When educators from local Conservative synagogue schools gathered Nov. 9 at Congregation Beth El in South Orange for their fourth annual day of in-service training, they were asked to discuss the differences between formal and informal education. The results were revealing.
Leading the discussion was Jeffrey Kress, associate professor of Jewish education at the Jewish Theological Seminary. When he asked participants to jot down their immediate thoughts on “camp,” many wrote things like “lake, fun, games, noise, energy.”
By contrast, “school” elicited comments like “homework, boring, rules, sitting still, listening passively.”
“How do we get these to cross over?” asked one participant.
That was the goal of this year’s Yom Iyun, a day of study sponsored by local synagogues and the New Jersey Jewish Educators Assembly: to help teachers learn how to infuse the classroom with the kind of engagement usually associated with summer camp and other informal settings.
“If we want our efforts as educators to result in learning and growth, then we need to attend to the experience of the participants,” Kress said in an interview following the session. “I think this is true no matter who the learners are.”
He urged educators to look at the different ways people learn and connect with the synagogue and make sure their needs are being met.
“Do youth who are more artistic — or musical, or physical, or engaged by text and reading — have opportunities to connect with this in our schools?” he asked. “Might students contribute to services, or the look of a synagogue, in a way that they feel they are making a difference? Do youth feel cared about by their teachers and rabbis? How does this caring manifest itself?
“Even a simple thing — such as how students are greeted when they arrive and how they transition into the learning environment — can make a big difference in how the school is experienced,” Kress said.
But, he pointed out, it’s not that easy to “bring camp to school.”
“We have to move beyond trying to replicate experiential camp activities on a surface level,” he said. “Yes, these activities can be fun, but do not necessarily result in Jewish growth.”
Kress urged participants to be specific about what elements made particular informal learning events meaningful, from kabalat Shabbat services in a camp setting to role-playing Torah stories.
Asked to list these elements, teachers gave high marks to those providing students a chance to give input and make a difference in their own education. They also cited approaches that link classroom and out-of-classroom experiences, opportunities for students to integrate what they know and what they feel, and methods that provide multiple pathways into the lesson.
Some of the educators wondered whether their own experiences in camp and school — 20 years ago and more, in some cases — were still relevant. But a few younger members suggested that things that didn’t work 20 years ago still don’t, and that creativity and setting stand the test of time.
Yom Iyun was sponsored by the NJJEA, headed by Stacey David, education director at the Summit Jewish Community Center. Participating schools included Temple Beth Shalom, Livingston; Adath Shalom, Morris Plains; Oheb Shalom Congregation, South Orange; Congregation Shomrei Emunah, Montclair; Congregation Beth El, South Orange; Summit JCC; Temple Sholom, Bridgewater; Temple Beth Ahm Yisrael, Springfield; Pine Brook Jewish Center, Montville; and Temple Sinai, Summit.