The Dance of the Four Children

5 May, 2010

Source: eJewish Philanthropy


In a post from the Growing Jewish Education in Challenging Times series , Daniel Libenson, Executive Director of the University of Chicago Hillel, discusses a new approach to engaging Jewish young people, a two-step approach: provoke a hunger to learn, feed that hunger.

As most Jewish university students do not seek out Jewish educational experiences because they do not perceive that Jewish knowledge can feed any hunger that they have, it is the responsibility of the teachers to motivate the learners to learn. They should provoke their curiosity by arousing in them a sense of wonder, a feeling that learning more will unlock a mystery that I care about solving. We have to give people a reason to care and then provide them with basic learning which they now will value and seek.


 He writes:

"In working with Jews that do not yet have a commitment, the best approach is often to start with something that cannot be fully understood by the learner but that is exciting, tantalizing, challenging, and relevant. And the two-step needs to be successfully repeated again and again until a person develops confidence that there really is something compelling for her.

What is institutionally challenging about the educational two-step is that the first step must be much more individualized than the second. Students with a passion for the arts or for social justice would not be transformed into active seekers by the leadership stories we studied with students who were in a leadership internship. The strain this puts on our creativity, staffing models, and economic models is immense because we need to find ways to connect with every Jewish individual in order to understand what they care about and what will drive them to want to learn more and to deliver that magnetic first step in the two-step.

A number of organizational possibilities present themselves:

  • A cadre of volunteers could be trained and deployed by educating institutions to build relationships with potential learners and take responsibility for the individualized first step.

  • Using part-time staff is a powerful approach because it gives a single institution a broader array of interest areas with which to connect to potential learners, but there is a conflict with the need of talented educators to have full-time work. Perhaps educating institutions could pool resources to hire educators full-time and divide this time among the institutions.

  • We need to develop a new curriculum for educators, whether volunteer or paid, that emphasizes mentoring and similar individualized approaches to opening the conversation, as opposed to classroom skills. This kind of work is somewhere in between what we call formal Jewish education and informal Jewish education."
Updated: Jun. 01, 2010