Formal Learning at Informal Limmud

This blog was originally posted on the BJELA website.

Anything that happens at camp is informal education, right?  And everything that happens in a classroom is formal education?  Seems easy, but not so quick.  Over the past few years, this buzzword of informal education keeps popping up, but unfortunately is often misused (as is experiential education, but that’s a different conversation).

Buzzwords can be a trap. We get ensnared in the connotation we think they express; putting forth the false front that our product is better because it’s labeled with a buzzword.  They make leaders appear to be knowledgeable in what consumers want and what the latest trends are.  As educators, we need to be honest brokers of our educational goals and of our educational products.  Throwing the word “informal” at a learning experience does not make it better or trendy – and we better be sure we are tossing the right word at the target.

The confusion first sets in when we mistakenly interchange education settings for education methods.  There are commonly accepted formal settings (classrooms, lecture halls, meeting rooms) and informal settings (camps, youth lounges, coffee shops) but there are also formal methods (lectures, structured research and tests) and informal methods (games, project-based learning, collaborative exploration).

In an upcoming book about experiential Jewish education (Torah Aura Productions; Dr. David Bryfman, editor) I authored a chapter called  “Get Glue”: How Good Jewish Educators Use Curriculum and Pedagogy to Hold it all Together.  There are several places in the book where the different terminologies are explored in depth, and in my particular chapter, I introduce a few differing opinions about what informal education is. According to educators and authors Tony Jeffs and Mark K. Smith, “…informal education is the lifelong process in which people learn from everyday experience … and non-formal education is organized education activity outside of formal systems (Jeffs & Smith, 2010, p. xiii). In looking to also inform our definition of informal settings, I look towards the on-line resource infed: the Encyclopedia of Informal Education.  Since infed contends that informal education is “the education of daily living,” one can conclude that informal settings are all the places you live your daily life:  home, community, grocery store, library, shopping mall, restaurant, etc. (n.d., sec. 2, para 5).

Confused yet?  You aren’t the only one.

Back in December 2011, an article appeared in eJewishPhilanthropy entitled The Limmud Phenomenon Rekindles the Global Jewish Flame. The article highlights that Limmud programs throughout the world have reached over 30,000 Jews engaged in learning.  Phenomenal.  But what gave me great pause was this sentence: “‘The Limmud International Study: Jewish Learning Communities on a Global Scale,’ released today, demonstrates the value of self-motivated, informal and intensive Jewish learning,” (n.p., para 2).   In another article published in March 2010 in eJewishPhilanthropy entitled Limmud in the Context of Informal Jewish Education, the author, Dr. Dmitry Maryasis, writes, “The very structure of the conference is built on the basis of informal approach to formal issues. … the goal of a lot of lectures is to impart knowledge… the knowledge he [the participant] gets at the lecture will contribute to his internal growth and personal enhancement, which is… the very goal of informal education,”   (n.p., sec 4, para 1).

Hold on a minute, Lecture=Informal? Limmud=Informal? Again, not so quick.  This is a clear example of confusing settings and methods.  As an active volunteer and a consultant to Limmud ATL+SE and LimmudNY, I can wholeheartedly say that I believe Limmud to be an amazing vehicle for Jewish education – and perhaps one of the most robust.  However, to label it as wholly “informal” is just not accurate.

While every Limmud around the world is different (some are one-day, some are multi-day, some are held on college campuses, some in hotels and some at retreat centers/camp sites), they are very similar in the culture and kinds of experiences Jews encounter.  Examining the different types of education and settings that one can be a part of at a Limmud is a terrific exercise in understanding the differences between settings and methods – informal, formal and non-formal.

Right off the bat, we exposed that the settings in which Limmudim take place are vast – some are formal (college campus classrooms) and some are informal (campsites).   Limmud ATL+SE holds its yearly LimmudFest at Camp Ramah Darom in the gorgeous North Georgia Mountains.  A few weeks ago (Labor Day Weekend) over 200 Jews – mostly from around the Southeast – converged for 3.5 days of living and learning.   But that learning was far from purely informal.  Let’s take a look at a few components (not even close to all) of LimmudFest to see how you might assign them into this rubric:

  • T’filah:  Worship experiences at LimmudFest are so diverse and range from traditional, frontal-led, siddur-driven davening in a “sanctuary” to yoga in an open-air pavilion by the lake.  Prayer options included hiking, social action, and music.
  • Learning Sessions:  Limmuniks were treated to Torah learning via improv comedy and rapping; engaged in social action projects and art projects; participated in hands-on eco-education; banged on drums to explore spirituality and ritual; and also sat through 75-minute lectures and PowerPoint presentations (with Q&A, of course).
  • Mealtimes:  Meals are a special time at LimmudFest when the entire community stops to come together for nourishment – physical and social.  Over Shabbat meals, each table is encouraged to lead its own rituals (all optional) of singing, handwashing, blessing children and spouses, Kiddush, haMotzi, and Birkat haMazon. The diversity of experience is as rich as the diversity of the Jews in the room – representing the spectrum of “Just Jewish” to Orthodox.  While some people participate directly in the rituals, others watch and experience something for the first time.   Some bring siddurim or benschers in to guide their rituals and others create their own.
  • The Porch: At LimmudFest, The Porch has become the central gathering space.  (It’s literally a long porch outside the dining hall lined with rocking chairs and a few tables).  At any given moment on The Porch, you will witness people quietly reading and rocking, others participating in a pick-up game of dominoes, while some people are strumming instruments for impromptu sing-a-longs.  At night, adult beverages emerge and The Porch doubles as The Bar.  But at all times, no matter day or night, no matter the activity, you will overhear many conversations of people processing the sessions they attended, sharing their personal Jewish stories, and building Jewish community.

So what is it? If we reflect back on Jeffs, Smith and the infed definitions, we can clearly see that LimmudFest offers informal and non-formal learning encounters. It’s held at a camp but frontal/formal lectures and rituals take place as part of the experience.   (Without a doubt, I could do this same exercise with any Limmud program and expose informal learning methods taking place in a college classroom setting as well.) Limmud becomes to us a fantastic illustration of how we need to be careful to differentiate when using these terms and not be so quick to label a learning experience exclusively one way or another  (or simply with a buzzword to garner attention) – that each component of what we offer should be examined for both the setting and the method – and with intention.  It would seem Limmud best-labeled as a non-formal education system, held in both formal and informal settings, in which both formal and informal methods are utilized.


Jeffs, T., & Smith, M. K. (Eds.). (2010). BASW Practical Social Work: Youth work practice. United Kingdom: Palgrave Macmillan.

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