Informal Jewish Education as Art Form

May 1, 2001
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Barry Chazan

Dear Joe,

Your rafting trip sounds great! As always, you succeed so well in using life to teach us about life. And here I am stuck in my book-filled office trying to “understand” what informal education is. So let me take a stab at it and try to do some straight-laced analytic conceptualizing about the art form you so well describe.

As we both know, most people think that “Jewish education” means schools and children. But that is not the whole story. Learning happens in many places: at camp, at a Jewish Community Center, on an Israel trip, at a retreat or Shabbaton, in an adult study group. Contemporary Jewish life shouts loudly that the campus of Jewish education extends much beyond the walls of primary or secondary school. Indeed, there is another “school” that has touched all of us - the “school” of informal Jewish education. I think this “school” has seven characteristics:

1. AUTONOMY: It’s something that one chooses freely.
2. PERSON-CENTERED: It makes the person the center of education.
3. EXPERIENCE-CENTERED: It educates by enabling Jews to actually have Jewish experiences (rather than merely talking about them).
4. INTERACTIVE: It highlights the relationship between educator and learner as central to Jewish education.
5. A “CURRICULUM” OF JEWISH VALUES: The “curriculum” of informal Jewish education is about the Jewish values, behaviors, and beliefs that we want Jews to internalize. This curriculum is not carved in stone but is flexible; paper and pencil tests do not measure it.
6. FUN AND ENJOYMENT: It is fun and assumes that enjoyment enhances rather than inhibits Jewish learning!
7. DIFFERENT BREED OF EDUCATOR: Informal Jewish educators are living role models of the values, beliefs, and behaviors they teach, and they “teach” by showing, doing, and asking rather than by telling, lecturing, or posing. (They are also likely to wear shorts, t-shirts, running shoes, and sports uniforms!)

Informal Jewish education refers to an approach to education that is aimed at the personal growth of Jews of all ages. It happens through active participation in a diversity of Jewish experiences. It is rooted in basic Jewish beliefs, values, and behaviors. It requires careful planning - along with great flexibility. It requires educators who are very inter-active and participatory, and who live what they teach. It doesn’t take place in any one venue but happens all over.

The big question that we both wrestle with is how to make this happen? There are two hefty challenges we face in this context. First, we need to professionalize the field. Our colleague Mark Charendoff writes well about this subject in this issue of Sh’ma; the Institute for Informal Education is an important step in this direction.

Our second challenge is to convince the contemporary Jewish world and its leaders that informal Jewish education is really significant. We must show them that it is not “secondary,” “extra,” “fluff,” “window dressing,” or simply “fun” (these are all words we have both heard). We must ensure that informal education is as much a system and context in which people learn as are schools and syllabi. Our friends in general education have learned this lesson - hopefully we can teach the same lesson to our family within Jewish education.

Perhaps the way Jewish life was traditionally “taught” is the best to learn - utilization of the entire campus of life to educate. As we have told each other so often, maybe the real story of Jewish education is a story of a great informal educational system.

Joe, keep rafting and may we continue to ride the crests of this great new stream!

Best regards,

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Barry Chazan is Professor of Education at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Education Consultant to birthright israel. He is the author of books and articles on moral education, informal education, Jewish education, and teaching Israel.

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