Bima/Genesis - Bradley Solmsen, Director of High School Programs

How would you describe your general philosophy of Jewish education?

Our philosophy is about creating an educational environment where students partner with educators and are engaged in authentic learning. By that I mean the learning that takes place has a value outside of the classroom or the program. It's project-based, "real learning" that is relevant to the world and the students. We want to create an environment where students are learning from each other. That being said, it's a very diverse Jewish community. We bring kids from very different Jewish and geographic backgrounds. We want to create opportunities for people to encounter others that are different from them and learn from those encounters. We balance creating a safe space with a challenging space. We want the students to feel that they are partners in the learning process and that the learning process is active, authentic, engaging, and relevant. It's something that starts here but doesn't end here. They can take the learning experience they had here and take it back to the rest of their lives.

What do you see as the primary goals of Jewish education and how, in general terms, can we best go about trying to achieve these?

The most general goal of Jewish education is to provide people with a framework in which to lead meaningful lives. There's hundreds and thousands of way to go about executing that. Judaism is more than any one thing. It's alive. We want to encounter it in all its given facets and ways. Encountering in all things Jewish will lead us to living more meaningful lives. This could be through eating, praying, studying, time in Israel, time with the people Israel - meaning with Jewish people from all over the world - speaking Hebrew, and celebrating events in the Jewish calendar. All these things help achieve this goal.

Could you discuss the emergent and experiential nature of Genesis and BIMA? How is it implemented?

The people we hire are all experienced, talented educators. We don't have a curriculum that we hand off to the faculty and say, "do this." We co-create that curriculum each summer. That co-creation happens among the staff and then hopefully between the staff and the participants in the program. There are two levels of generation of the program. It starts with the director's vision of the program and the philosophy. However, we don't have a curriculum that is set in advance. The staff, educators and faculty create that in a given summer. There is some continuity from one summer to the next. We don't look to get it "right" and then lock it in. Emergent means we push ourselves to grow and change each summer. We want to develop a set of learning activities that has been created by the staff and faculty. We believe it's very much "trickle down." If the faculty and staff have created the curriculum themselves, they're going to feel more connected, posses ownership in it and further engagement with it. Then, if they create together with the participants associated learning opportunities, the teens themselves are going to feel more connected and engaged.

When we talk about "experiential education," we want the learning to happen through living activities and opportunities as much as possible. The life of the program is a living laboratory. Celebrating Shabbat is a celebration, but it is also a laboratory to learn what Shabbat means to you. Building this community is something that happens during the summer, but it's also a learning opportunity. It's important for us to take a step back and ask ourselves, "What does community mean to us?" "What are our roles and responsibilities to community?" "What communities are we in and why?"

Why do you think it's important to have community exploration as a part of an education program?

I think community exploration is the program, not a part of it. We are helping high school students that come to our program These are programs of life, not simply educational programs. They are opportunities to live in a very dynamic, rich, challenging, situation that isn't a simulation, exercise, or program. It's real. That's why when we plan Shabbat it's real Shabbat, not a mock Shabbat dinner. We treat BIMA students as real artists. They work with professional artists in real art spaces. They take a course with a professional in their field. It's not applied or authentic learning. There are no tests, grades, or credit. When they come here they come because they are deeply, personally interested in these topics. The things they pursue are because they are really passionate about it and this is what they want to do. I couldn't separate the relationships they have. The connections they form with each other and the learning that they do is all one unit. 

How do these programs affect the learner as a whole person?

This is an immersive program. It's residential. We only employ trained educators. Therefore, at 11 at night when there are a group of kids having a conversation that sparked some evening program or a course earlier in the day, the educators are there living with them and can capitalize on that. As part of our philosophy, we believe that learning is happening all the time. We want that to be encouraged. We want that to be something that can be built on. That's part of who we hire and how we staff the program. We want the participants to see themselves as partners in the learning process and not as empty vessels that need to be filled. That means that they feel like they can help shape the learning process and work with the educators to do that.

Our courses at Genesis are integrated between a specialty or discipline like law or world religion and Jewish studies because we believe you don't separate those two out. At BIMA we are helping young artists show how their identity as a Jewish person and their identity as an artist are connected. We believe that their identity as artists and Jews are mutually beneficial and they shouldn't be compartmentalized, where in many other places they are. For example, a person may be an artist on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons and on Shabbat he's a Jew. At BIMA we say that your Jewish self and your artistic self benefit from being connected to each other.

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