(Jewish) Education: What Is Needed in Order to Succeed?

By Liat Cohen Raviv

About 20 years ago, I was asked to develop a leadership program for Jewish youth that included elements of encounters between Americans and Israelis. Back in those days, at the end of the 1990s, short-term programs of this type were quite popular. However, this request came from an exceptional visionary, Helen Diller (z’l), who was bold enough to dream up and make possible a groundbreaking, long-term program (one year); a program that dared to invest the same resources in teens as was being invested in young adults. Throughout the past 10 years, the program’s model has matured to include a focus on an individual’s journey in a group setting that is grounded in exploration and feedback, a topic which deserves an article of its own. The program has expanded to include 32 groups from six continents, nurturing more than 650 Fellows each year to serve as future leaders, and has over 3,500 alumni worldwide.

During the past 20 years, we clung tightly to a few little secrets that have accompanied us from the program’s inception. As we wrap up 5 years of strategic evaluation aimed at identifying and endorsing the elements that make the difference – that constitute the basis for a successful educational program – there is no doubt in my mind that the list is short and clear.

I am happy to introduce six things to think about. And, no. They are not revolutionary. They just have to be done right. You are going to find plenty of commonalities and natural connections between them as they tend to intermingle rather than remain disconnected and independent.

1. The first secret is REPUTATION. But wait, Isn’t Reputation a product of years of successful activity with proven results?! Well, not anymore! Nowadays it is no longer a case of ‘the chicken or the egg,’ and you just need to think of how “new products” are introduced to you in this modern age of a ‘flat’ and interconnected world of multiple platforms of social networks… it is possible to generate reputation from scratch, certainly among young people.

In the case of Diller Teen Fellows, we have built reputation over two decades and the program enjoys an exceptional international reputation that should be capitalized on and rightly so. So a few important lessons and tips: Having a PR campaign that focuses on the program’s unique added-value works best so make sure you have one. Local branding that positions the program conceptually in the different operating communities makes a big difference. Local lay leaders, ‘champions,’ and change agents – who you will turn in to the ambassadors of the program – will make the difference. And, when you have them, it is the stories of successful graduates that are most significant in generating reputation.

2. The second secret is found in the LEADING EDUCATOR (coordinator). You can have an excellent and well-defined program with a sterling reputation, so what? The program and its core values won’t be instilled in the participants on their own, certainly not in informal education which is based entirely on relationships. This is where the educator comes in! Being an informal Jewish educator today means you need to be a juggler, a role model, a leader, be able to create meaningful and sophisticated experiences, and be able to translate those experiences into values. It means you need to be a social worker, a paramedic, be able to relate to and handle parents the same time you mediate between different organizations.

Now, there are key skills that educators need to embody when taking on such a role. These tools, by no coincidence, are interconnected. They are: (1) Relatability/accessibility, (2) emotional intelligence, and (3) facilitation skills. And, I can say, unequivocally and with no hesitance that these three qualities take precedence over knowledge and experience, and everything flows from this educational foundation. Be smart and insist on these qualities when locating personnel for your staff especially when working with Teens.

So, what about knowledge and experience? Certainly, these are important, but this is where training comes into the picture and training is critical! Over these past 20 years, we have increasingly understood that if the mission of educator is to generate meaningful experiences for participants who go on to live by well-defined values, concepts and actions, then they must themselves undergo similar experiences! Thus, training for these educators needs to be experiential, enabling, enriching and empowering, which is the type of training that is the most difficult to create! It is difficult not because it requires a great investment of time, energy and creativity (and it dose), but mainly because (1) doing so is more expensive than traditional training and, (2) donors typically don’t appreciate their monies being invested in a ‘process’ that isn’t a direct part of the project.

3. The third secret is the GROUP COMPOSITION. Over these past twenty years, thousands of teens from six continents have told us the same thing repeatedly: the more diverse the group is the greater the program’s impact is on the individual. Teens (and we) spend their days and lives with their natural peer groups that are comprised of other individuals like them (peers from the synagogue/same denomination, their school, youth movement, summer camp, etc.). However, we know that growth happens when we encounter others with different affiliations and opinions. At the same time, during teenage years, the peer group is virtually life itself, dictating the pace and style of life, the culture and the language – it is everything to them. So why not merge these two powerful forces and use them to drive our goals forward?

We have learned that screening and selection of participants is a critical stage in this process. Certainly, educational programs seek suitable participants; however it is just as important that they seek the correct group composition at the same time. The screening process needs to be tailored to do such. We asked hundreds of teens, “Why did you choose Diller Teen Fellows?” and found that it is because (1) they want to be part of a diverse, (2) elite group, and they are looking for (3) something global, (4) bigger than themselves.

It is interesting to note that the more diverse our groups are, the greater the sense of mission is for our Leading Educators/coordinators. This also makes the coordinator’s work more meaningful and prolongs their term of service in the position!

So, we’ve talked about reputation, the leading educator, and group composition. Only now, we arrive at content.

