Gotta Love It

jewish experience at yonah schimmel
RENA members having fun on the Lower East Side

My husband spent Sunday afternoon at a NY Jets football game with his buddy, Dan. He told me about a scene two rows in front of them that left him shaking his head. A dad who was accompanied by two young sons watched the game intently while his younger son (maybe six years old or so) stood on his seat facing the stadium audience with his back to the field for three quarters of the game.  While the stadium entertainment crew tried to whip up the crowd with cheers and chants, the child raised his arms to the crowd to be a combination cheerleader/conductor. He was having a great time.

My husband reported that the dad was both tolerant and amused by this activity. Yet, my husband wondered: why did the dad bother bringing the kid, when he wasn’t really engaged by the football game?

I viewed this differently. It didn’t matter that the child wasn’t watching football – his experience was fun. He will come away with a warm feeling of having spent a fun day with his dad, and memories of the stadium being a welcoming place to spend a Sunday afternoon.

So it goes in life. We each find our way through the experiences that are imposed on us as children through the pathways most appealing to our tastes and interests. We may not necessarily do or learn what is expected of us, but as long as we can have compelling experiences, we come away with warm and positive memories. On a certain level it doesn’t matter if we didn’t fit into the pre-assigned pegs, as long as we were comfortable and conversant enough in the experience to come back for more.

It seems to me that this reflects on our model of Jewish education. We are so content-driven; we can miss the value of memory and experience. For all kinds of good reasons, the typical Jewish school endeavors to “educate” our students with as much Jewish knowledge as we can cram into the short space of time we are given with our students.

But maybe that model of Jewish learning is backwards. What if, instead of assuming that enough Jewish knowledge will secure our children’s Jewish future, we focus on the quantity and quality of their Jewish experiences?  And what if we conceived of those experiences not as “pegs” into which we must squeeze each learner to make them come out “right,” we observe them to see what adventures they can find in the experiences we enable for them.

So what if the child stands on the chair backwards and cheers with the crowd and doesn’t watch football? Perhaps he will settle down to watch the game when he is older, and he is happily at home in the stadium because of his early experiences.  Perhaps he may not even come to love football like his dad, but he will carry forever the warm memory of being with his dad on those cold fall game days.

So what if a child’s favorite part of being in synagogue is the experience of being part of a community that is engaging and fun? As children grow older they can settle into their seats to learn the why’s and how’s of Jewish behaviors.  Maybe they won’t grow up to want to be engaged in all the same ways as their parents, but they will be at home and comfortable and happy enough to want to learn more.

We’ve had this debate for years – how to do Jewish education in America. But all the studies support what this child at the football game demonstrated – experience matters. And the learner is central to the experience. Good Jewish camps provide this opportunity. So should our other vehicles for Jewish learning.

Last week I participated with RENA (Reconstructionist Educators of North America) in their annual conference. We spent half a day on the Lower East Side of New York City doing a geo-locating game, using a new iPhone app that guides participants through a walking tour of the historical sites of the area, while enjoying the tastes and landscapes of the neighborhood. Visionary educator David Bryfman of the Jewish Education Project gave us a window into new possibilities outside the classroom setting.  We spent a morning learning at Behrman House about the use of an online classroom to create fun, learner-driven experiences.

It’s the tip of the iceberg – we need so much more.  But if the child who cheers with the crowd loves the stadium experience, and the child who dines on Gus’s pickles and Yonah Schimmel’s knishes tastes the history of Jewish immigration and leaves wanting more, we’ve done an awful lot. And that’s a good bit more than happens in most Jewish education classrooms.

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