Jumping Into the Currents: The Art of Informal Jewish Education

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May 1, 2001
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Joseph Reimer

Rafting down the Colorado River last May, I was hoping not to be the one who falls off. I was sit-ting on the raft next to the guide who had much to tell us about the river and how to ride the rapids. Indeed, as the rapids grew fiercer, I could see her considerable skill in handling the oars. I began to believe we would make it; and before long we had passed through all the rapids. I was starting to relax.

Suddenly Dusty, the guide, said we could all jump off into the river. Having spent my energy and concentration staying on the raft, why would I now jump off? But off went most of the others on our raft. I looked around and jumped.

Those first moments in the Colorado were filled with terror. The current was fast and powerful. I was definitely not in control. But all around me other people were happily floating. It had to be all right. I released my tension. Suddenly what terrified me was thrilling. I was in the grip of a power much greater than myself. If I could trust myself to that power, it would support me. Now I was meeting the river on its own terms.

Back on the raft, I realized I had thought the guide’s job was to get us through the rapids and teach us about the river. But Dusty understood the power of surprise and never said a word in advance about jumping. She also knew the value of being in the river itself. It is one thing to be on a raft and hearing about the Colorado; it is quite another to be in the river carried along by its currents. It is the latter I will never forget. It is imprinted on my body and mind.

By analogy, much of formal Jewish education is like sitting on the raft and hearing about the river. The teacher tells the stories and the students absorb new information about the history of the religion and customs of its practitioners. But there is little opportunity to jump into the river itself, to feel the powerful currents of religion. There is no terror and no thrill, just more stories about God and our ancestors.

Until Dusty’s surprise I was happy sitting on the raft. I needed to begin there. Left alone I would not have known what I was missing. I would have reached my “bar mitzvah,” done everyone proud by not falling off, and left a satisfied customer. It just would not have made a lasting impression. And that is what recent research by Bethamie Horowitz tells us about much of formal Jewish education outside the day schools. It does not leave much of a lasting impression. “The strongest predictors of current Jewishness were to be found among ‘voluntary’ experiences – ones that a person chose to undertake, like Jewish youth group, Jewish college activities or a trip to Israel.” (See her essay in this issue for a fuller account of this research.)

We call these voluntary experiences “informal Jewish education.” But the term “informal education” is problematic. What gives these experiences their power is not primarily their informality. What matters, in part, is that they are chosen rather than prescribed. But what really matters is that for many these are their first opportunities to be in the river, to experience Judaism as a live current that carries them along and leaves a lasting impression.

There is a mystery here that we barely understand. The human mind registers certain experiences in lasting ways while other experiences are scarcely remembered. Some experiences – especially when something happens to leave a lasting “memory trace” – are often remembered years later when more routine experiences have long been forgotten.

The power of informal Jewish education, I am suggesting, lies in the creation of lasting Jewish memories. When reluctant or ambivalent Jews get surprised and experience themselves – in the company of trusted peers – swimming in powerful Jewish currents, they take notice. Before they have the time to erect the usual defenses, they are standing before the Western Wall and finding its allure overwhelming. They are singing Lecha Dodi at camp and the Sabbath Queen is dancing before their eyes. They are holding their friends’ hands in the dark as they bid farewell to Shabbat by the light of a hundred havdallah candles. They are talking about God at 2 a.m. They are crying at the gates of Yad Vashem as they take in the horror of the past. They are doing Jewish and not feeling strange or awkward about it. Is it any wonder these moments stand out and are not forgotten?

Such moments do not create themselves. They are as carefully designed as when Dusty told us to jump into the river. Informal education has its spontaneous moments, but on the whole its programs have to be as carefully and thoughtfully designed as lessons in a classroom curriculum. Informal educators – at their best – are artful designers of other people’s experiences. They have to know enough about experiential learning to design programs that catch people a little off guard, and yet help them to take in and record the significance of what they have experienced.

The Jewish community is only now becoming aware of the full educational potential of informal education. But that potential will be realized only when there is a complementary awareness of the craft of the informal educator. Designing powerful experiences that create meaningful Jewish memories is an art form that is not often appreciated. At the Institute for Informal Jewish Education at Brandeis, we are cultivating that art form, celebrating its practitioners, and preparing a next generation of artful designers. This is pioneering work that has significant long-term implications for creating the memories that will seed the Jewish identities of today’s Jewish youth.

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Dr. Joseph Reimer is Director of the Institute for Informal Jewish Education at Brandeis University and Professor at the Hornstein Program at Brandeis University.

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