May 09 2016

Assessing Transformative Jewish Learning in Adulthood

This post, by Diane Tickton Schuster, is based on her talk at the Mandel Center’s Conference on Transformative Jewish Education. She is a visiting senior research fellow at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles.


The Conference on Transformative Jewish Education gave me a special opportunity to revisit conversations about this topic that several colleagues and I began in the early 2000s.  It also provided me with a glimpse into the kinds of innovative educational programs that have recently emerged—exciting and creative programs that have the potential to build on the insights gleaned from research.

A Journey of Heart and Mind

In 1999, Lisa Grant, Meredith Woocher, Steven M. Cohen and I were invited to study the impact of what was then called the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School (now the Florence Melton School of Adult Jewish Learning). The Mini-Schools were founded in 1980 and offered a curriculum for a structured two-year adult Jewish learning experience using Jewish sources.  Between 1980 and 1999 the Mini-Schools expanded from classes at three sites to programs in 17 cities across the US, reaching about 3,000 students a year. Since then the program has become worldwide and now serves more than 5,000 students a year.

Our research explored how the learners viewed their Mini-School experience; we contextualized our findings in scholarship about adult learners, contemporary Jewish sociology, and best practices in Jewish education. In addition to collecting survey data about the background, motivations, and interests of the Class of 2001, we conducted interviews with learners, teachers, and site directors in three communities. In addition, a team member completed a yearlong ethnographic study of a Mini-School classroom that provided a close-in and dynamic account of an extended Jewish adult education process.

Our findings were described in a book published by JTS Press[1] and also in a summary disseminated widely by the United Jewish Communities.[2]  In these accounts we noted that most of the Melton learners were female (80%), married (75%), not working full-time, and highly affiliated with synagogues and other Jewish organizations; the median age of the respondents was 53.  In that sense, the profile of these learners is quite different from the participants in the programs described at the recent conference. And, for the most part, the two-year, text-based curriculum does not correspond directly to the kinds of study that many current programs offer.

Nonetheless, the categories of impact that emerged from our interview data point to salient dynamics in transformative learning that can occur in a Jewish context. These categories provide a useful and highly relevant starting point for looking at the experiences of current program participants and suggest a basis for assessing transformative Jewish educational outcomes more generally. The categories include:

  • Making new meaning of pre-existing Jewish activity
  • Expanding involvement and interest in Jewish learning
  • Connecting ethics and everyday life
  • Encountering God and spirituality
  • Transmitting meaning to others
  • Building belonging through Jewish networks and community involvement
  • Developing appreciation for “traditional” Judaism.

A consistent dynamic that threads throughout these categories is that of new meaning making: how the interviews revealed shifts in the learners’ belief system, activities, or Jewish identity as a result of their learning experiences. Whether or not such shifts are long lasting or measurable over time could only be determined through longer-term follow-up. However, in the short run, it appeared that the Mini-School’s systematic structure for helping learners to encounter and reflect on Jewish ideas and values had a significant impact on these adults’ sense of themselves Jewishly.  To that extent, from the learners’ vantage point, the learning was transformational.

Resources for Transformative Jewish Educators

Our research about the Mini-Schools was grounded in a thorough examination of scholarship about adult development, adult learning, transformative learning, the changing Jewish community, and best practices in Jewish education.  Even a dozen years later, our “lit review” provides a substantive introduction to issues in transformative Jewish education. Our book, as well as my 2003 volume, Jewish Lives Jewish Learning[3], describe the relevant theoretical frameworks of Jack Mezirow, Patricia Cranton, Stephen Brookfield, Parker Palmer, and John Dirkx—all leading thinkers in the secular adult education community. A recent retrospective by Cranton[4] articulates three broad concepts in transformative education theory that can helpfully inform the design of new initiatives in transformative Jewish education and the assessment of impact:

  • perspective transformation through consciousness-raising/discourse/critical reflection/critical self-reflection
  • “beyond rational” learning that may occur in relationships, in the arts, via emotions or the imagination (what Dirkx calls “soul work”)
  • learning for and through social action and social change experiences

As a topic, transformative Jewish education is not new, but the news that opportunities exist for new and creative programs (that can be assessed with measurable outcomes!) is a welcome indicator of growth in our field.

