.

A New Age for Adult Learning

This post that appeared in eJewishPhilanthropy suggests we need more adult learning for the last of the Baby Boomers, ages 50-70, and that we should adopt a transformative adult learning approach. What do you think about the demographic and the theory?

 

Who is engaged in adult learning at your synagogue? Much of adult learning in synagogues is targeted at retirees and happens during the day, when other people are at work. In addition, there are programs for parents of children in the religious school, often on Sunday mornings. It is time to focus on another demographic, the last of the Baby Boomers (ages 50-70) – people who have different demands and time schedules but who are also at a crucial transition point and ripe for adult Jewish learning.

The number of adults engaged in adult Jewish learning is greater than ever before, as adult Jewish learning has experienced a kind of boom in the last few decades, but there is evidence that today’s learners are looking for more than additional deposits in their knowledge bank. This demographic in particular is facing a transition in their lives that puts an emphasis on finding purpose and meaning-making. Evidence of this trend can be found in the secular culture: There’s a series in the Huffington Post based on “The Year of the Boomer – 2014 is the year the youngest Boomers turn 50″ that describes different people who have reinvented themselves. Websites like Encore.org teach people how to find purpose in their “second acts” and promotes The Encore Career Handbook, “a comprehensive, nuts-and-bolts guide to finding passion, purpose and a paycheck in the second half of life.” Whether their situation is financially dire or not, this demographic faces the question of how to make the second half of their lives significant.

As further evidence of this change, the study of mussar, a Jewish ethical and spiritual discipline, is experiencing a revival in the 21st century. Mussar is more than “Jewish self-help.” Stone’s website describes “a community of learners dedicated to transforming themselves, their relationships, and their institutions by fully integrating the values of mussar into daily practice and daily life.” The focus of our adult learning should be towards individual transformation with an ultimate community purpose in mind. I am not suggesting a further focus on self at the expense of community, but for its ultimate benefit. I am suggesting a critical reflection component to adult learning that results in integrating Jewish values and knowing one’s self better within the context of Judaism, ultimately to the benefit of society as a whole.

Adult learning should not be helping learners know more about Judaism or Jewish topics without taking the learning to heart. The Haggadah’s “wicked child” asks, “What does all of this mean to you?” The question is inappropriate because our tradition takes for granted that meaningful Jewish learning means we must always see ourselves as a crucial part of the learning. Applying the learning to our own lives, our own growth, is core. Adult Jewish learning is not an academic exercise; it is a spiritual discipline.

In order to meet these goals, we have to change our teaching methodology. In her thorough book Jewish Lives, Jewish Learning: Adult Jewish Learning Theory and Practice, Diane Tickton Schuster noted that “The literature on adult religious education draws heavily on work in the fields of cognitive psychology and adult learning. To date, the insights from these disciplines have not been applied to the experiences of Jewish adult learners.” (p.103) Despite her compelling argument, not much has changed. On the whole, our teachers of adults are still largely untrained in adult learning theory. Rather, they are experts in their subject, much like academics in universities. Because we are reaching not towards a degree but to the transformation of belief and behavior, we need to put resources towards training our teachers of adults in a different way of understanding learning and teaching. A promising move in this direction is that the leaders of the Florence Melton School of Adult Jewish Learning are currently in the process of creating an asynchronous orientation to Melton and teaching Jewish adults, inclusive of a session on transformative learning, that all new faculty will be required to view prior to teaching.

As Schuster points out, transformative adult learning theory is directly relevant to what adult Jewish learners are seeking in our settings. This approach defines adult learning as a process by which learners challenge previously held perspectives, become more open, and revise their beliefs and understandings of the world. Critical reflection is an essential component of transformative adult learning. In transformative adult learning, techniques that educators can use for reflection include both rational and “extrarational” approaches, including creative expression, intuition and imagination. Teachers who subscribe to transformative adult learning theory function much more as a guide than an expert, and they provide avenues for learners to reach inside themselves, better understand their own beliefs and assumptions, ask questions and formulate new ways of seeing the world and being in it. This means that developing a curricular path for adult Jewish learners should not be our top priority. People seek out learning when and where they are ready, and the teacher cannot bring about transformation in the learner. Rather, the teacher sets the stage for this kind of learning to take place.

