A response to Barry Chazan: the philosophy of informal Jewish education

Joseph Reimer raises some important questions about Barry Chazan’s important exploration of informal Jewish education.

contents: introduction · back to dewey: experience and education · conclusion · how to cite this article

Barry Chazan has taken the lead over the past decade in articulating a coherent definition of the domain of informal Jewish education. For this effort he is to be applauded; too few scholars have joined this effort. But we should be clear on what Chazan is and is not attempting. As the title of his work indicates, Chazan is articulating a philosophy of informal Jewish education. He is not cataloguing this field in all its diverse manifestations. Nor is he drawing boundaries between this and other educational domains. He is responding to a very important question: What should characterize those educational activities that we call informal Jewish education?

I view the proposed “defining characteristics of informal Jewish education” as standing at the heart of his argument. Chazan writes that these “constitute the defining characteristics of informal Jewish education.” I believe he is not making an empirical statement, but a normative one: this is what ought to be the case with informal Jewish education. He is actually talking about “best practice” rather than common practice. For in truth empirical research on common practice has just begun.

I was first tempted to look at all eight defining characteristics and raise questions about Chazan’s choices and formulations. I believe that analysis needs to be done. But I have chosen the narrower path of focusing on a single characteristic – “the centrality of experience” – and exploring its meaning in greater depth. I firmly agree that it belongs on this list. But I also believe its definition is far more complex than Chazan can cover in this short paper. I will dig a bit deeper into what we mean by saying that “experience” is central to the practice of informal Jewish education.

Back to Dewey: Experience and Education

As Chazan acknowledges no contemporary thinker on the role of experience in education can begin without referring to John Dewey. Dewey gave us the primary vocabulary for undertaking this inquiry. For the sake of simplicity I will not quote Dewey, but will make a series of points that derive primarily from his work. These points explore what we mean by saying that “experience” forms a basis for Jewish learning within the context of informal Jewish educational programs.

1. Not everything that happens to us is “an experience.” So much that happens to us passes by barely registering. This is as true in Jewish contexts as elsewhere. How often we virtually sleep through this prayer service or that class. There are even programs in informal education that hardly a participant can remember a week later. Simply because a program calls for its participants to walk through the woods and take in the sights does not mean that they have done so. An “experience” -in the sense in which Dewey and Chazan mean the term- is a rather special moment in which a person actively and mindfully takes in what is happening and records it in memory.

2. Experience counts for little without narration and interpretation. I can actively witness a breathtaking sunset and appreciate its striking beauty. But if I then go home, say nothing about what I saw and turn on my television, I am likely to lose access to my experience. What keeps an experience alive is our fumbling attempt to capture that experience in some narration. We turn to our partners and share what we saw. We talk about it to someone who was not there. We record it in a journal or letter. In some way what happened has to be turned into a narrative (even as told to oneself in thought) to remain with us. Otherwise that sunset will merge with many other sights and lose its distinctive place in my memory.

Every narration is also an interpretation. If I tell my friend that I just saw the most beautiful sunset, I have added the description “most beautiful” to what I saw. But that addition is part of my experience. For my experience is not what I saw, but how I interpret what I saw. If I tell my friend that I just read a most gripping novel, I hope he will ask me about the novel. If he does, I am more likely to describe my experience of reading the novel rather than a more objective review of the novel. For we love sharing our experience with all the interpretative trappings. It is the interpretations that make this event our personal experience. Without that interpretation, the experience is not quite ours.

3. Not all experiences are educative. I am an avid Celtics fan. This season when for the first time in over a decade the Celtics were winning, I found myself watching the games with great interest. I read about the games both before and after their occurrence. I talked about the games with my friends. I was elated at the Celtics’ victories and saddened by their eventual elimination. I had an active and mindful  experience as a Celtics fan; but did I learn anything from my experience? Was this involvement as a fan an educative experience?

That question can be debated, but I think we have to admit that not every engrossing experience is educative. Dewey is of the strong opinion that experiences can be miseducative. They can lead nowhere; or worse, lead in the wrong direction. Take the corporate executives who discovered that their company could overstate its earnings and get away with the lack of truth. That experience led them to repeat that pattern until the amount of misstatement grew to a billion dollars. Dewey would argue that pattern is not limited to a few executives but applies to most of us when we stray from what we know is right but experience getting away with it. We learn from these experiences, but the wrong lessons.

An experience like following the Celtics can lead nowhere and still be pleasant and relaxing. Perhaps what makes following sports relaxing is that we do not need to learn from the experience. It just is. But Dewey distinguishes relaxation from education. To be educative an experience needs to lead somewhere positive. We need to learn from it and follow it up with other experiences that will expand our horizons. If watching the Celtics leads me to be more curious about what makes for good teamwork and how the players have improved their teamwork, I may be on the road towards an educative experience.

4. Not all experiences are easy to interpret. I am walking down the street and suddenly a stranger bumps into me. Instead of apologizing, he curses at me and tells me to watch where I am going. He is a man of color. This experience stings and stays with me. What am I to make of this experience? How do I interpret what happened? What am I to learn from it?

