Why Experiential Education Matters

How is it possible that this guy…

UAHC Camp Swig Maccabiah 1996


…is old enough to be taking his soon-to-be 8 year-old daughter to her first Jewish summer camp experience on Monday?

I don’t know either.

But somehow life happened and Eliana and I are off on Monday to Atlanta, Georgia where I will hand her off to the good people at Camp Ramah Darom for her one-week “taste”.

As we have been dutifully putting her name in and on everything she owns, I have naturally grown nostalgic thinking about my own experiences.  The impact of Jewish camping on me is indescribable and undeniable.  It is not hyperbole to suggest that I am neither the Jewish person nor the Jewish professional am I today without having spent my formative years as a camper and staff person at a variety of Jewish summer camps and on numerous Israel experiences.  There have been lots of studies documenting the tremendous power of informal Jewish education or experiential education.

Timing, as always, is everything.

As I am living through this family transition, here at the Jacksonville Jewish Center we are going through a directly related professional transition – namely welcoming Ezra Flom, our new Director of Experiential Education.  As it says in the article introducing him (pg. 12),

The Center understands that meaningful, formal classroom educational experiences are essential, but recognizes that for many, it is the experiential educational moments that occur in camp and youth group settings that leave a lasting impact. With that in mind, the Center has hired Ezra Flom as its first Director of Experiential Education.

As the director, Ezra will spend his time working with the Center’s youth groups, Camp Ki Tov summer day camp, and scouting programs.

I have blogged about some of the pedagogical implications of experiential education for Jewish day school in the past.  I think in many ways there are confluences between “21st century learning” and “experiential education” – the most important of which, to me, is an emphasis on authenticity.  Students learn best when engaged in tasks they perceive to have real-world meaning.  That can be building a real game or mitzvah trips that make the work a better place.  It can take place within the walls of a school or out in the world.  As an academy housed at a synagogue, we have unique opportunities to not only “learn Jewish” but “do Jewish”.  We don’t just learn about Shabbat; we experience Shabbat.  We don’t just learn about tikkun olam/social action; we go out and fix our community.  We don’t just go to school; we go to camp and youth group.

Most importantly we encourage our student to be their authentic Jewish selves as they carry their experiences from context to context.  To me that why experiential education matters.  It brings with the promise of making real what, in some cases, can only be simulated or sampled within the walls of a classroom.  Those are often the most important experiences of all…

And so as I am presently feeling the impending impact my daughter’s first taste of Jewish camping will have on her and on our family, and as I think back on the impact my experiential educational experiences have had on me, I look forward to working with Ezra to re-imagine the walls and boundaries within our academy so that we may provide our students and their families the full richness of what Jewish living has to offer.


Author: Jon Mitzmacher

Dr. Jon Mitzmacher is the Head of the Ottawa Jewish Community School. Jon is studying to be a rabbi at the Academy for Jewish Religion and is on the faculty of the Day School Leadership Training Institute (DSLTI) as a mentor. He was most recently the VP of Innovation for Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools.  He is the former Executive Director of the Schechter Day School Network.  He is also the former head of the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School, a K-8 Solomon Schechter, located in Jacksonville, FL, and part of the Jacksonville Jewish Center.  He was the founding head of the Solomon Schechter Day School of Las Vegas.  Jon has worked in all aspects of Jewish Education from camping to congregations and everything in between.

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