Jewish Fluency: Creating a New Culture

Spring 2016

Source: Hayidion Spring 2016


At Hillel International we have developed a “Jewish Fluency Assessment,” and we use it help us set a bar for the kind of knowledge and abilities we increasingly expect Hillel staff to have. The creation of this assessment was spurred by a new project supported by the Maimonides Fund, called the Ezra Fellowship. The assessment was developed by researching Jewish literacy tests and courses that are used at other institutions (the Jewish Agency For Israel’s test for shlichim, Bar Ilan University’s undergraduate requirements, synagogue Judaism 101 courses, etc.), and by having discussions and focus groups with Hillel professionals about the specific knowledge that is needed to respond to the issues that arise most often for Jewish students on college campuses.


We called this a “fluency” assessment, rather than “literacy” assessment, because a fluency is an indicator of literacy, but literacy is not an indicator of fluency. Literacy indicates a person’s knowledge of a certain subject matter, whereas fluency is about the ease with which one can explain ideas in a clear and compelling way. Our work as educators, particularly in the work of informal education, hinges on our ability to fluently and fluidly explain Jewish ideas, enrich an impromptu conversation, or infuse a group experience with Jewish framings. While Jewish literacy is certainly a part of this, knowing the names and dates of Jewish historical events and figures, or citing chapter and verse from the Torah, do not ensure a rich educational experience for a student.


Over 100 people have taken the assessment to date, and we’ve begun to analyze the data to uncover which Jewish experiences and what kind of education correlate with a high score on the assessment. Individuals who had been on an immersive Jewish experience tended to score higher than those who had not. In addition, those who had been to Israel (beyond a Birthright experience) scored higher than those who did not go to Israel. And, finally, those who had both camp and Hebrew or day school tended to score higher as well.


While, at first blush, these results are unsurprising, there are a number of salient findings. Our assessment, as it does not test for comprehensive Jewish literacy, does seem to indicate that immersive Jewish experiences (such as retreats, youth group shabbatons, Limmud) correlate with a general fluency. That is, people who’ve lived—even if for short bursts of time—in a “surround-sound” Jewish environment are more likely to be articulate about questions relating to Jewish life. Equally interesting is that Jewish camp was highly correlated with success on this assessment, in combination with either Hebrew or day school. In other words, for this assessment, neither Hebrew or day school were the key alone, but rather a camp experience was what correlated with exceptional answers to the questions on the assessment. Again, this is likely pointing to the difference between the “textbook” knowledge that is taught in schools, and the “lived” knowledge that is gained in a camp experience.


The impact that this Jewish Fluency Assessment has begun to have at Hillel is also notable. First, the very fact that we have an assessment is a signal to our staff that we value Jewish knowledge and experience. It is beginning to create a culture—even in our informal educational setting—where Jewish knowledge and the ability to share this knowledge is prized. This has the potential to help us attract professionals who either have this knowledge or are deeply interested in acquiring it. In turn, this will mean that Hillel will become (if it hasn’t already) a magnet for Jewish seekers, learners and teachers.

Secondly, this assessment has given us some benchmarks for our work, as well as guidance for what’s next on our professional development agenda. Increasingly, as we are finding that Jewish fluency is critical to our work, we are also getting clearer on what that fluency looks like and how to help people acquire it.

Read the entire article at Hayidion.

Updated: Mar. 23, 2016