Many experiences are emotionally evocative, but cognitively and morally confusing. The stranger’s bumping into and cursing at me is something that happened to me. But I turn it into my experience by holding onto and interpreting it. Telling my wife about it, I might say something strange and disturbing happened, and leave it at that. But I might say this man of color assaulted me. Then I would be fitting this event into a category of experiences that I collect about his group and skating on the edges of prejudice.

Parents often notice that when a young child falls there is a moment of silence before she reacts. Psychologists tell us the child may be looking around to read the cues on how to react. A worried parental look cues the child to cry. So it is with events that happen to us. We look to others to make sense of the event and help us construct its interpretation. Those others are co-creating our experience through a shared interpretive frame. The parental concern confirms for the child that falling hurts.

One way we educate is through these conversations about direct and indirect experiences. Informal educational contexts allow for – indeed often call for – such conversations. We sometimes call these opportunities “teachable moments.” If experience is not simply what happened, but what we make of what happened, then whoever helps construct the narrative interpretation is educating. This activity is not teaching or even modeling. It is the more basic educational work of helping to provide an interpretive lens through which one views the social world.

5. Educators educate through designing contexts in which participants may have certain special experiences. When I am hiking on a beautiful trail, I say two prayers of thanks. The first is to the Creator for the natural world and the second is to those anonymous informal educators who set up this trail. Indeed I know no text for the second prayer. Yet it seems clear that had those trail setters not done their excellent work, I could not be having this quality experience.

I view much of the work of informal education as being like setting up the trails for hiking. If the trail is properly set up, hikers will safely reach destinations and see sights they would never arrive at on their own. They will do so in a reasonable period of time and without exhausting or endangering themselves. They will record the sights with their cameras and share stories of the hikes with their peers. They may even experience a new closeness to the Creator. At the hike’s end they will congratulate themselves for their efforts and are unlikely to appreciate all the educational work that went into setting up the context for their having these experiences. But much good educational work is invisible.

I focus on the trail setters to emphasize that educators do not provide people with experiences; they provide contexts in which participants may have certain experiences. If we recall that from Dewey’s perspective an experience is that which an individual, in a social context, constructs for him or herself, then experiences cannot be transmitted directly from educator to participant. However gifted an educator may be and however wonderful the programs presented, individual participants will construct a multiple of experiences from any one educational event. There is no direct translation of educational effort into individual experience. There are many experiences of a single hike.

But by focusing on the role of the trail setter, I do not wish to neglect the role of the nature counselor who accompanies the group on their hike. This informal educator does not simply plan the hike, but also interacts with group and helps interpret what they experience along the way. He may have a more direct influence than the trail setter. Certainly all that we said about interpreting events supports that possibility. Good informal education involves carefully setting up the context and being present to interact with participants before, during and after the educational event.

Yet, I wish to emphasize that the educator does not usually provide the interpretation of these experiences. The educator usually provides an interpretation, a strand or two of commentary from which the narratives of these experiences will be constructed. Interpreting experiences is often a dynamic process that collects many perspectives and weaves from these a narrative that may be revised many times after the events have transpired.

6. The experience does not necessarily end when the event or program is over. In assessing whether an experience is educative Dewey asks the following question: Does this particular experience lead the learner to other experiences that will expand her knowledge and understanding of this domain? If I had a wonderful hike, will that experience lead me to further explorations of nature, greater understanding of the natural world, deeper appreciation of the beauty of the cosmos, and/or additional activities with these kinds of educational programs? In a Jewish context, will a wonderful hike deepen my relationship with the Creator and whet my appetite to seek other deep connections between my Jewish roots and my personal experience?

In asking this question Dewey does not view human experiences as isolated events, but as forming a potentially connected network of learning opportunities. In his not identifying the individual’s experience with the educators’ program, Dewey reminds us that the experience need not and should not end with the original event. Ideally what I experience on this hike will spur me to keep this experience alive in my mind and heart and seek other experiences that link to this one.

Informal Jewish educators can become too focused on the single program they are planning. No matter how rich the program may be and how many wonderful experiences the participants may have in that context, the most significant educational question is about follow-up. What comes next? How do these experiences build towards the next set of Jewish experiences? What tools are provided for the participants to keep their learning alive?


All these points can be summarized in these simple statements for informal Jewish educators.

1. Do not confuse the program with the experiences.

2. Your primary task is to set a challenging, but safe trail.

3. But stick around for the meaningful conversations.

4. And for learning’s sake, don’t forget the follow-up.

How to cite this article: Reimer, J. (2003) ‘A response to Barry Chazan: The philosophy of informal jewish education’, The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education, www.infed.org/informaleducation/informal_jewish_education_reply.htm.

Reproduced with the kind permission of The Research & Development Unit, The Department of Jewish Zionist Education, The Jewish Agency. [Unit Website –  http://www.jajz-ed.org.il/moriya/].

© Joseph Reimer 2003

See: Chazan, B. (2003), ‘The philosophy of informal Jewish education‘  The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education. This paper was originally given at seminar on December 29, 2002. Reproduced with the kind permission of The Research & Development Unit, The Department of Jewish Zionist Education, The Jewish Agency. [Unit Website –  http://www.jajz-ed.org.il/moriya/].