Amplitude, Frequency, and Education

I’ve been questing around for how to characterize Jewish educational experiences, and I think I’ve stumbled on what might be a useful metaphor. It seems that in the minds of those who study Jewish education, there are two modes of Jewish engagement, which is a pattern matched by types of Jewish educational intervention. AM and FM.


I’m borrowing these from the old fashioned world of analog radio, where the difference between amplitude (the “A” in AM) and frequency (the “F” in FM) of sound waves meant not only that you needed two different ways to dial in those waves on your radio, but that they actually represented different kinds of sound.

Bascally, AM radio had greater range, but what you gained in range, you lost in fidelity; hence the “tinny” sound of much of AM radio. FM, on the other hand, had more limited range, but greater sonic fidelity, which is why FM became the mode of choice for music broadcasters and listeners.

The world of Jewish education follows a similar pattern of distinction

AM programs are those that offer big impact over a short period of time: birthright israel is the best institutional example of this, but there are others – life cyle events, the death or birth of a close friend or relative — in which the event itself is brief but the impact is great. If you were mapping it as a wave, it would look like a jolt, or a sharp divergent line moving away from the central axis.

FM educational programs offer lots of little touches over a longer period of time. Think about dayschool or family holidays or shabbat dinners. It is more difficult to recall specific memories, experiences or takeways, but the accumulation of “low amplitude” and freqent engagements have an aggregate or cumulative effect.

For traditionalists, FM educational experiences might also offer greater “fidelity” to what might be understood as a core set of ritual practices or texts, while AM experiences often demonstrate greater impact (and typically, better stories) but less “fidelity” to the thing being transmitted.

Camp might be an AM that turns into an FM, but I’m not sure. And don’t ask me about satellite radio, either. I’m still working that one out.

The issue here is not whether or not one is better than the other (hopefully, if one develops something like a “well rounded” sense of one’s Jewish self that one draws on from both AM and FM experiences) Instead, I want to think of them as different things, requiring different measures and different rubrics of assessment. AM and FM are both radio, but they engage with the physical properties of sound differently and, as a consequence, produce different sound effects.

Therefore it makes only limited sense to measure one against the other. Sure, both AM and FM are modes of radio, and they can be compared in some limited ways, but beyond that, you’re flattening otherwise important differences between the two modes. Comparing AM and FM educational experiences is useful, but only in a limited way. Perhaps we would do better to compare AM experiences against AM experiences, allowing the kind of educational experience to dictate the comparison, not the intended effect.

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