We frequently encounter the claim that a particular Jewish educational experience will be “transformative” for the participants. The language may be hyperbole. But it may also point to educators’ aspirations to affect not just knowledge and practice but character and identity. In order to understand this phenomenon—not the phenomenon of the use of the language of transformation, per se, but the phenomenon of aspirational Jewish educational programs—this article develops three case studies (Encounter, the Bronfman Fellowship, and the Wexner Heritage Program). What emerges from these cases is a set of models or theories of transformative change: the Maimonides model, learning a habit such that, over time, habit becomes character; the paradise-and-exile model, becoming a seeker after an ideal that one has glimpsed; and the outsider-to-insider model, moving from a sense of fraudulence to a sense of confidence within a particular domain.
This inquiry is an effort to lay some of the groundwork. Our focus will be on what educators in a specific set of programs mean by their use of the language of transformation, or alternatively, their implicit theory of transformative change. Assessment questions (does the reality match the rhetoric? does a particular program actually bring about transformation?) are certainly important, but before we can possibly undertake them, we need a better and more nuanced understanding of what the program is intended to do. Before we start assessing transformation, we need to know what we are looking for. Even more importantly, the educators who work within any program that claims to be transformational— those educators who, we suggested above, are expressed their highest aspirations for their programs—also need to develop their understandings of exactly what they are trying to do, and how. They need to do so both to increase their own intentionality and focus, and to induct other (new) educators into those aspirations.
For these purposes, we will examine a set of three initiatives, the leaders of which embrace the goal of transformation—initiatives which, moreover, can make plausible (though of course unproven) claims about transformation. The three cases studied will be Encounter, the Bronfman Fellowship, and the Wexner Heritage Program. What, we wonder, can we learn about transformative Jewish education by studying these three cases?
This article is dedicated to the memory of Jon Woocher, z”l, who sadly passed away before seeing its publication. Jon provided guidance and support of this project, and eagerly awaited not just the publication of the article but also the possible next steps—possible collaborations with practitioners to more deeply explore and understand their own practice, and to connect them to each other. I am grateful for that guidance and support, and for having had the opportunity to work with him on the project.