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August 29, 2015 | 14th Elul 5775

Lessons from Informal Education - No V, 5764

Lessons from Informal Education
with the Youth Division
No V, 5764

Al sh'loshah d'varim haolam omed:
Al haTorah, v'al ha-avodah, v'al g'milut chasadim.

The world depends on three things:
on Torah, on worship and on loving deeds.
- Pirkei Avot 1:2

This year each issue of V'shinantam will be dedicated to a specific aspect of building classroom community. Our operating enduring understanding is that building classroom community creates opportunities for educational success. Each issue will be written with input from another department at the Union for Reform Judaism.

V'shinantam is organized around the three pillars of Torah, Avodah, and G'milut Chasadim. We interpret each heading to focus on a different aspect of our work. Under the heading Torah, signifying the mind, you will find a teaching from our tradition; under Avodah (heart), a context to give us the proper intention for our work; and under G'milut Chasadim (hands), practical ideas for implementation.

All obligations of the son upon the father. A father is obligated with respect to his son, to circumcise him, to redeem him if he is a firstborn, to teach him Torah, to take a wife for him and to teach him a craft. Some say: He is obligated even to teach him to swim in water. (Kiddushin 29a)

R. Shmuel bar Nahmani said in the name of R. Yonatan, “Scripture suggests that when you teach Torah to a neighbor’s child, it is as if you yourself brought that child into the world.” (Sanhedrin 19b)

Our textual tradition places the responsibility of preparing a child for life squarely on the shoulders of the parents. The rabbis understood that there were no differences between that which we consider religious obligations and that which appears to be more secular, such as the learning of a livelihood or even the skill set involved in swimming. To our sages, all elements of life had the capacity to be sacred and life sustaining. Learning could not be separated from ritual, nor could one’s profession be seen as different than one’s ability to build a healthy family life.

In the Sanhedrin text above, we see that we teachers of the religious tradition also serve as parents to our students, helping to bring them closer to Torah and closer to the sacred. We too must take responsibility for the whole child, providing for both religious instruction in the areas of faith development, spiritual growth, and a deepening of the connection to the Divine while also helping young people make wiser choices about their day-to-day lives. In the same way that a parent must teach a child to swim to protect her or him from dangerous waters, we too must play a significant role in partnership with families to ensure that our young people can do more than float. We want young people who know how to thrive and triumph in the waters of life, a powerful metaphor for Torah, for Jewish living, and for the purpose we Jews have selected as our holy mission. We hope that some of the ideas below will help you provide a life preserver or two to the young people that you come in contact with in our holy work.

Rabbi Andrew S. Davids
Co-Director, URJ Youth Division


The education of the young people in our synagogues often falls into two categories—formal schooling and informal educational experiences (like youth group or camp). Are these distinctions meaningful? Obviously, we all achieve our goals better when we can work together. Try to define for yourself the core elements of formal and informal education.

Studies of activities classified as informal education show that they seem to have lasting impact and are often identified as motivation for engagement in Jewish activities later in life. In “Jumping into the Currents: The Art of Informal Jewish Education” (Sh’ma, May 2001,1-2), Dr. Joseph Reimer defines informal Jewish education and experiential and voluntary. He writes, “The power of informal Jewish education, I am suggesting, lies in the creation of lasting Jewish memories…. [Participants] are doing Jewish and not feeling strange or awkward about it. Is it any wonder these moments stand out and are not forgotten?” Dr. Reimer goes on to say, “Informal education has its spontaneous moments, but on the whole its programs have to be as carefully and thoughtfully designed as lessons in a classroom curriculum. Informal educators—at their best—are artful designers of other people’s experiences.”

Other scholars make the following distinction: whereas teachers in a formal classroom may have a content focus, an informal educator may focus first on the student, designing self-directed activities and opportunities for expression and searching. The advisor, counselor, or facilitator may put a priority on developing a relationship with students—spending time “hanging out” and looking for points in conversation to challenge a student, introduce him/her to content, or put him/her in touch with his/her feelings.

