Guest Blog

Building a Network for Experiential Jewish Education

– by Rachel Meytin

November 17th, 2015

Throughout the Gathering, I was aware of what a privilege it is, as an educator, to immerse myself in a focused space of ideas and learning, removed from the day-to-day elements of my professional role. I am very grateful for this gift.
—Erica Frankel, Director of Strategy for the Jewish Learning Fellowship at Hillel International, graduate of Yeshiva University Certificate Program in Experiential Jewish Education

In late October 2015, 45 experiential Jewish educators came to the Kaplan Mitchell Retreat and Conference Center at Ramah Darom, in Clayton, Georgia, to learn, to reflect, and to form a network for experiential Jewish educators. This inaugural retreat launched a new collaborative initiative funded through the Jim Joseph Foundation’s Education Initiative—the combined $45 million grant to three leading educational institutions: Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), The Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), and Yeshiva University (YU).

Facilitating and supporting collaboration among the universities is a core focus of the Education Initiative. This work leads to increased knowledge-sharing and creative new learning opportunities. Other collaborations address areas such as e-learning and Jewish early-childhood education. The goal of this specific collaborative endeavor is to form and strengthen a network of graduates from each school’s experiential Jewish education professional training initiatives: HUC-JIR’s Certificate in Jewish Education specializing in Adolescents and Emerging Adults; The Davidson School’s Master’s Degree in Jewish Education program and Jewish Experiential Leadership Institute (in partnership with the JCC Association); and YU’s Certificate Program in Experiential Jewish Education. By bringing together participants from these different programs, the EJE Network hopes to strengthen individual educators, as well as the field of Jewish education as a whole.

The EJE Network Gathering centered on the topic of memory as a tool for educational program development and participant engagement. Erica Frankel explained, “The Gathering gave an opportunity to revisit and deepen attendees’ understanding of memory as it relates to experience-building. We investigated memory textually in our opening beit midrash (study session), intellectually through conversations with notable academics, and practically in sessions with experts from the fields of education, psychology, and business.”

Joshua Jacobs, Assistant Director of Eden Village Camp and graduate of The Davidson School’s MA program, picks up this theme as he continues, “Rabba Yaffa Epstein, [Director of Education, North America, Pardes Institute for Jewish Studies] led a thrilling text study. The lessons contained within about the Torah and memory, combined with Rabba Epstein’s enthusiasm for the material, made for a great opening to the seminar.”

A highlight for many participants was hearing from Dr. Ryan Hamilton, professor at Emory University and facilitator for Beyond Philosophy, a consulting group that focuses on consumer experience. Andrew Paull, Director of BBYO Manhattan and a graduate of HUC-JIR’s Certificate in Jewish Education for Adolescents and Emerging Adults, reflected on how he “greatly appreciated the focus on how we design an experience by keeping in mind the memory afterward.” Joshua Jacobs further explained, “His presentation showed how to utilize reverse engineering to strengthen a good experience in a participant’s mind. This was extremely interesting and applicable to my work at Eden Village Camp. Some of the behavior and psychology principles upon which he touched will affect the ways we market and price our camp, create the staff’s schedule, and plan the arc of the camper experience.” Erica Frankel added, “People evaluate experiences both cognitively (comparing it to their expectations of what will happen), and affectively (based on how they felt during the experience).”

A third component of the gathering, a structured Peer Consultancy experience, provided a unique opportunity for attendees to meet new peers and to collaboratively support one another’s initiatives. Small groups focused on current work challenges and brainstormed individualized approaches. Andrew Paull commented, “This was a valuable piece of the Gathering and helped [us] form deeper relationships with other people in this network.”

The Gathering concluded with a new beginning: formally launching an ongoing EJE Network that supports more than 200 program graduates as they implement experiential Jewish education across the Jewish spectrum. Participants had the opportunity to develop a set of future activities to be rolled out over the next year, including ongoing remote learning, additional in-person learning opportunities, formal and informal mentoring and networking, new resource creation, and interest groups to allow individuals working on similar projects to partner and support one another. As Erica Frankel concluded, “Most importantly, I’ve returned to my desk with a new set of helpful phone numbers from my peers.”

Rachel Meytin is Director of the Experiential Jewish Education Network, a joint project of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, The Jewish Theological Seminary, and Yeshiva University