[1] Grant, L., Schuster, D. T., Woocher, M., and Cohen, S. M. (2004). A Journey of Heart and Mind: Transformative Jewish Learning in Adulthood. New York: JTS Press.

[2] Grant, L., and Schuster, D. T. (2003).  The Impact of Adult Jewish Learning in Today’s Jewish Community: A Report to the UJC Renaissance and Renewal Pillar.

[3] Schuster, D. T. (2003). Jewish Lives, Jewish Learning: Adult Jewish Learning in Theory and Practice. New York: URJ Press.

[4] Cranton, P. (2013) Transformative Learning. In P. Mayo (Ed.), Learning with Adults: A Reader, 267–274.  Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.


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Apr 05 2016

How to Think About Transformative Jewish Education

Boy emerging from cave

This post is based on Mandel Center Director Jon A. Levisohn’s introduction to the recent Conference on Transformative Jewish Education, held at Brandeis in March. The conference web page has more blog posts and other resources.

When people describe Jewish educational programs as “transformative,” what do they mean?

Some argue that “transformative education” is an empty bit of hyperbole that does not mean anything in particular. There’s no reason to believe that there’s any well-reasoned conception of transformation that grounds the use of the terms. And there’s certainly no reason to believe that those who are using this language have any evidence that their programs are actually transformative for their participants.

The skeptics have a point. We often make claims about our programs that we cannot really justify. And there’s no reason to think that, each time someone uses the term “transformative” to describe a program, those usages can all be subsumed under one coherent conception.

Nevertheless, when we talk about “transformation” in Jewish education or use the adjective “transformative” to describe a program, there’s something else going on. The term, I believe, points to a desired outcome: an aspiration for the program to have a certain kind of impact on the participants. Continue Reading »

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Mar 04 2016

Hebrew Infusion at American Jewish Summer Camps

Published by under Research

Praise for the kitchen staff/Tzevet Mitbach at Camp Galil (Habonim Dror Camp in Pennsylvania)

By Sarah Bunin Benor

Editor’s Note: Over the last three years, Sarah Bunin Benor, Jonathan Krasner, and Sharon Avni have visited and surveyed Jewish summer camps across North America to learn how Hebrew is incorporated at camp. This research is a project of the Mandel Center, with funding from the Consortium for Applied Studies in Jewish Education (CASJE). Next week at Foundation for Jewish Camp’s Leaders Assembly, the researchers will share some of their findings and offer an interactive space for camps to share experiences and best practices. This spring, they will release findings from the survey portion of the study of Hebrew at camps; a book about the project will be published next year.  

Achshav kulam na lavo la’aruchat erev” (Now, everyone, please come to dinner), said one young man to the other madrichim (counselors) and chanichim (campers) at Habonim Dror Camp Galil, a small progressive Zionist summer camp in Pennsylvania. From the kikar (square), not far from the gan (garden), they entered the chadar ochel (dining hall). Several Hebrew words were featured on plaques above the mitbach (kitchen). Soon after dinner, they sang and danced to Hebrew songs like Lo Yisa Goy and recited the blessings for Havdalah in Hebrew.

With all this Hebrew, it may seem that Camp Galil is geared toward Israelis and other Hebrew speakers. However, this is not the case.

Continue Reading »

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Feb 04 2016

Israel Education Needs Coaches, not Cheerleaders

By Sivan Zakai and Hannah Tobin Cohen

Imagine you’re playing in the Super Bowl. Would you rather have the encouragement of an enthusiastic cheerleader or the guidance of a skilled coach?

The field of Israel education is crowded with cheerleaders. Believing that it is their responsibility to champion Israel, teachers and parents aim to instill in young children positive feelings toward the Jewish state, in the hope that they will be protected from bad press and negative feelings about Israel as they grow older. The only problem: It’s not a winning strategy. Continue Reading »

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Oct 26 2015

How to Talk to Your Kids About the Violence in Israel

By Sivan Zakai, director, Children’s Learning About Israel project. This article originally appeared at, Oct 19, 2015. Reproduced from here by permission of the Forward.

These are dark days for the Jewish people. In Israel, Jewish children head off to school not knowing when or where the next attack will occur. But Jewish children in the United States are geographically removed from the fray, and their bodies are not on the front lines in this new frightening chapter in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. So what do American Jewish children know and feel about the conflict? And how should we — their parents, grandparents and teachers — talk to them about it? Continue Reading »

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