Project-Based Learning: “Judaism is a Practice”



I recently returned from the National Association of Temple Educators (NATE) conference. The theme of the conference was Project-Based Learning, a methodology in which participants go through a process of inquiry in response to a complex real-world question, problem, or challenge.

Ron Berger, an expert on Project-Based Learning and keynote speaker, shared an example from his practice. His community discovered that some of their well water was contaminated. Instead of bringing in an outside testing service, Berger trained elementary students to do the testing themselves.

Many issues emerged at the conference that have implications for the work of engaging youth, children, adult learners, lay leaders, and professionals. Berger suggests that we “vastly underestimate what our students can do” – and I agree.

In Project-Based Learning, we address real-world issues (contaminated well water, creating a new prayer book, or campaigning to address gun violence) and share our real-world responses publicly. Taking Berger’s assertion several steps further, we regularly underestimate not only our students, but ourselves as educators. We need to practice addressing challenges that feel insurmountable: for example, positioning bar and bat mitzvah as a point of entry into Jewish living and learning rather than a point of departure. When we practice responding to these challenges, we grow, learn, and connect with one another with greater intensity.

I use the word “practice” intentionally. If we think of our work as practice and our role as coaches, then we are coaching a team of sacred practitioners. When we commit to a practice, we do it regularly. When we practice, we get better incrementally; we make mistakes, then we get closer to an answer. It’s all part of the process.

Project-Based Learning fits in a Jewish context because, simply, Judaism is a practice.

Learning is important, but only in connection to practice. Learning without practice is less meaningful – like learning to read and understand the Amidah prayer but not practicing praying it.

Project-Based Learning provides a framework that demands integration of practice and day-to-day life, Judaism – at its essence.

badge-leadershipI am grateful for the chance to learn, build relationships, and pray with NATE colleagues. I look forward to continuing the conversations and incorporating this new practice into the Campaign for Youth Engagement.

Questions to consider:

  • What do you want / need to practice more in your life?
  • Have you been part of a group practicing together?
  • Where are the places in our daily lives we can connect to Jewish practice?
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Rabbi Bradley Solmsen

About Rabbi Bradley Solmsen

Bradley Solmsen serves as the North American Director of Youth Engagement for the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ). For eleven years Bradley served as Director of Brandeis University’s Office of High School Programs which includes BIMA, Genesis, and Impact: Boston. Rabbi Solmsen was ordained at The Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in New York and received a masters degree in Jewish education from the Jewish Theological Seminary. Bradley is currently pursuing a doctorate in Jewish education at the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Davidson School. He has extensive experience as a Jewish educator in Israel and North America working with teenagers and college students and training Jewish educators. Bradley is married to Aliza Kline and is the proud abba of Ela, Gila and Nomi.

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