Social action and civic engagement are central to the formal and informal education experience at Beth Emet The Free Synagogue in Evanston, Illinois. From elementary through high school, students are immersed in the exploration of systemic inequality and Jewish social responsibility. As such, the question for high school students in the Beth Emet youth group (BESSY) is not, “Should we engage in social action?” but rather, “How best can we pursue social action in a way that is both meaningful for us and impactful for our community?” Recently, BESSY designed and led a workshop for the local Evanston teen community focused on gender and sexuality. More than 40 teens attended, and in the weeks since, teens have been asking for more of this kind of opportunity. Here’s a look into our recipe for success, and the key questions we are asking moving forward.
Many of the teens I work with are deeply passionate about the topics of gender and sexuality. The seventh grade curriculum at Beth Emet focuses partly on the themes of peoplehood, identity, sexuality and relationships through a Jewish lens. It is no coincidence, then, that so many of the teens seek to continue expanding these conversations in a Jewish context when they get to high school, given that for many of them Judaism has been the foundation for this exploration.
When working with the BESSY teens to create a meaningful social action opportunity, my colleague, BESSY advisor Libby Fisher, and I started by brainstorming different topics, inviting each student to put post-it notes on a white board with different issues they felt BESSY could realistically address. Using the post-its as a guide, we reflected on the most prevalent topics listed on the board, and guided the conversation in that direction. One teen mentioned the idea of a workshop, so we began to focus in on the format of the event. Students worked to plan four stations that addressed the topics of gender and sexual identity in different ways – one station dealt with terminology, the language that we use to discuss gender and sexuality; one focused on gender and music, another on gender and art and the different ways that we perceive identity through imagery; and finally, one station was devoted completely to anonymous question asking, which we called “Fishbowl.”
One question continually arose throughout the planning process: who is our intended audience for this event? Traditionally, BESSY events are open to Beth Emet teens. Our teens articulated, though, that there was interest for this workshop beyond the synagogue. With little hesitation, the teens decided to open up the workshop to the larger Evanston community. The students recognized that there was a greater impact to be had with their peers by broadening these conversations to include more people in their daily lives. We were open to pushing for this because we thought it accomplish our mutual goals the staff-driven goal of bringing more people to the table and the teen’s desire to expand the conversation.
After agreeing on a format and structure for the event, the teen leadership felt that in order to have a successful event, the board needed to invest time educating itself about the topics of gender and sexuality. How, they argued, can we teach others about these topics if we do not first commit to teaching ourselves? At their behest, half of the teen board meeting preceding the workshop was dedicated to internal education. They engaged in conversations about perceptions of gender and sexuality they had experienced in their schools and plotted out identity spectrums that explore the intersections, or lack thereof, between biological sex, gender, and sexual orientation. By participating in these types of activities, they acquired language and tools to go forward and lead the workshop for their peers.
And so they did. More than 40 teens attended, and the excitement was palpable in the room. It was important to them that Jewish values framed the event. One way they achieved this was through the use of a B’rit Kehilah to establish a safe space and create ground rules for the program. Our teens educated their non-Jewish peers about the concept, and they created one together. At the conclusion of the program, I heard participants refer to the event as “revolutionary” and “the most meaningful event I have ever participated in.” When asked what we could have done differently, the majority of teen responded that they would have liked more time at the workshop, which already was a 2.5 hour event. Following the buzz generated by the event, one of our co-presidents was asked to present with the GSA (Gay Straight Alliance) to her school’s physical education staff about how the department could be more inclusive of varying identities. This was an indicator to me that we had created something of enormous value for our teens and their communities beyond the synagogue.
This was our recipe: teen-driven topic selection and program development; a commitment to educating ourselves in order to teach; broadening the conversation to reach the influencers in our teens’ lives.
Where will we go from here? In part, that will be determined by next year’s board. But conversations imagining the possibilities have already begun. Some of the questions that we are asking ourselves include:
- Will we run the workshop again in collaboration with other youth organizations?
- How might the teens host the workshop at Beth Emet for the adults in our community?
- What are the ways that feel right to move from education into action?
Only time will tell. But one thing is certain: the BESSY teens created a safe space for a wide variety of individuals and engaged them in conversations about what matters most to them. That is what teens are asking for – and BESSY delivered.
Abigail (Abby) Backer joined Beth Emet full time in July of 2014 as Director of Youth Programs, overseeing both formal and informal educational experiences for the Beth Emet Youth. Abby brings experience in faith-based community organizing, social justice work, activism, and formal synagogue education. She graduated from Barnard College of Colombia University in New York where she majored in Spanish and Latin American Studies. There she was also involved with student organizations for justice and peace, including Rabbis for Human Rights and JStreetU. After graduating from Barnard, Abby worked as a community organizer in Wisconsin with WISDOM and the Racine Interfaith Coalition, focusing her efforts on the nationwide push for Comprehensive Immigration Reform. Abby was raised in Kenosha, Wisconsin where she attended Beth Hillel Temple and taught Hebrew and Religious School for many years. She was also a leader in her Temple Youth Group and on the Northern Regional Board of NFTY (North American Federation for Temple Youth).