Making a meaningful contribution to the greater community is potential next step and byproduct of transformational adult learning in Jewish settings. If we help learners to explore their own sense of purpose and we provide avenues for them to express that in meaningful ways, both the learner and the community can benefit. Take this model from the Encore.org site: “Encore Fellowships are designed to deliver new sources of talent to organizations solving critical social problems. These paid, time-limited Fellowships match skilled, experienced professionals with social-purpose organizations in high-impact assignments.” How might our synagogues look different if we accompanied adult Jewish learners on their path for making meaning and finding purpose, and we matched their passions and talents with places in the synagogue they could contribute their expertise and ideas? Not everyone wants to be on the board or a committee; passionate experts can make contributions in time-limited, project-focused ways.

Today access to knowledge is unprecedented. There are a myriad of reputable, comprehensive and highly trafficked websites, instructional and educational videos and podcasts that can teach someone about Judaism, Jewish history, life and practice. If a Jewish learner comes to a Jewish environment to learn, it is likely the learner is seeking more than information and is ready to think about how they might be different as a result of the learning, sharing and reflecting. They may also be looking for a way to get involved and make a difference. Adult Jewish learning in Jewish settings should not be organized around numbers of hours clocked or years of intensive coursework. Rather, we should acknowledge that adult Jewish learning is intensely personal and potentially transformative, both for individuals and communities. The time is right to reach out to adults in their 50s and 60s, people who are in transition and open to both receiving and contributing to our tradition and community.

Specifically, Jewish agencies and foundations can:

  •     Convene teachers of adults and train them in relevant adult learning theory.
  •     Provide online classes with trained teachers. (Transformative learning can happen even in a distance learning setting when facilitated by the right teacher!)
  •     Fund congregational or organizational fellowships for expert adults who can make a difference in our organizations.

Synagogues can:

  •     Value teachers who understand adult learning and education as much as Jewish subject matter.
  •     Be creative in considering timing and format of adult learning.
  •     Explicitly reach out to those adults in the 50-70 year old demographic and create opportunities for them to explore this transitional phase in their lives.
  •     Consider adult learning offerings and develop them around the explicit goals of meaning-making and responding to a search for purpose and direction.
  •     Match adults’ passions and skills to opportunities to contribute to their Jewish community.

Teachers of Jewish adults can:

  •     Articulate a goal of transformation and meaningful learning for adult learning experiences.
  •     Share experiences and techniques which have been successful in this approach.
  •     Act as facilitators, mentors and journey companions rather than experts.
  •     Share your own searches, passions and the meaning you find in Judaism.
  •     Listen to learners and give them voice.

Adult Jewish learners can:

  •     Reflect on what and why you are seeking.
  •     Share your ideas, thoughts and passion.
  •     Be open to opportunities for change as well as rational and extrarational learning experiences.
  •     Help shape future adult learning offerings.
  •     Seek out opportunities to contribute your talents and continue to grow.

Who is engaged in adult learning at your synagogue? Much of adult learning in synagogues is targeted at retirees and happens during the day, when other people are at work. In addition, there are programs for parents of children in the religious school, often on Sunday mornings. It is time to focus on another demographic, the last of the Baby Boomers (ages 50-70) – people who have different demands and time schedules but who are also at a crucial transition point and ripe for adult Jewish learning.

The number of adults engaged in adult Jewish learning is greater than ever before, as adult Jewish learning has experienced a kind of boom in the last few decades, but there is evidence that today’s learners are looking for more than additional deposits in their knowledge bank. This demographic in particular is facing a transition in their lives that puts an emphasis on finding purpose and meaning-making. Evidence of this trend can be found in the secular culture: There’s a series in the Huffington Post based on “The Year of the Boomer – 2014 is the year the youngest Boomers turn 50″ that describes different people who have reinvented themselves. Websites like Encore.org teach people how to find purpose in their “second acts” and promotes The Encore Career Handbook, a comprehensive, nuts-and-bolts guide to finding passion, purpose and a paycheck in the second half of life.” Whether their situation is financially dire or not, this demographic faces the question of how to make the second half of their lives significant.

