When is Education Experiential Education?

MARK S. YOUNG elaborates on why it takes facilitation and reflection to create truly experiential education

by Mark S. Young

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When I was 16 years old, I boarded a plane from Cleveland, Ohio, to New York City to begin a six-week journey I would never forget. Forty-two teenagers and five staff traveled to Eastern Europe and Israel on USY Pilgrimage. Many years later, I sit at the Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education, a dedicated Jewish educator and professional, in part because of that journey.

USY Pilgrimage was a transformative experience for me, but was it “experiential education”? Experiential education have become buzz words in Jewish education over the last generation, spawning literature, research and training programs, including the one that I coordinate at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Much of this buzz has been due to the perceived success of educational settings outside the classroom – Jewish camps, youth groups and Israel trips, among others – to connect and engage youth and emerging adults in Jewish life.

Experiential education, however, is much more than a place. My experience on USY Pilgrimage was transformative, but not just because we were outside of a classroom. Our senior staff and counselors guided us through each experience, acting as facilitators and providing us with opportunities to reflect on what we were experiencing. These allowed us to synthesize what we had learned and come to our own conclusions.

Facilitation and reflection are two key elements of the approach (not place) of experiential education. Dr. Joseph Reimer, of Brandeis University, one of a growing number of academics who have written on Jewish experiential education over the last decade, has argued that experiences do not end when an event is over, and that an experience on its own is not experiential education. It is when we reflect on our past experiences at any point afterward, even several years later, that the experience becomes experiential learning.

Experiential education is the two-way interactive process between educator and learner. The USY Pilgrimage counselors helped facilitate our experiences, partially through planning each adventure in Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Israel, but mainly through giving meaning to these experiences by blending them with Jewish content. For example, they introduced a Pirkei Avot text to help us understand tzedakah in Israel and taught a Hebrew song and its meaning when we visited Jerusalem’s Old City. They encouraged us to write in journals, share ideas with each other, and engage in serious discussions in response to our visits. This is experiential education. Adding Jewish content results in Jewish experiential education.


Another example from my personal experience: I was the song leader and Judaics director of my summer camp. Our experiences, especially during Shabbat, were more than just dancing, praying and eating. During services, campers illustrated the Torah potion with pageants. They planned and performed interpretative dances and songs illuminating the portion’s theme. They shared their creative writing during Havdalah. They engaged in Jewish content by creating, exploring and experiencing. Their guides were the staff, who reflected on the campers’ creations through questions and discussion. That was when experiential education took place, and it was not just because (or even required that) we were at camp.

What is so fascinating today is the successful transformation of experiential education across the Jewish educational landscape. Synagogues and day schools are embracing it to complement more traditional learning. The goal is to help young Jews achieve holistic Jewish growth, that is, strong Jewish literacy as well as positive affiliation, engagement and connection to the Jewish community and Jewish life.

In one synagogue, on Simchat Torah, the congregation unwinds an entire Torah scroll, wrapping it around the sanctuary so that young children and adults alike can appreciate the massive piece of parchment that surrounds them. Younger members read the verses of the Torah that are open where they stand in the scroll snaking around the room identifying where the story is in the massive document as well as its importance to the whole. The rabbis ask questions, allowing the congregation to reflect and then, as they slowly roll our collective story back up, they sing loudly and joyously. When the congregants dance around with the Torah scrolls, they are fully engaged and understand the holiness of the moment.

For Tu b’Shevat, a day school turns its whole building into a big tree. Educators ask students to choose the fruits they want to grow, finding out about each fruit’s connection to Jewish tradition and ritual, and designing that part of the tree. Again, it is not making the school into a tree that is experiential education. It is allowing the students to engage in the material directly, and asking guided questions, integrating their identity and interests with Jewish knowledge.

There are other examples. Many synagogues are engaging youth in service-learning or volunteering during Hebrew school or as part of the bar/bat mitzvah experience. Schools are increasing their trips to Jewish museums to examine and reflect on artifacts from history and tradition. Students engage in other interactive learning activities within the synagogue walls.

Creating these experiences is one step but, as Dr. Reimer advises, experiences alone will not harness the power and ability to transmit knowledge and engage connection. To create dynamic and engaging learning environments, synagogues, schools and educational institutions must weave the experiential along with traditional methods.

Facilitation and reflection are just two aspects of experiential education. Other hallmarks are engaging learners through multiple learning pathways, building relationships among learners and educators, and integrating Jewish content with stimulating activities. To integrate experiential education into an educational curriculum takes serious planning and imple- mentation. Both were certainly evident on my long-ago USY Pilgrimage. Our challenge as Jewish educators and lay leaders is to figure out how to transform all of our educational touchpoints to improve Jewish education for the future of the Jewish people. Let’s continue to explore together, and reflect.

Mark S. Young is the program coordinator of the Experiential Learning Initiative at the Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education at the Jewish Theological Seminary.