Berman Jewish Policy Archive @ NYU Wagner
May 2014
Guest Introduction by Prof. Lee Shulman

President Emeritus, The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching; Charles E. Ducommun Professor Emeritus, Stanford University; President Emeritus, American Educational Research Association; Chair of the Advisory Board, The Consortium for Applied Studies in Jewish Education (CASJE)

As I read this Readers Guide to Immersive and Experiential Education, I was not only enlightened and inspired by the creativity and thoughtfulness that characterizes so much of this work. I was engulfed in waves of nostalgia. 
 I remembered fondly spending summers as a camper, and later as a counselor and teacher at Camp Ramah in Conover, Wisconsin during the 1950s. As a city kid who lived in a small apartment in Chicago, the two-month experience of Ramah was transformative. Camp was a beautiful lake, fresh air, youthful romance, and the invigorating walks to those distant buildings that held the bathrooms and showers. Camp was deeply, inescapably and effortlessly Jewish.

Even the Ramah classes, 90 minutes each day on Tanach, Hebrew, Talmud or Jewish thought, felt special in spite of the fact that many were taught quite traditionally, even "frontally." Sitting or reclining on the grass, the words of Jeremiah or the thinking of Rambam were fresher and more exciting. Even daily tefilot seemed utterly natural, as did blessings before and after every meal, the singing and even dancing that would burst out spontaneously, and preparing to perform Broadway musicals in Hebrew. We were indeed immersed, and the distinctions between settings for education and settings for "life" were rapidly dissolved.

And then there was the "mystery book." We saw that our counselor, Joe Lukinsky, a rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary who would later become a distinguished professor of Jewish Education, was constantly lugging around a dirty book. What else could Love is Not Enough be about? It must be some sort of "how to" manual, right? Ultimately we found a way to sneak a copy of Love is Not Enough from Joe's shelves. No sex, no dirty pictures. It was all about a treatment center for emotionally disturbed kids at the University of Chicago and how it used the entire institution and all of its features, from the art on the walls to the ways food was served and beds were made, to provide the necessary healing for profoundly troubled young people. Boring. It had nothing to do with either sex or camp. Why in the world were Joe and all those other counselors reading this stuff?

I would read the book a number of years later when I took a course with Bettelheim and came to appreciate a conception of education via immersion in a milieu, the integration of the formal and informal, of the designed and the accidental, nearly all of it socially mediated. There was even a chapter titled, "Food, the Great Socializer" that described ways in which even the most withdrawn or hostile kids would behave differently in the presence of food. Indeed, the other kids all around you were also part of the milieu.

This approach to education was developed by a generation of younger psychoanalysts in Vienna, who had been disciples of Freud but had begun to appreciate the severe limitations of individual psychotherapy in the milieu of a doctor's office. One-on-one interaction, even with a skilled therapist, was an insufficient medium for shaping the hearts and minds of troubled youth. When those young Viennese psychoanalysts fled to America during the Shoah, they entered an intellectual milieu that had been prepared by the writings and teachings of John Dewey and the emergence of Progressive Education. Through books like Democracy and Education and Experience and Education, a generation of American educators had been transformed (including the "Benderly Boys" who invented American Jewish Education in New York City). The oversimplified but persuasive mantra was: Teachers don't educate; experience educates.

Clearly, the designers of Camp Ramah felt that they were creating a total environment for the formation of Jewish minds and hearts, a milieu that could educate in ways that would elude the traditional classroom. The pioneers of Jewish camping were the earliest wave of the exciting initiatives described in this issue of the BJPA Readers' Guide. From early designs of project-based learning in Jewish schools and the creation of summer camps of different sorts, has emerge d more exciting experiments with camps, outdoor education, environmental education, service learning, food-based learning, education through short- and long-term travel.