As further evidence of this change, the study of mussar, a Jewish ethical and spiritual discipline, is experiencing a revival in the 21st century. Mussar is more than “Jewish self-help.” Stone’s website describes “a community of learners dedicated to transforming themselves, their relationships, and their institutions by fully integrating the values of mussar into daily practice and daily life.” The focus of our adult learning should be towards individual transformation with an ultimate community purpose in mind. I am not suggesting a further focus on self at the expense of community, but for its ultimate benefit. I am suggesting a critical reflection component to adult learning that results in integrating Jewish values and knowing one’s self better within the context of Judaism, ultimately to the benefit of society as a whole.

Adult learning should not be helping learners know more about Judaism or Jewish topics without taking the learning to heart. The Haggadah’s “wicked child” asks, “What does all of this mean to me?” The question is inappropriate because our tradition takes for granted that meaningful Jewish learning means we must always see ourselves as a crucial part of the learning. Applying the learning to our own lives, our own growth, is core. Adult Jewish learning is not an academic exercise; it is a spiritual discipline.

In order to meet these goals, we have to change our teaching methodology. In her thorough book Jewish Lives, Jewish Learning: Adult Jewish Learning Theory and Practice, Diane Tickton Schuster noted that “The literature on adult religious education draws heavily on work in the fields of cognitive psychology and adult learning. To date, the insights from these disciplines have not been applied to the experiences of Jewish adult learners.” (p.103) Despite her compelling argument, not much has changed. On the whole, our teachers of adults are still largely untrained in adult learning theory. Rather, they are experts in their subject, much like academics in universities. Because we are reaching not towards a degree but to the transformation of belief and behavior, we need to put resources towards training our teachers of adults in a different way of understanding learning and teaching. A promising move in this direction is that the leaders of the Florence Melton School of Adult Jewish Learning are currently in the process of creating an asynchronous orientation to Melton and teaching Jewish adults, inclusive of a session on transformative learning, that all new faculty will be required to view prior to teaching.

As Schuster points out, transformative adult learning theory is directly relevant to what adult Jewish learners are seeking in our settings. This approach defines adult learning as a process by which learners challenge previously held perspectives, become more open, and revise their beliefs and understandings of the world. Critical reflection is an essential component of transformative adult learning. In transformative adult learning, techniques that educators can use for reflection include both rational and “extrarational” approaches, including creative expression, intuition and imagination. Teachers who ascribe to transformative adult learning theory function much more as a guide than an expert, and they provide avenues for learners to reach inside themselves, better understand their own beliefs and assumptions, ask questions and formulate new ways of seeing the world and being in it. This means that developing a curricular path for adult Jewish learners should not be our top priority. People seek out learning when and where they are ready, and the teacher cannot bring about transformation in the learner. Rather, the teacher sets the stage for this kind of learning to take place.

Making a meaningful contribution to the greater community is potential next step and byproduct of transformational adult learning in Jewish settings. If we help learners to explore their own sense of purpose and we provide avenues for them to express that in meaningful ways, both the learner and the community can benefit. Take this model from the Encore.org site: “Encore Fellowships are designed to deliver new sources of talent to organizations solving critical social problems. These paid, time-limited Fellowships match skilled, experienced professionals with social-purpose organizations in high-impact assignments.” How might our synagogues look different if we accompanied adult Jewish learners on their path for making meaning and finding purpose, and we matched their passions and talents with places in the synagogue they could contribute their expertise and ideas? Not everyone wants to be on the board or a committee; passionate experts can make contributions in time-limited, project-focused ways.

Today access to knowledge is unprecedented. There are a myriad of reputable, comprehensive and highly trafficked websites, instructional and educational videos and podcasts that can teach someone about Judaism, Jewish history, life and practice. If a Jewish learner comes to a Jewish environment to learn, it is likely the learner is seeking more than information and is ready to think about how they might be different as a result of the learning, sharing and reflecting. They may also be looking for a way to get involved and make a difference. Adult Jewish learning in Jewish settings should not be organized around numbers of hours clocked or years of intensive coursework. Rather, we should acknowledge that adult Jewish learning is intensely personal and potentially transformative, both for individuals and communities. The time is right to reach out to adults in their 50s and 60s, people who are in transition and open to both receiving and contributing to our tradition and community.