Perhaps the distinctions between formal and informal education are not accurate or helpful. However, if we think that different learning experiences emphasize different approaches and aspects of learning, we may be able to see where our own approach is lacking. Below are a few ideas that incorporate some of the informal practices described above. Sometimes we teachers in congregational schools feel so pressed for time that we are wary of allowing projects to take up too much class time, especially if we feel content may suffer. Try to integrate one or two of the suggestions below, then after the lesson or unit, evaluate. What was gained? What may have been lost? What did you learn? How can you improve on this experience?

  • Set up study circles where students have time to work on an assignment together.
  • Let students choose among multiple learning activities.
  • Use art, dance, music and drama as a means of presenting a lesson or extending learning.
  • Create a class newsletter where students work together to analyze and synthesize lessons learned.
  • Teach a class outdoors and create activities where students move their bodies to learn.
  • Take advantage of resources in your community and organize a class trip.
  • Give students opportunities to participate in and experience real Jewish moments (rather than learn about them)—t’filah, social action, and holiday or life cycle celebrations.

Special thanks to Amy Nissim, Regional Director of Youth and Informal Education, URJ NJ/West Hudson Valley Council and Shelley Schweitzer, Regional Director of Youth and Informal Education, URJ Northeast Lakes Council for sharing many ideas and much information.


The Youth Division of the Union for Reform Judaism encourages congregations to see NFTY, the URJ Camp Institutes and the Union travel programs as an extension of every URJ congregation’s educational system. Please make certain that you and your families are aware of these programs. Members of the URJ congregations receive preferential treatment and a member’s rate for participating. Many of these Youth Division resources contain ideas, programs, and projects you can incorporate into your classroom.

For information on the Union Camp Institute closest to you, please visit The thirteen camps of the Movement are wonderful places for young Reform Jews to deepen their joy and love for their tradition as they make new friends, experience new adventures, and learn how to build community. For older teens, the URJ Kutz Camp–NFTY National Leadership Center provides serious learning and skill building that can enhance your congregation whether the teen studies song leading, Religious School Teacher Training, Hebrew, web design, or a host of other majors.

Senior high school youth can gain from the NFTY program that functions on a regional and North American basis. For more information about NFTY or to utilize its resources, visit In particular, sign up for the monthly electronic resource e-Source. Here you will find excellent, off the shelf educational programs and access to resources on Israel, leadership, and the NFTY study and action themes.

Some of your teens may want to participate in a significant tikkun olam experience through the NFTY Mitzvah Corps. These intensive, hands-on settings change the lives of participants and the communities they serve in the summer. Participants come back prepared to enhance the religious justice agenda in the congregation. For more information, visit the NFTY Mitzvah Corps website.

For another social justice opportunity, visit the Million Quarter Project website. The Million Quarter Project is designed to collect a million quarters that will guarantee and complement the one meal a day provided to Ethiopian Jewish school children at the Jewish compounds in Addis Ababa and Gondar, Ethiopia. Every quarter will go directly to these Jewish children.

If you are looking to add to your Israel agenda, consider all of these three sites: For Israel educational material from a Reform perspective, visit Israel Central where our Movement’s shaliach posts links, interviews, and helpful programming ideas. For information on summer programs and EIE, the NFTY High School in Israel, visit the NFTY travel site. For individuals looking for a year “on” between high school and college, information about the Union endorsed Carmel program, a progressive Beit Midrash and Israel study program can be found at the website.

Also make certain to prepare your students for Jewish life on campus with the new materials from the Biennial entitled Packing for College: Where Does Judaism Fit?.

The congregational resources available to you at the Youth Division's Publications site include manuals for youth and college committees, resources on junior youth programming to ensure that we retain our young people after b’nei mitzvah, and publications such as Youth Programming in Small Congregations and the Youth Initiative Brochure.

Please also make certain to utilize your Regional Director for Youth and Informal Education and your Regional Educator to assist you or your congregational educator with these materials.

We would love to be able to share your classroom successes (credit given), questions and comments with so many other teachers across thousands of miles and in many congregations. The best way to be in touch is email: Irene Bolton, and mark the subject of you email V’shinantam. I look forward to speaking with many of you. Shalom!


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