By Michelle Shapiro Abraham
Every day I feel honored and humbled by the blessing of my work. Creating youth engagement opportunities for the URJ takes me from synagogues, classrooms, and offices, to camps, retreats, conferences, and preschool programs. The settings are varied but the goal is the same. Our purpose as Jewish educators is to connect, empower, and partner. To do this, we need to think beyond and between the traditional boundaries of formal and informal, children and adults, school and camp, and simply look for the best ways to touch minds, souls, and hearts.
- Be intentional: When leaders at URJ Henry S. Jacobs Camp realized they weren’t reaching their Jewish education goals with a daily learning hour, they scrapped that model and started experimenting with integrating Jewish learning into other activities. Don’t let assumptions hold you back and lock you into models that don’t work. Instead, throw all the pieces back on the drawing board, figure out what you want to accomplish, and build anew.
- Integrate, combine, and blur: Educators often schedule activities into organized boxes – “This is when we do art, this is when we learn Judaism, and this is when we eat lunch.” – but specialty camps URJ 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy and URJ 6 Points Sports Academy have taught me that living communities do better when they let go of those labels. With confident and properly trained staff, the best Jewish learning can take place while campers chat in the bunk or even build a Rube Goldberg machine together. Success happens when each person knows the goals, feels confident doing her part, and then lets the entire environment teach.
- If it doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t: I had been working with a camp for three years on their approach to Jewish life when one staffer admitted to me that using “Jewish Teachable Moments” (adding Jewish text or stories into regular camp moments) felt forced and unnatural, an opinion apparently shared by most of the counselors. From this experience, I learned that if the Judaism doesn’t feel organic and natural to those doing the teaching, it won’t feel organic or natural to those doing the learning. Educational content needs to be lived, not just taught. Techniques to ensure a shared vision include involving staff in the creation process, keeping the lines of communication open during the program, and sometimes being willing to scrap the program if it isn’t working. Which brings me to the next point…
- Don’t get too attached; everything is an experiment: Every new educational initiative is an experiment. I once began a new approach to high school education wherein students picked their own classes from a list of offerings – but the teens soon complained that they never saw their friends anymore. The next year, we cut down the number of classes and added a monthly social gathering to build up the community we’d apparently broken down – but the teens said they wanted more academic classes, so we changed those monthly social gatherings to academic classes. Two years later, the teens wanted a “campier,” more social experience, so we changed the class offerings to cooking and art with Jewish framing.
Moral of the story? No program, schedule, curriculum, or course of study is so perfect that it can’t be improved upon. Add to the mix that what works for one group of kids may not work for the next, and it’s clear that flexibility is key to success.
- There’s nothing new under the sun and your idea is the best ever: I was once writing a curriculum that I eagerly shared with my father-in-law, a rabbi, who read through it and told me proudly that he ran programs just like mine in the 1970s. As he described those programs, I had to admit: They sounded pretty good! He taught me that no matter how amazing a new idea may seem, someone has likely already tinkered with a similar idea. That’s not to say that seemingly new ideas are any less amazing, but rather that we’re not alone on our journey as educators. Each of us stands on the shoulders and in the company of other amazing educators who have plenty to teach us.
- Don’t shy away from ideas that sounds impossible: Sometimes, the craziest, out-of-the-box, insane idea is just what’s needed. Case in point: When Temple Sholom in Scotch Plains, N.J., sought to improve its once-a-year, grade-based family education program, the rabbi suggested the congregation drop its entire religious school curriculum for a wholly new trimester-based model in which all of the kids and adults in the community would study the same topic at the same time. Even I stared at the rabbi – my husband! – in disbelief, but after a few months of meetings, think tanks, and focus groups, the congregation followed his lead… and the new model transformed our community and its approach to Jewish learning for the better. Indeed, sometimes the impossible turns out to be the truly amazing!
- Different people need different things: Sometimes a child needs a sports camp to connect to Judaism. Another student may need Hebrew letters traced on sandpaper in order to learn to write them. Attending religious school on Sunday mornings may truly present a hardship for kids in another family. What works best for one child won’t necessarily work for every child, and what works for one family won’t always work for another. It is an educator’s job is to listen and to create opportunities and access points that our students and families need – not just those we think they need.
- Our toolboxes are bigger than we think: I bring my experience as an artist, teacher, camp counselor, mother, wife, and program designer to the work I do in Jewish education. Indeed, every educator brings his or her own experiences from a variety of settings to the work they do, and it helps to mix them up: What curriculum design approaches from the broader education world might apply at camp? How can the rituals from camp help us in Hebrew School? How can we apply the youth group’s leadership structure to create a new congregational dues structure? Our toolboxes are full of great strategies and approaches from all facets of our lives, and we are better educators if we put all the tools on the table while we work.
- Reflect, reflect, reflect: In my graduate program at Hebrew Union College, we joked that we couldn’t do anything without first reflecting on what we were thinking about doing, reflecting while we did it, and reflecting afterward about what we’d done. But it’s so important to be intentional about our work as Jewish educators – and reflection is an important part of the process. Before we start, we need to define where we want to go, be willing to change course when necessary to realign our actions with the goal, and, when we’re finished, to look back and recognize what we learned along the way. It is this process of reflecting that enables us to do truly great things.
Michelle Shapiro Abraham, director of program development for the URJ’s Campaign for Youth Engagement, is a recipient of a 2015 Covenant Award for Excellence in Jewish Education.
Cross-posted on URJ’s Inside Leadership Blog