4. Syllabus. How can it be that that content isn’t one of the first three considerations? After all, an educational program that is rich in content is what makes the difference in first place, isn’t it? Actually … not so much! In 2017, if what you need is knowledge, there is Google and Wikipedia; you don’t even have to leave home. Thousands of teens from around the world have told us the same thing and made it clear that what they want and need is a personal hand on experience. They want to experience things for themselves and decide what the story is on their own.

In this regard, here are a few important tips: (1) the more educators are aware of the importance of ‘naming the experience,’ the greater the program’s impact. (2) When educators give fewer answers to participants and choose instead to ask questions, the greater the program’s impact; Just ask them ‘why?’ … leave the ‘how’ for them to figure out. (3) Since the peer group is life itself, having a shared and uniform language on the global level boosts the program’s impact.
As someone who has accompanied the program for twenty years and is constantly searching for the secrets of successful educational programs that work, here is that I’ve learned people want in one sentence: Relevant, and therefor reactionary, Holistic program that will expose them to a little about a lot and yet be deep and meaningful, with a Logical flow that also addresses once natural Learning Capacity.
And let me explain:

  • Content needs to be relevant to the individual personal life and reality. Therefore, it needs to be flexible and reactive, which is difficult for most educators, especially the veteran ones.
  • Teens want to know a bit about a lot of things and still prefer quality over quantity. Therefore, the program needs to be holistic, combining knowledge, actions and behaviors. Our key task is to strike the correct balance.
  • Learners seek continuity and a logical flow. They can identity which experiences are structured and have a logical connection and which are not. Optimally, we are seeking the ‘aha’ moments, the insight in discovering how one thing connects with another. These are golden opportunities for significant learning.
  • Like all of us, teens have a limited space of time during which they can absorb things; there is an objective Learning Capacity. As it turns out, there is a clear limit to each experience and encounter, whether it is a one-day gathering or an entire seminar in Israel over summer.

5. The fifth secret is LOCAL SUPPORT which is virtually a no-brainer. All programs need a suitable local support framework in order to function over time. And still, more than 50 coordinators have told us that for them, support consists primarily of a direct supervisor who is available and accessible and who is present at programs on the ground. We were surprised to discover that it was less important (to coordinators) that the supervisor has a profound understanding of experiential Jewish education or even education in general.

We were also surprised that technical and logistical assistance is not No 1 for them (especially in a reality where about 70% of our experiential educators are only mediocre in the logistical department). And still, when lacking suitable technical and logistical support, Coordinators will experience administrative overload, will be less happy, and that will trickles down to participants.

In cases of a program model which includes an overseas partner (such as Diller), it is vital to have a strong partnership between the two supervisors. Unfortunately, our surveys found that insufficient partnership/communication between supervisors affects the quality of cooperation between coordinators who, as a result, generates overload which then impacts the coordinator’s functioning.
OK, we’ve discussed reputation, leading educator, group composition, syllabus and local support. Guess what the final thing on the list is!

6. PARENTS SATISFACTION. This is not surprising in a reality where parent involvement in the lives of their teens is increasing (even in Israel!), what is surprising was to find out that (from our experience) parents judge an educational program based on their own personal experience (!!!); Interactions with staff and organization are key (that’s first impression). Children’s reports of the experience come 2nd. This is natural as teens don’t rush to share their experiences with their parents; in most cases they reply it was “OK” J.

Important to remember that many of today’s parents belong to a generation that doesn’t appreciate excessive information or being overburdened! Instead, they prefer focused and directed information. We don’t have time for more than that.

So, what parents are actually looking for? It’s good that you ask. Parents need (1) TRUST; Put simply, parents need to feel that the coordinator is a great person who can be responsible and will be significant to their child! That is based on the coordinator’s character (Only after that do parents care about coordinator’s knowledge or experience) and naturally, this is the product of good human relations. They need (2) Clear and focused communication with the details they need to know. Today’s parents seek focus, they appreciate when we stop them from digging too deeply for information that isn’t essential. Even more so, parents who are swamped with information feel less secure with regard to their children. (3) They seek a connection with the other parents; motivated by the basic human need of being part of a collective, accompanied by passion in sharing pride in their children (and when you rise teens – that’s pure gold).

One way or another, if a parent experience is negative, it affects their perception of the program and the more expensive a program is, the greater the sense of dissatisfaction.

And all this brings us back to secret number one: REPUTATION!

  • Naturally there are additional elements, indicators and layers that affect the success of any program. This list, however, is based on DTF staff findings over the past 10 years and lists the elements in order of their significance.
  • This piece was written after carefully reading feedback and evaluation reports containing seemingly endless statistical data that compared multi-year data based on detailed internal reviews and reading summaries of interviews with dozens of Fellows, alumni and staff members.

Liat Cohen Raviv is Executive Director of Diller Teen Fellows.

This post is cross-posted from eJewishPhilanthropy.com

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