Dr. Jeffrey Kress is associate professor and chair of the Department of Jewish Education of The Jewish Theological Seminary. He is also academic director of the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education's Experiential Learning Initiative (funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation). In recent years, his major research projects have included Bridging Formal and Informal Education in Jewish Day High Schools (funded by the AVI CHAI Foundation); Educators in Jewish Schools Study (JESNA); and the Quality of Life/Happiness Project (Steinhardt Foundation). He currently serves as chair of the Network for Research in Jewish Education.
Dr. Kress received his master's degree and doctorate in Clinical Psychology from Rutgers University, and completed an internship in Clinical/Community Psychology at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey's Community Mental Health Center, where he later worked as a program-development specialist and school-based trainer for the Social Decision Making / Social Problem Solving program. Dr. Kress is certified by the Center for Creative Leadership as a facilitator of the Benchmarks 360o Assessment, and has conducted these evaluations in a variety of Jewish educational and communal organizations.
In academic year 2009–2010, JTS received a grant of $15 million from the Jim Joseph Foundation for the purpose of significantly increasing the number and quality of trained and credentialed Jewish educators. How has that grant affected programming at The Davidson School, Dr. Kress?
The Jim Joseph grant has allowed us to revisit our dream and wish list for experiential education in The Davidson School. We have always believed that experiential education is a key element in what helps Jews come to love and be engaged with their Jewish identities, and we have had, over the past number of years, a master's degree program focusing on this area. With the additional funding, we've been able to seriously enhance all of our programs around experiential education, as well as strengthen our master's track, or concentration, in Experiential Education.
And by that you mean camping and all of the less formal education environments?
Well, the term is used in two ways: one is to describe settings such as camping and youth groups and less formal environments, and the other is to describe methods that are more interactive and that address issues and meaning. And people do that in schools and in synagogues, so it's both of these things. The students who are concentrating in Experiential Education are interested in going into educational leadership positions in camps and youth groups and Israel trips and those kinds of projects.
One of the things the grant allows us to do is to seriously beef up student field experiences by letting students spend more hours getting their hands dirty, as it were, under the supervision of professionals out in the field, and coming into contact with a wide variety of community innovators in order to learn from them. But it's good that you asked about the definition of experiential education, because it's part of the innovation here. The grant also enables us, as a faculty, to think through not just what we're offering for the students in that track, but also how experiential education should and will infuse all of our offerings so that we're able to more strongly integrate it into curricula for all of our students.
So the grant is focused specifically on the master's programs?
Actually, there's another component that's very new for us at The Davidson School—a certificate program in Experiential Education. We're in discussion with potential partners—experiential educational organizations—to get a sense of their staffs' professional development needs. We want to learn how we can best help them achieve their goals. Our certificate is being developed in conjunction with organizations like this so that their people will be able to use their new knowledge immediately, on the ground, in their organizations. One of the exciting things that we've done so far is piloted some webinar modules with the new Ramah initiative called the Ramah Service Corps. We'll eventually weave modules such as this into our certificate program; we've done one so far.
Dr. Kress, why has experiential education become so important in recent years?
Experiential education has always been important. Just look at the work of John Dewey, for example, or at the Passover seder. Recently, though, research has demonstrated the efficacy of the approach, and the Jewish community and major funders have embraced it. There has also been an increased realization that those doing experiential education benefit greatly from ongoing training and support for their work; it is more than just standing on a table and singing songs. And, there has been increasing synergy and coordination among those doing this work, such as the joint endeavors of The Davidson School and Camp Ramah.
What about experiential education for adults? What does that look like now?
There has been a growing appreciation that what we refer to as adult education also needs to incorporate opportunities for meaning-making and diverse, yet authentic, opportunities for Jewish engagement. The chancellor's Mitzvah Initiative and Context program and Limmud are only some examples of new types of adult learning opportunities.
Dr. Kress, are you working on any personal projects at the moment?
I have two books in varying stages of development. One will hopefully come out in the next academic year; it's about models of experiential education in day schools. I'm also editing a book on spirituality: spiritual, social, and emotional issues in Jewish education. That should be out in 2012.
Where does spirituality fit into the big picture of children, teens, and experiential education?
If we look at all of the various dimensions of what could be meant by the term spirituality—a search for meaning and purpose in life, feeling of connection to a community, transcendence or feeling connected to something larger than or beyond one's self, the desire to make the world a better place, self-awareness and positive motivation for self-growth, appreciation of moments of awe and wonder, etc.—then spirituality is the big picture.