When is Education Experiential Education?
by Mark S. Young
When I was 16
years old, I
boarded a plane
Ohio, to New
York City to begin
a six-week journey I would never forget. Fortytwo
teenagers and five staff traveled to Eastern
Europe and Israel on USY Pilgrimage.
Many years later, I sit at the Davidson Graduate
School of Jewish Education, a dedicated
Jewish educator and professional, in part
because of that journey.
USY Pilgrimage was a transformative
experience for me, but was it “experiential
education”? Experiential education have
become buzz words in Jewish education over
the last generation, spawning literature,
research and training programs, including
the one that I coordinate at the Jewish
Theological Seminary. Much of this buzz
has been due to the perceived success of educational
settings outside the classroom –
Jewish camps, youth groups and Israel trips,
among others – to
connect and engage
youth and emerging
adults in Jewish life.
much more than a
place. My experience
on USY Pilgrimage
but not just because we were outside of a
classroom. Our senior staff and counselors
guided us through each experience, acting
as facilitators and providing us with
opportunities to reflect on what we were
experiencing. These allowed us to synthesize
what we had learned and come to our
Facilitation and reflection are two key elements
of the approach (not place) of experiential
education. Dr. Joseph Reimer, of
Brandeis University, one of a growing number
of academics who have written on Jewish
experiential education over the last
decade, has argued that experiences do not
end when an event is over, and that an experience
on its own is not experiential education.
It is when we reflect on our past
experiences at any point afterward, even several
years later, that the experience becomes
is the two-way interactive
process between educator
and learner. The USY
helped facilitate our experiences,
planning each adventure
in Poland, Hungary, the
Czech Republic, and Israel, but mainly
through giving meaning to these experiences
by blending them with Jewish content.
For example, they introduced a Pirkei Avot
text to help us understand tzedakah in Israel
and taught a Hebrew song and its meaning
when we visited Jerusalem's Old City.
They encouraged us to write in journals,
share ideas with each other, and engage in
serious discussions in response to our visits.
This is experiential education. Adding Jewish
content results in Jewish experiential education.
Another example from my personal experience:
I was the song leader and Judaics
director of my summer camp. Our experiences,
especially during Shabbat, were more
than just dancing, praying and eating. During
services, campers illustrated the Torah
potion with pageants. They planned and performed interpretative dances and songs
illuminating the portion's theme. They
shared their creative writing during Havdalah.
They engaged in Jewish content by
creating, exploring and experiencing. Their
guides were the staff, who reflected on the
campers' creations through questions and
discussion. That was when experiential education
took place, and it was not just because
(or even required that) we were at camp.
What is so fascinating today is the successful
transformation of experiential education
across the Jewish educational
landscape. Synagogues and day schools are
embracing it to complement more traditional
learning. The goal is to help young
Jews achieve holistic Jewish growth, that is,
strong Jewish literacy as well as positive affiliation,
engagement and connection to the
Jewish community and Jewish life.
In one synagogue, on Simchat Torah, the
congregation unwinds an entire Torah scroll,
wrapping it around the sanctuary so that
young children and adults alike can appreciate
the massive piece of parchment that
surrounds them. Younger members read the
verses of the Torah that are open where they
stand in the scroll snaking around the room
identifying where the story is in the massive
document as well as its importance to the
whole. The rabbis ask questions, allowing
the congregation to reflect and then, as they
slowly roll our collective story back up, they
sing loudly and joyously. When the congregants
dance around with the Torah scrolls,
they are fully engaged and understand the
holiness of the moment.
For Tu b'Shevat, a day school turns its
whole building into a big tree. Educators ask
students to choose the fruits they want to
grow, finding out about each fruit's connection
to Jewish tradition and ritual, and
designing that part of the tree. Again, it is
not making the school into a tree that is experiential
education. It is allowing the students
to engage in the material directly, and asking
guided questions, integrating their identity
and interests with Jewish knowledge.
There are other examples. Many synagogues
are engaging youth in service-learning
or volunteering during Hebrew school
or as part of the bar/bat mitzvah experience.
Schools are increasing their trips to Jewish
museums to examine and reflect on artifacts
from history and tradition. Students
engage in other interactive learning activities
within the synagogue walls.
Creating these experiences is one step but,
as Dr. Reimer advises, experiences alone will
not harness the power and ability to transmit
knowledge and engage connection.
To create dynamic and engaging learning
environments, synagogues, schools and educational
institutions must weave the experiential
along with traditional methods.
Facilitation and reflection are just two
aspects of experiential education. Other hallmarks
are engaging learners through multiple
learning pathways, building relationships
among learners and educators, and
integrating Jewish content with stimulating
activities. To integrate experiential education
into an educational curriculum takes
serious planning and imple- mentation.
Both were certainly evident on my long-ago
USY Pilgrimage. Our challenge as Jewish
educators and lay leaders is to figure out how
to transform all of our educational touchpoints
to improve Jewish education for
the future of the Jewish people. Let's continue
to explore together, and reflect.
Mark S. Young is the program coordinator of the Experiential Learning Initiative at the Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education at the Jewish Theological Seminary.