My colleague at Hillel International in Washington DC, Dr. Beth Cousens, submitted an essay to the Growing Jewish Education collection from JESNA and ejewishphilanthropy.com that I've been discussing entitled Making Jewish Meaning. Hillel's mission is to serve Jewish students on college and university campuses around the world, and it is an educational institution in its own right. Because of the unique and relatively brief life stage of its constituents and the inherently limited window of interaction with Jewish life the years at college provide, Hillel has had to become innovative in its approaches to Jewish education. In her essay, Beth shares two overall lessons learned from Hillel's educational work.
- Exploration of Ideas: Knowledge is Personal - Beth points out that we live in a world where personalization is a cultural expectation. We personalize most of our on-line life and companies respond by using our personal data to cater to our personal interests and needs. (Perhaps you have a Google Alert that notifies you every time something about Jewish Education or Hillel is posted on-line? Case in point.) Beth notes that we may be a crowded culture - how many "friends" do you have on Facebook - but we prioritize that which is personally meaningful to us including - or not - our Jewish identity.
- Exploration of Sense of Self: We're more meaning-driven than ever - Beth continues that while we are a highly self-centric culture, we seek significance in our life and life choices. In terms of a religious context, this is called by the field of psychology "faith development." Interacting with Jewish role models and guides who can connect us with Jewish tools for faith development gives us the equiptment to make personal and sophisticated Jewish life decisions, definitions and commitments.
Hillel has developed a cadre of Senior Jewish Educators who are trained to be guides, pastoral counselors and community organizers within the campus Jewish student community based on these two lessons learned. Their job is not to impart knowledge but equip students with Jewish tools for exploration and decision-making; To be a positive presence during their faith development. Beth posits that all Jewish educational institutions across the board could learn from this model, namely that by gearing education towards Jewish empowerment rather than Jewish adherence the student will knowledgably self-select their Judaism and Jewish community at each stage of their life.
So, full disclosure, I have worked for or with Hillel for most of my career prior to coming to Pittsburgh, and even now am doing my doctoral work on Jewish identity development in college students. I've watched Hillel's institutional process of learning these lessons that Beth sums up so well, and I have observed their application on the selected campuses that the Senior Jewish Educators (several of whom are former students of mine) are serving. My agreement with this methodology is very strong and I think Hillel has really made a critical contribution to meeting Jewish students where they are in their lives at this critical point. I have to respectfully question whether or not it is fully applicable to all Jewish educational venues though.
This model is dependent on the cognitive ability of the individual to process meaning and parse the complexities of life that become more apparent as they grow. At points of development, this model is critical. Think about the camp counselor who makes a mature impact on a teen-age camper going through an adolescent crisis, or the coach who talks an junior high athlete through a difficult time in their losing season. But this kind of cognitive skill set isn't in elementary school or younger children, and certain developmental handicaps can limit the ability to apply that skill even among adults who function developmentally normal in all other respects. Faith development efforts as Beth is sharing are only effective after a certain point in the developmental process and with a certain developmental depth, and prior to it other methodologies are better suited IMO.
Still, my discrepancy with this proposal is one of nuance, not substance. And recognizing that this approach is also not a one-size-fits-all answer to Jewish educational approaches actually reinforces the premise Beth points out of needing to find individualized significance of content to the targeted student in our highly self-centric culture. By seeing this methodology being piloted by Hillel as best suited to certain life stages of Jews, it becomes one of a number of effective tools we as a community are developing to meet the educational needs of American Jews along the entire continuum of life.