I sense the same kind of inspiration and creativity animating the pioneers in JOFEE programs. They ambitiously experiment with exploiting the wondrous motivations associated with the outdoors, with food, and with the power of actively doing stuff rather than sitting around as ways of engaging children and adult in Jewish life and thought. Their designs are as far from the traditional cheder or beith midrash as one can imagine. Are they, as Amy Sales asks, content free? How do we find out? It's very important that, with the support of the Jim Joseph Foundation and its commitment to serious program evaluation, these programs have been subject to ongoing review, research and evaluation. Those reports can be found prominently in this month's report. And that commitment to careful documentation and evaluation must characterize all work in these fields.
We don't just teach, we immerse. Students don't merely learn, they experience. Many of these approaches have become defined and connected to one another, less because of what they share than because of what they are not. They are not traditional education. They are a rejection and repudiation of the kind of classroom teaching that occurs in traditional schools. Therein lies an important caveat to all of us who read this literature and indeed who contribute to it by creating, practicing and conceptualizing the varieties of Jewish experiential education. What we really do is far more important than what we call it. We often believe we are doing things that in practice we are not. We often have faith in our approaches that is supported by evidence from careful evaluations and studies. And we will ultimately learn mo re from contemplating our errors than by celebrating our successes. Slogans and labels are no substitute for careful evaluations, reflection and research.

Let's think critically about labels.

Wallace Stegner was once asked whether his Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winning novels were autobiographical. He paused and responded, "All fiction is autobiographical.... no fiction is autobiographical." I thought of his response when I examined Immersive and Experiential Education. When asked my views about experiential education, I tend to answer somewhat like Stegner:
All education is experiential; no education is experiential.

It is difficult to imagine any form of learning, even in the most relentlessly lecture-dominated frontal classroom, that does not involve some kind of learning from experience, with moments of active engagement. Indeed, without some form of active processing, learning is impossible. Laboratory instruction in science is frequently cited as the sine qua non of hands-on experiential learning in contrast to lectures and discussions. But the research on the efficacy of laboratory instruction in science yields one consistent finding. Lab instruction is of little value if the hands-on experience is not immediately followed by minds-on discussions, critiques and conceptual explorations. Experience leads to learning when it is accompanied by mindfulness, reflection and yes, the uses of formal language.

Naming it doesn't make it so. When Ralph Tyler conducted the Eight-Year Study, a longitudinal examination of the contrasts between Traditional Education and Progressive Education and their impacts in the 1930s, his first major finding was that these two categories didn't really exist in practice. There was as similarity in actual practices across those two categories as there was within them! If we want to understand the impact of varieties of immersive and experiential e ducation (the ambiguity of those two terms makes my point) we will need rich descriptive studies to know what is happening in individual programs, not merely what they claim they are not.

This Readers' Guide features a rich array of program descriptions, theoretical and conceptual analyses, policy briefs and program evaluations. Taken together, I am persuaded that we live in the most innovative and exciting era of ever experienced in Jewish education. The post-Pew eulogies for Jewish education notwithstanding, this is a Golden Age of thoughtful experimentation and ambitious invention in our field.

I am encouraged by the parallels between these developments in Jewish education and exciting work in general education. Whether flipping classrooms or moving more energetically back into programs of project-based learning and service learning, "pedagogies of engagement" are gaining traction. We are all part of that movement. I am particularly encouraged to see, both in Jewish education and more generally, that programs of careful research and evaluation are increasing as well. Jewish education will progress more rapidly and successfully if accompanied by high-quality evaluation and research. We see some lovely examples of those genres in this Readers Guide. I look forward to seeing more in the future.

Immerse yourselves in these writings. The water is fine.




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Community Announcement: The Harold M. Schulweis Institute


During almost 64 years in the rabbinate, Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis has established a unique global legacy of scholarship, creativity, and spiritual expression. Through his initiatives and innovations in Jewish communal life, worship, Jewish ethics, ecumenical dialogue, and Jewish learning, Rabbi Schulweis has enriched the lives of Jews and others around the world. His work has shaped modern Judaism. In order to preserve and expand this legacy, his congregation, Valley Beth Shalom, has created The Harold M. Schulweis Institute - A Center for Jewish Learning. Fundamental to the Institute and its mission is an on-line library at  that collects, preserves, and disseminates Rabbi Schulweis' writing and oratory for future generations through the largest congregation of his distinguished career - the world wide congregation of the internet. The Harold M. Schulweis Institute Library has been built as a living legacy in the spirit of Rabbi Schulweis' vision of Jewish life. Its mission is to preserve and make available his essays, articles, transcripts and digital recordings of sermons and addresses, selected letters, and monographs. 

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