HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

Reclaiming the “Ed” in Informal Education

by Shira Melody Berkovits Issue: Formal-Informal Education

Too many Jewish educators in various settings confuse informal education with pandering; the author urges a different approach, blending sensory engagement and group dynamics.

Informal Jewish education has become something of a catchphrase in recent years, with teacher training, financial resources, and school personnel devoted to its execution. Schools, synagogues, and camps alike hope to supplement boring mandatory lessons with fun programs that will rouse children to “like” Judaism. The results often rely heavily on classical conditioning: pair a Judaic event with pop-culture, food, or both, and you’ll guarantee a successful turnout and happy teens brimming with positive Jewish associations. Alternatively, initiate an incentive procedure, such as raffle tickets that are contingent on “good” tefillah, and students will be clamoring for more tefillah time.

It is important to note that not all situations necessitate classical conditioning, and it behooves administrators to ascertain an incentive’s appropriateness prior to its implementation. Imagine a child who loves tuna sandwiches, but loves ice cream even more. In an attempt to instill a love for tuna in the child, her mother repeatedly pairs tuna sandwiches with an ice cream dessert. The pairing of the tuna and ice cream in this instance is superfluous—a waste of time and resources, since the child already likes tuna. It is not that ice cream is never appropriate, it simply needs to be delivered judiciously.

In today’s day school world—a world of intensive dual curricula, hours of daily homework, constant bombardment of electronic stimuli, and iCals full of extracurricular activities—informal Jewish educators recognize the “necessity” of making a loud, fun, noise. Teachers and programming staff brainstorm for the newest and coolest ways to attract students to Judaism. I have listened to “experts” on Jewish education advocate for rewarding every “good” tefillah with time on the basketball court. I have heard of schools incorporating rap and hip hop music into their Chanukkah chagigahs.

Teachers have publicly suggested that the best way to engage 5th–8th graders in tefillah is by providing sugary food. One rabbi explained to me how the children in his shul came to love Simchat Torah: they were shown a giant wall of candy and told they could keep whatever fit in their mouths and pockets (I’ll let you imagine the scene that followed). Several colleagues of mine have regaled me with stories of the fabulous Yom Ha’atzmaut festival their school ran, replete with blowup rides and clowns, but absent any connection to the State of Israel. School yom iyyuns, community youth groups, and summer camps have used dedicated learning time to show hit movies and TV shows (e.g., The Matrix, The Truman Show, even Gossip Girl) and stretch them to relate to Torah values (did they run out of Torah sources?).

At a recent national convention on the topic of informal education, a keynote speaker urged school administrators to dedicate a “major” percentage of their budget to food, for how else could they expect to attract students to their extracurricular Judaic events? The applause that met those words was remarkable, and I couldn’t help but wonder: hadn’t any of the audience members heard of program quality?

When I ruminate on the above examples, I feel frustrated. In the rush to connect more students to their heritage, the natural reinforcers of Judaic programming are being masked with flashy tactics and desperate “hooks.” The hours that should be spent researching a holiday and making it relevant are instead spent on ensuring that the glitz is properly in place. While one might assume this pandering is most prevalent in preschool programming, in fact it pervades all levels of informal Jewish education.

I am not advocating an avoidance of incentives altogether. After all, incentives ensure numbers and attract students’ attention. However, once students are in attendance, we need to quiet the background noise and let the genuinely interesting stories of our history, the beauty of our tradition, and the intellectual stimulation of our text, do the rest. After students have tasted the substance of our programs and the inherent fun, extra incentives would be like pairing ice cream with a beloved tuna sandwich—completely superfluous.

We Can Do Better

The first step in planning an informal education program is to ask “What is my goal? What do I hope my students will gain?” Next, the educator must thoroughly research the Judaic subject matter until s/he has achieved mastery and can highlight its key components. Finally, the educator must devise ways to make the highlighted components relevant to the students. Ideally, substantive relevance is achieved through interactivity, engagement of all the senses, and a focus on group dynamics (for a sample program see sidebar “Journey Through the Living Torah”). For example, with the right tefillah curriculum, children ages 2—17 can pray for one hour and be eager for more (for a sample tefillah see sidebar “Birchot Hashachar”). The key to engaging students in tefillah is not a great incentive, but a substantive curriculum that is inclusive, explanatory, and utterly relatable to their everyday lives.

Quality programs should be a lot of fun. Informal educators that are bursting with excitement have won half the battle. Teachers should engage children with stories, skits, props, and activities. Students should be included in the creation and execution stages of a program so that they take ownership of the event. Energy and love for Judaism should permeate the very walls of our day schools.

There are countless opportunities to transform schools into building-size canvases. Try decorating the school from top to bottom for parshat Noach, Shabbat Shira, Shavuot and any occasion you can dream up. Involve your students in the decorating and programming processes by creating student-led committees (e.g., painting and costumes). Take a leaf out of Improv Everywhere’s book and create spontaneous scenes of Judaic chaos and joy in your school’s public spaces. Be goofy. Be relatable. Shed some of the formality inherent in the educator’s role, and in so doing allow your students to connect with you, each other, their teachers, and Judaism.

Informal education should not be a code for pandering to our students. Just like their formal counterparts, informal educators should invest time and effort to create thoughtful, substantive programs that are enjoyable because of their content, not in spite of it. Let us recognize and exalt in the true beauty of informal Jewish programming: the sincerity of our prayers, the enthralling history of our holidays, and the richness of our culture. Let us graduate generations of students who actively choose to engage in Jewish life because of the intrinsic value it holds for them. Finally, let us commit, both in the classroom and without, to take our students seriously and program accordingly.♦

Shira Melody Berkovits. a WINGS youth consultant for the Orthodox Union’s Department of Synagogue Services and student at Cardozo Law School, hopes to advocate on behalf of juvenile delinquents using a behavioral-rehabilitative approach in alternative courtroom settings. She can be reached at melodyberkovits@yahoo.com.

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Formal-Informal Education

If only school could be like camp… Many people’s fondest childhood memories are of camp with its unstructured days and enjoyable activities. Increasingly, under the rubric of informal or experiential education, schools are capturing some of the atmosphere of camp in the classroom and beyond. How can this model be adapted effectively to the educational rigor of a day school?

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