Specifically, Jewish agencies and foundations can:

  • Convene teachers of adults and train them in relevant adult learning theory.
  • Provide online classes with trained teachers. (Transformative learning can happen even in a distance learning setting when facilitated by the right teacher!)
  • Fund congregational or organizational fellowships for expert adults who can make a difference in our organizations.

Synagogues can:

  • Value teachers who understand adult learning and education as much as Jewish subject matter.
  • Be creative in considering timing and format of adult learning.
  • Explicitly reach out to those adults in the 50-70 year old demographic and create opportunities for them to explore this transitional phase in their lives.
  • Consider adult learning offerings and develop them around the explicit goals of meaning-making and responding to a search for purpose and direction.
  • Match adults’ passions and skills to opportunities to contribute to their Jewish community.

Teachers of Jewish adults can:

  • Articulate a goal of transformation and meaningful learning for adult learning experiences.
  • Share experiences and techniques which have been successful in this approach.
  • Act as facilitators, mentors and journey companions rather than experts.
  • Share your own searches, passions and the meaning you find in Judaism.
  • Listen to learners and give them voice.

Adult Jewish learners can:

  • Reflect on what and why you are seeking.
  • Share your ideas, thoughts and passion.
  • Be open to opportunities for change as well as rational and extrarational learning experiences.
  • Help shape future adult learning offerings.
  • Seek out opportunities to contribute your talents and continue to grow.

– See more at: http://ejewishphilanthropy.com/a-new-age-for-adult-learning/#sthash.s9rE8krn.dpuf

Who is engaged in adult learning at your synagogue? Much of adult learning in synagogues is targeted at retirees and happens during the day, when other people are at work. In addition, there are programs for parents of children in the religious school, often on Sunday mornings. It is time to focus on another demographic, the last of the Baby Boomers (ages 50-70) – people who have different demands and time schedules but who are also at a crucial transition point and ripe for adult Jewish learning.

The number of adults engaged in adult Jewish learning is greater than ever before, as adult Jewish learning has experienced a kind of boom in the last few decades, but there is evidence that today’s learners are looking for more than additional deposits in their knowledge bank. This demographic in particular is facing a transition in their lives that puts an emphasis on finding purpose and meaning-making. Evidence of this trend can be found in the secular culture: There’s a series in the Huffington Post based on “The Year of the Boomer – 2014 is the year the youngest Boomers turn 50″ that describes different people who have reinvented themselves. Websites like Encore.org teach people how to find purpose in their “second acts” and promotes The Encore Career Handbook, a comprehensive, nuts-and-bolts guide to finding passion, purpose and a paycheck in the second half of life.” Whether their situation is financially dire or not, this demographic faces the question of how to make the second half of their lives significant.

As further evidence of this change, the study of mussar, a Jewish ethical and spiritual discipline, is experiencing a revival in the 21st century. Mussar is more than “Jewish self-help.” Stone’s website describes “a community of learners dedicated to transforming themselves, their relationships, and their institutions by fully integrating the values of mussar into daily practice and daily life.” The focus of our adult learning should be towards individual transformation with an ultimate community purpose in mind. I am not suggesting a further focus on self at the expense of community, but for its ultimate benefit. I am suggesting a critical reflection component to adult learning that results in integrating Jewish values and knowing one’s self better within the context of Judaism, ultimately to the benefit of society as a whole.

Adult learning should not be helping learners know more about Judaism or Jewish topics without taking the learning to heart. The Haggadah’s “wicked child” asks, “What does all of this mean to me?” The question is inappropriate because our tradition takes for granted that meaningful Jewish learning means we must always see ourselves as a crucial part of the learning. Applying the learning to our own lives, our own growth, is core. Adult Jewish learning is not an academic exercise; it is a spiritual discipline.

In order to meet these goals, we have to change our teaching methodology. In her thorough book Jewish Lives, Jewish Learning: Adult Jewish Learning Theory and Practice, Diane Tickton Schuster noted that “The literature on adult religious education draws heavily on work in the fields of cognitive psychology and adult learning. To date, the insights from these disciplines have not been applied to the experiences of Jewish adult learners.” (p.103) Despite her compelling argument, not much has changed. On the whole, our teachers of adults are still largely untrained in adult learning theory. Rather, they are experts in their subject, much like academics in universities. Because we are reaching not towards a degree but to the transformation of belief and behavior, we need to put resources towards training our teachers of adults in a different way of understanding learning and teaching. A promising move in this direction is that the leaders of the Florence Melton School of Adult Jewish Learning are currently in the process of creating an asynchronous orientation to Melton and teaching Jewish adults, inclusive of a session on transformative learning, that all new faculty will be required to view prior to teaching.

