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.