by Michelle Shapiro Abraham
Director of program development for the URJ’s Campaign for Youth Engagement, Michelle Shapiro Abraham, is a 2015 recipient of the prestigious Covenant Award for Excellence in Jewish Education. Here, she draws on her extensive experience to offer this sound advice to educators and congregational leaders.
Every day I feel honored and humbled by the blessing of my work. Creating youth engagement opportunities for the URJ takes me from synagogues, classrooms, and offices, to camps, retreats, conferences, and preschool programs. The settings are varied but the goal is the same. Our purpose as Jewish educators is to connect, empower, and partner. To do this, we need to think beyond and between the traditional boundaries of formal and informal, children and adults, school and camp, and simply look for the best ways to touch minds, souls, and hearts.
- Be intentional: When leaders at URJ Henry S. Jacobs Camp realized they weren’t reaching their Jewish education goals with a daily learning hour, they scrapped that model and started experimenting with integrating Jewish learning into other activities. Don’t let assumptions hold you back and lock you into models that don’t work. Instead, throw all the pieces back on the drawing board, figure out what you want to accomplish, and build anew.
- Integrate, combine, and blur: Educators often schedule activities into organized boxes – “This is when we do art, this is when we learn Judaism, and this is when we eat lunch.” – but specialty camps URJ 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy and URJ 6 Points Sports Academy have taught me that living communities do better when they let go of those labels. With confident and properly trained staff, the best Jewish learning can take place while campers chat in the bunk or even build a Rube Goldberg machine together. Success happens when each person knows the goals, feels confident doing her part, and then lets the entire environment teach.
- If it doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t: I had been working with a camp for three years on their approach to Jewish life when one staffer admitted to me that using “Jewish Teachable Moments” (adding Jewish text or stories into regular camp moments) felt forced and unnatural, an opinion apparently shared by most of the counselors. From this experience, I learned that if the Judaism doesn’t feel organic and natural to those doing the teaching, it won’t feel organic or natural to those doing the learning. Educational content needs to be lived, not just taught. Techniques to ensure a shared vision include involving staff in the creation process, keeping the lines of communication open during the program, and sometimes being willing to scrap the program if it isn’t working. Which brings me to the next point…
- Don’t get too attached; everything is an experiment: Every new educational initiative is an experiment. I once began a new approach to high school education wherein students picked their own classes from a list of offerings – but the teens soon complained that they never saw their friends anymore. The next year, we cut down the number of classes and added a monthly social gathering to build up the community we’d apparently broken down – but the teens said they wanted more academic classes, so we changed those monthly social gatherings to academic classes. Two years later, the teens wanted a “campier,” more social experience, so we changed the class offerings to cooking and art with Jewish framing.
Moral of the story? No program, schedule, curriculum, or course of study is so perfect that it can’t be improved upon. Add to the mix that what works for one group of kids may not work for the next, and it’s clear that flexibility is key to success.
- There’s nothing new under the sun and your idea is the best ever: I was once writing a curriculum that I eagerly shared with my father-in-law, a rabbi, who read through it and told me proudly that he ran programs just like mine in the 1970s. As he described those programs, I had to admit: They sounded pretty good! He taught me that no matter how amazing a new idea may seem, someone has likely already tinkered with a similar idea. That’s not to say that seemingly new ideas are any less amazing, but rather that we’re not alone on our journey as educators. Each of us stands on the shoulders and in the company of other amazing educators who have plenty to teach us.
- Don’t shy away from ideas that sounds impossible: Sometimes, the craziest, out-of-the-box, insane idea is just what’s needed. Case in point: When Temple Sholom in Scotch Plains, N.J., sought to improve its once-a-year, grade-based family education program, the rabbi suggested the congregation drop its entire religious school curriculum for a wholly new trimester-based model in which all of the kids and adults in the community would study the same topic at the same time. Even I stared at the rabbi – my husband! – in disbelief, but after a few months of meetings, think tanks, and focus groups, the congregation followed his lead… and the new model transformed our community and its approach to Jewish learning for the better. Indeed, sometimes the impossible turns out to be the truly amazing!
- Different people need different things: Sometimes a child needs a sports camp to connect to Judaism. Another student may need Hebrew letters traced on sandpaper in order to learn to write them. Attending religious school on Sunday mornings may truly present a hardship for kids in another family. What works best for one child won’t necessarily work for every child, and what works for one family won’t always work for another. It is an educator’s job is to listen and to create opportunities and access points that our students and families need – not just those we think they need.
- Our toolboxes are bigger than we think: I bring my experience as an artist, teacher, camp counselor, mother, wife, and program designer to the work I do in Jewish education. Indeed, every educator brings his or her own experiences from a variety of settings to the work they do, and it helps to mix them up: What curriculum design approaches from the broader education world might apply at camp? How can the rituals from camp help us in Hebrew School? How can we apply the youth group’s leadership structure to create a new congregational dues structure? Our toolboxes are full of great strategies and approaches from all facets of our lives, and we are better educators if we put all the tools on the table while we work.
- Reflect, reflect, reflect: In my graduate program at Hebrew Union College, we joked that we couldn’t do anything without first reflecting on what we were thinking about doing, reflecting while we did it, and reflecting afterward about what we’d done. But it’s so important to be intentional about our work as Jewish educators – and reflection is an important part of the process. Before we start, we need to define where we want to go, be willing to change course when necessary to realign our actions with the goal, and, when we’re finished, to look back and recognize what we learned along the way. It is this process of reflecting that enables us to do truly great things.
Michelle Shapiro Abraham, director of program development for the URJ’s Campaign for Youth Engagement, is a recipient of a 2015 Covenant Award for Excellence in Jewish Education.
A law that provides the poor with free access to contraceptives in the Philippines is at the center of a national debate about Catholic Church teaching, sexuality, and poverty; a community of Benedictine nuns in Colorado live a life of prayer and work on a 300-acre cattle ranch; and Muslim hip-hop group Native Deen describes what it’s like to observe Ramadan when they’re far away from home.
The post Birth Control in the Philippines; Rancher Nuns; Ramadan on the Road appeared first on Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly.
A law enacted last year in the predominantly Catholic Philippines requires public health facilities to offer free contraception to the poor. The Catholic Church strongly opposed the law. But supporters say the law is necessary to curb the country’s soaring population growth—the principal cause, many believe, of its high poverty rate.
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).