As Schuster points out, transformative adult learning theory is directly relevant to what adult Jewish learners are seeking in our settings. This approach defines adult learning as a process by which learners challenge previously held perspectives, become more open, and revise their beliefs and understandings of the world. Critical reflection is an essential component of transformative adult learning. In transformative adult learning, techniques that educators can use for reflection include both rational and “extrarational” approaches, including creative expression, intuition and imagination. Teachers who ascribe to transformative adult learning theory function much more as a guide than an expert, and they provide avenues for learners to reach inside themselves, better understand their own beliefs and assumptions, ask questions and formulate new ways of seeing the world and being in it. This means that developing a curricular path for adult Jewish learners should not be our top priority. People seek out learning when and where they are ready, and the teacher cannot bring about transformation in the learner. Rather, the teacher sets the stage for this kind of learning to take place.

Making a meaningful contribution to the greater community is potential next step and byproduct of transformational adult learning in Jewish settings. If we help learners to explore their own sense of purpose and we provide avenues for them to express that in meaningful ways, both the learner and the community can benefit. Take this model from the Encore.org site: “Encore Fellowships are designed to deliver new sources of talent to organizations solving critical social problems. These paid, time-limited Fellowships match skilled, experienced professionals with social-purpose organizations in high-impact assignments.” How might our synagogues look different if we accompanied adult Jewish learners on their path for making meaning and finding purpose, and we matched their passions and talents with places in the synagogue they could contribute their expertise and ideas? Not everyone wants to be on the board or a committee; passionate experts can make contributions in time-limited, project-focused ways.

Today access to knowledge is unprecedented. There are a myriad of reputable, comprehensive and highly trafficked websites, instructional and educational videos and podcasts that can teach someone about Judaism, Jewish history, life and practice. If a Jewish learner comes to a Jewish environment to learn, it is likely the learner is seeking more than information and is ready to think about how they might be different as a result of the learning, sharing and reflecting. They may also be looking for a way to get involved and make a difference. Adult Jewish learning in Jewish settings should not be organized around numbers of hours clocked or years of intensive coursework. Rather, we should acknowledge that adult Jewish learning is intensely personal and potentially transformative, both for individuals and communities. The time is right to reach out to adults in their 50s and 60s, people who are in transition and open to both receiving and contributing to our tradition and community.

Specifically, Jewish agencies and foundations can:

  • Convene teachers of adults and train them in relevant adult learning theory.
  • Provide online classes with trained teachers. (Transformative learning can happen even in a distance learning setting when facilitated by the right teacher!)
  • Fund congregational or organizational fellowships for expert adults who can make a difference in our organizations.

Synagogues can:

  • Value teachers who understand adult learning and education as much as Jewish subject matter.
  • Be creative in considering timing and format of adult learning.
  • Explicitly reach out to those adults in the 50-70 year old demographic and create opportunities for them to explore this transitional phase in their lives.
  • Consider adult learning offerings and develop them around the explicit goals of meaning-making and responding to a search for purpose and direction.
  • Match adults’ passions and skills to opportunities to contribute to their Jewish community.

Teachers of Jewish adults can:

  • Articulate a goal of transformation and meaningful learning for adult learning experiences.
  • Share experiences and techniques which have been successful in this approach.
  • Act as facilitators, mentors and journey companions rather than experts.
  • Share your own searches, passions and the meaning you find in Judaism.
  • Listen to learners and give them voice.

Adult Jewish learners can:

  • Reflect on what and why you are seeking.
  • Share your ideas, thoughts and passion.
  • Be open to opportunities for change as well as rational and extrarational learning experiences.
  • Help shape future adult learning offerings.
  • Seek out opportunities to contribute your talents and continue to grow.

– See more at: http://ejewishphilanthropy.com/a-new-age-for-adult-learning/#sthash.s9rE8krn.dpuf