By Shuki Taylor
It is not surprising that experiential Jewish education has experienced a revival of sorts in recent years. Reintroduced a decade ago as an alternative articulation to informal Jewish education – in part so it should not be defined by what it is not, and in part so that it links itself to the credible philosophies introduced by John Dewey almost a century ago – experiential Jewish education has gained the attention of funders, community organizations, student-learners and even academic institutions, with at least five robust training programs having been established in the past half-decade.
There are several factors that can explain why experiential Jewish education has taken a front seat in contemporary educational discourse, and while the list below is by no means conclusive, it portrays a fairly accurate picture of the current practice of experiential Jewish education.
First and most importantly is what experiential Jewish education does, when done right:
Experiential Jewish education is the deliberate infusion of Jewish values into engaging and memorable experiences that impact the formation of identities. Meaning, experiential Jewish education enables the exploration of values through immersive and multi-sensory experiences, in which these values become alive. In turn, students concretely engage – and often experiment – with these values, which leave a lasting imprint on their identities.
Take for example the current challenge and struggle of the U.S community around immigration control. Many communities – Jewish included – have taken to the streets in protest. Here, the experiential Jewish educator will carefully consider the value s/he will look to impart and explore – ahavat hager being one such option. To fully internalize such a value, and to deeply explore it, it must be experienced, be it meeting with or interviewing refugees, exploring alternative immigrant experiences (particularly within ones family story) or experiencing a demonstration. These immersive types of experiences will enable the student to engage with the conceptual value in a concrete and often tactile manner.
Another significant factor for the prominence of experiential Jewish education is that, for the most part, experiential Jewish education programs are voluntary. Voluntary participation demonstrates intrinsic motivation and choice making, both of which actively contribute to the quality of the educational experience.