Certificate Program in Experiential Jewish Education, Now in its Third Year, Seeks to Revolutionize Field

At their final seminar in Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future (CJF) Certificate Program in Experiential Jewish Education, 21 educators from across the map in every sense—geographically, denominationally and generationally—reflected on their own spiritual journeys and backgrounds in an attempt to answer these questions: What influences Jewish identity and engagement? And how, as educators, could they create positive experiences and lasting impact for others in those areas?

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Presenter Naomi Less of Storahtelling and Cohort III member Elise Loterman of Hillel of Greater Toronto take part in a storytelling workshop.

“We need to be focused on the whole sense of individual journeys, which call for different questions and measures of success,” Shuki Taylor, the program’s director, told the group.

Those kinds of questions and measures are at the heart of the Certificate Program. Now graduating its second cohort and inaugurating a third, it is one of the few professional programs to focus on the unique role experiential Jewish education plays in the transmission of Jewish values and traditions—and to arm practitioners with research, methodology and skills to increase their effectiveness on the job.

“We run a wide range of programs where I work, from field trips to retreats to shabbatonim and residential programs, and while I think that what we do well, we do intuitively, it was important to get a background in experiential Jewish education from an academic perspective,” said Morris Panitz, program director at the Pearlstone Center in Baltimore and a member of the program’s newest cohort. “There are a lot of programs and training opportunities in Jewish education and a lot in experiential education, but the combination of the two is surfacing in mainstream consciousness. This certificate program is at the forefront of those efforts to train and integrate experiential Jewish education into Jewish engagement.”

That Panitz’s supervisor suggested the program to him is an indicator of how quickly its reputation has spread. “One of the greatest measurable growths we’ve seen over the last few years is the buy-in of organizations,” said Rabbi Kenneth Brander, Yeshiva University’s vice president for university and community life and the David Mitzner Dean of the CJF. “From the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and Birthright NEXT to Hillel International, NCSY and rabbinical groups, organizations are not only giving their staff time off to participate in our program but even covering most of their tuition. They are seeing a clear a return on investment—the program is addressing an important need for both educators in the classroom and in a more informal environment about the benefit of the Certificate Program in Experiential Jewish Education.”

Jessie Greenspan, a program associate at BBYO of Lake Ontario Region in Canada who recently graduated from Cohort II, noticed a familiar theme to the challenges shared by each of her colleagues from organizations of many different philosophies and approaches. “Each of my colleagues, no matter what their role in their community or what community they belong to, faces the same struggle of how to engage our audience and have them connect with our programming.”

Recognizing that shared struggle and bonding as a group is integral to the program’s success, allowing professional networks to expand and new perspectives to interact. “The diversity makes a tremendous difference,” Panitz said. “When we debate our Jewish values there’s a wide spectrum of opinions represented, which creates a richer conversation and pushes everyone to think a little harder than when they’re just with like-minded people. I really have the sense that even after just a week of class, I already have a network of peers I can learn from and look to for professional support and personal development.”

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Cohort II participants Sarah Gordon of Maayanot Yeshiva High School, Teaneck, NJ; Sara Smith of Yeshiva University of Los Angeles High Schools, Los Angeles, CA; Adam Eilath of Kehilla Jewish High School, Palo Alto, CA; and Hillel Campus Rabbi Shalom Kantor, Binghamton, NY, discuss Jewish identity formation.

The Certificate Program is divided into four modular seminars over the course of a year which focus on the foundational theories and practical applications of experiential Jewish education. Titled “Imparting Values,” “Creating Experiences,” “Cultivating Communities,” and “Self Development,” the seminars model experiential learning themselves to provide participants with new tools and ideas they can implement in their own programs. They also offer an important and not-often-heard message in the field of experiential education: content first.

“We want people to sit down and think about what the Jewish content, values or story is before they start thinking about how to tell it,” Taylor said. “Typically, there’s a huge emphasis on the experiential aspect of making things fun and creative and hiring people that are charismatic, and that’s important, but we’re trying to shift the focus so that the field doesn’t rely so heavily on those things. Creativity and charisma are subject to burn-out, which contributes to the short lifespan of careers in this field, but if we build knowledge and skills in our professionals, those are things that only get better and deeper with experience.”

One of the Certificate Program’s initial goals was to lengthen the typical three-year career trajectory of experiential Jewish education professionals, something Taylor is already witnessing. “We’ve seen a huge amount of promotions among our participants and graduates,” he said. “People who were program directors are now directors of their department, people who were assistant rabbis are now rabbis of their own shuls. Others have found more senior positions in different organizations, and still others have successfully secured Wexner, Greenspon and Tikvah Fellowships.” According to Taylor, the program is facilitating these positive transitions by not only giving participants more methodologically-sound tools, but also opening doors to opportunities they may not have realized existed. “Our program enables these professionals to focus on their strengths, understand what they’re great at and build on that,” he said.

A recent graduate of Cohort II, Rabbi Michael Davies, will be transitioning from an associate rabbinic position in California to a senior rabbinic position with Congregation Dor Tikvah in Charleston, SC. “Having gone through the program, I have a better sense of the underlying science of education and the formation of Jewish identity, and I see it throughout my work – in preparing and giving drashot [sermons], in weekly classes and shiurim, in leadership training with teens in and out of the classroom and so much more,” he said.

For Rachel Gildiner, director of learning for Jewish experience at Hillel International and a member of the program’s newest cohort, the Certificate Program has also already made an impact. “After the first week, I felt disarmed and shaken up about everything I had thought about Jewish education up to this point—in a good way,” she said. “This program has made it clear that there is a sophisticated field of theory and practice to experiential Jewish education. What could be dismissed as experiences lacking substance or depth are actually an incredibly powerful tool to advance Jewish values as educators help learners find their own path to Jewish identity formation.”

YU’s Certificate Program in Experiential Jewish Education is made possible with generous support from the Jim Joseph Foundation.