From the Foundation Team

At the Heart of Jewish Education

– by Chip Edelsberg

November 16th, 2015

One of the genuine privileges of working at the Jim Joseph Foundation is the opportunity to see the evolution of Jewish education—from changes that start as ideas and theories, to eventual on-the-ground learning experiences shaping Jewish journeys of our youngest community members. I routinely comment that nothing substitutes for leaving the Foundation’s office, watching talented grantees carry out this important work, and seeing contemporary Jewish education in action. Particularly special moments are when Foundation team members ourselves engage in these learning experiences.

Certainly over the last few years an exciting development in our field has been the growth and increased sophistication of the Jewish Outdoor, Food, and Environmental Education (JOFEE) movement. Along with other funding partners, the Jim Joseph Foundation has studied this field, supported its leaders, and watched as they engage increasing numbers of people in Jewish life.

In fact, months ago, as the Jim Joseph Foundation sought to schedule our fall community service outing, we settled on a JOFEE experience right in our backyard—Urban Adamah, one of four recipients of the Foundation’s recent JOFEE grant.

Our outing earlier this month to Urban Adamah was personally fulfilling and professionally important. Urban Adamah hosts a range of Jewish learning experiences—many centered around working on their farm—for Jews of all ages and from a range of backgrounds. Much of the work of Urban Adamah helps provide about 1,100 lbs. per month of healthy, organically farmed produce to nearby underprivileged communities.

In this context, as the entire Foundation team engaged in volunteer work, the funder-grantee relationship reached a new level of understanding and respect. Led by Urban Adamah’s talented team, we sifted soil and cleared space for new crops. All the while, a few things struck me:

First, we caught just a glimpse in our few hours there of the seamless integration with which Urban Adamah incorporates Jewish learning into these activities. While Urban Adamah offers a range of learning opportunities for various age groups, I appreciated the staff’s ability to naturally and effectively reference Jewish text and laws regarding food, treatment of animals, and the like. It reinforced the J in JOFEE.

Second, Urban Adamah’s Adam Berman started our time there with a blind-folded tour of the site—an exercise in truly using multiple senses as part of a learning experience. A farm lends itself especially well to a tour of this sort. We said the blessing and ate kale directly from the earth. Later, we held out our hands with seed as we waited for chickens to eat—all while blindfolded. Learners in many sites can literally get more in touch with their surroundings by an initial blindfolded tour. What a memorable, resonate way to experience a site and to build a personalized connection to it.

All of our work that afternoon occurred as Urban Adamah Fellows, high schoolers, were on the farm as well continuing their year-long experience. How great it was for our Foundation team to talk a bit with these youth as they neared completion of their program.

Earlier that same week, I was fortunate to interact with an entirely different group of Foundation beneficiaries at the second seminar gathering of Yeshiva University’s 5th cohort of the Certificate in Experiential Jewish Education Program. When I recall what constituted experiential Jewish education just ten years ago, I am gratified with tangible advancements being made in building the field. Led by Shuki Taylor, YU’s EJE program has trained hundreds of individuals to be leaders and educators with the skills to impart Jewish learning in a multitude of settings.

Meeting with cohort 5 students and playing an active role in their seminar is one process by which the Foundation enacts its relational grantmaking approach. These interactions offer numerous benefits to the funder, the grantee, and the student beneficiaries. As just one example, Allison Rubin, Director of Institutional Advancement at YU, explained how the funder presence there helped the cohort members more deeply understand the growing educational movement of which they are now a part:

We saw Chip’s most recent visit as a powerful educational moment. We believe that as a part of the educative process, leaners must be exposed the ‘behind the scenes’ of what makes their education possible. The human, time, and financial resources that go into making such programs possible are enormous. Exposure to these resources allow learners to understand how design, objectives and outcomes serve as the foundations of the education we offer, while informing their own planning. 

Whether with an emerging field like JOFEE or a more established one like experiential Jewish education, at the Jim Joseph Foundation we believe in substantial engagement both with grantees and the diverse participants they serve. Other Foundation staff members recently shared their experiences interacting directly with grantees and making themselves available to participants and alumni of their programs. It is during these moments—when the Foundation is in the heart of Jewish learning experiences—that we reaffirm the purpose of our efforts and the inestimable value of strong relationships with the organizations and partners with whom we work.