Robert Lichtman, Chief Jewish Learning Officer
Can we demonstrate that Jewish wisdom touches upon the things teens care about? For a $250 prize, we encouraged 50 teens to work with educators to explore connections between ancient and contemporary Jewish texts and their activities, hobbies, and interests. We encouraged institutions to nominate participants, specifically those who might feel that they could not do this well, with $250 if their nominees won. Our goal: To inspire teens to return to Jewish sources for insights on other aspects of their lives. As they learned from this experience - Jewish wisdom has something to say about … everything.
Ben Bag-Bag would say, “Turn and turn its pages; everything you’re looking for is in it.” (Pirkei Avot, 5:26, translation by Elie Wiesel.)
Our goal was to introduce teens to the magnificent, bottomless treasure chest of Jewish wisdom. So we started where they are: we asked them to think about their hobbies, interests, and passions. Then we challenged to them to find relevant ancient and contemporary Jewish texts, and to make organic connections between these texts and their interests in an essay.
One teen volunteers to combat human trafficking because Devarim 24:17-18 says that we must treat a stranger justly for “you were a slave in Egypt and God redeemed you from there.” And because we learn about Pidyon Sh’vuyim that “every moment of delay in redeeming prisoners is like spilling blood (Yoreh De’ah 252:3). Invoking the symbolism of salt water at the seder, she says, “victims of sex trafficking are drowning in the tears of oppression.”
We learned about teamwork from a young woman who plays on her school hockey team, citing the help provided by King Chiram to King Solomon as he built the Beit HaMikdash (Melachim 5: 15-25). Similarly God saw that it was not good for Man to be alone, so he created Chava as his help-mate (Genesis 2:1). “This is another example of teamwork. They needed each other to succeed in what they were doing in their daily lives.”
Another teen who organized a sign language club in her high school tried to reconcile what the obligation of Sh’ma Yisrael might mean to someone who is deaf. She observed that 90% of communication is non-verbal, such as when God “set my bow in the cloud as a sign of the covenant between me and the earth,” (Genesis 9:13). And the ancient synagogue in Alexandria, “where flags were used to communicate with the people in the back of the temple who may not have been deaf, but they could not hear. An alternative form of communication was created to include all in its message.”
These are the topics of 3 of the 18 winning essays among the 50 submitted and reviewed by 3 Judges. Other topics that brought Jewish learning to life were: painting, debate team, gardening, tutoring, providing feminine hygiene products to girls who could not afford them, comic book collecting and violin playing.
Accessibility and applicability were the two features of this initiative that we promoted upfront. Our publicity made it clear that there were no limits to the types of activities that would be accepted as essay topics, as long as they were things that the applicant cared about. We went out of our way to say that we were not looking for “heroes,” just typical teens who are willing to explore how Jewish learning might add meaning to the things that animate them. To make Jewish learning accessible we lined up 11 local Jewish teen educators who would be available on the phone, online or in person to coach each of the applicants. Coaches provided the Jewish sources in most cases, and often the applicant saw the connections immediately. But even in those cases, coaches provoked the applicants to look deeper, to challenge their assumptions, all with an eye towards enabling the teen to understand the text on their terms, in ways that will add meaning to the things they care about in life.
Here are three unsolicited reactions:
One participant who tutors children in Newark and helps the Family Division Judge on a Juvenile Conference Committee among other things wrote, “None of these organizations are affiliated with Judaism, and my school has a predominantly non-Jewish population. Yet this is the most meaningful Jewish learning experience I have ever had.”
One participant wrote about gardening, “The project that I led was not with a Jewish organization, but with the Boy Scouts. Before this project, I did not even think it was Jewish. But, with some research, I learned that what I did was in fact Jewish.”
One parent wrote, “My husband and I are beyond proud. We have always struggled with how to instill Jewish values in our children. And how do you know if they actually are getting what you are trying to teach them? After reading her essay, I feel so relieved to hear her voice and know that she got it. This means so much to me.”
We formed The Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life to create new ways, and to support existing ways to Bring Jewish Learning to Life, to show that there is no such thing as “Jewish Life;” indeed, Jewish learning informs all of Life. 18 Under 18 Who Bring Jewish Learning to Life was a powerful and surprisingly simple way to demonstrate this to teens, to their parents, and also to the leaders of the Jewish institutions who had an incentive to encourage teens to participate, for it they nominated a winner, they too received a $250 Israel Bond (6 schools and synagogues did nominate winners). We published the winners’ names and photos in a special supplement to the NJ Jewish News and we did the same, with links to their essays, on our web site. Again, we did this to share the experiences that these teens had, 50 in all, who learned that Jewish learning is a treasure chest that they can go back to over and over again and find the treasure that awaits them when they explore other adventures throughout their lives. The more people that understand that, the more successful we will be.
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