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Harnessing Jewish Wisdom to Help Teens Thrive as Jewish Adults

Custom & Craft
Los Angeles, California United States
Leadership team

Eileen Levinson, Founder & Creative Director
Wendy Jackler, Program Manager

Organization website
Prize category
5+ years
Target audience
Community Building

Moving Traditions is dedicated to helping Jewish teens grow into healthy and Jewish adults.

We apply Jewish wisdom to help teens explore who they want to be and become. We train Jewish educators to mentor teens, creating peer communities that meet monthly for at least two years, where teens challenge society’s messages about issues closest to their hearts, such as body image, friendship, competition, sexuality, academic pressure, and stress.

As a result, Jewish teens are inspired to stay engaged in Jewish life after b’nai mitzvah, growing into adulthood with confidence, compassion, and a lifelong commitment to Jewish community.

What Jewish wisdom do you use in your work?

Moving Traditions’ teen program and educator training curricula draw on Jewish spiritual and intellectual traditions that stress self-reflection, social awareness, and personal growth, which we integrate with secular Social-Emotional learning outcomes.

Our Jewish sources include Pirke Avot and other Talmudic and Midrashic texts, Maimonides’ Hilchot De’ot, as well as Mussar, Hassidic wisdom, Yiddish sayings and folklore, and contemporary Jewish thought—particularly Jewish feminist teachings. We also draw on biblical, historical, and contemporary Jewish figures to serve as examples and role models.
For example, in a Shevet Achim session for teen boys on the topic of balance, we combine personality assessment exercises with Maimonides’ writings about individual disposition and maintaining equilibrium.

Another example comes from newly developed sessions to engage older teens in exploring healthy sexual ethics. We created a game in which participants explore what it would mean to bring Jewish values or wisdom into play in specific tricky situations involving sexuality, such as partying, hooking up, and dress codes. In this exercise and others, we draw on more familiar Jewish wisdom and values including tzniut, kedusha, tzedek, derekh eretz, and B’tzelem Elohim—but we also creatively mine Jewish sources for new ways to frame and connect Jewish wisdom to today’s teens joys and challenges. We bring the concepts of eit lakol and “do not awaken love until its time” from Song of Songs to frame as Jewish the idea of there not being a “right” time to be in a relationship or have certain sexual experiences, and to address issues concerning pressure and consent.

We are now working to pair each of the five domains of Social-Emotional Learning (SEL)—self-awareness, self-management; social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making—with key Jewish texts. In addition to using these pairings to inform the development of new curricular materials, we aim to deepen the national conversation about Jewish teen education by integrating the latest thinking on promoting healthy adolescent development with the richness and depth of Jewish wisdom.

How does your program work to make that wisdom accessible and directly applicable to your audience's lives?

Moving Traditions has found—and the evidence is in the results of the recent evaluation of our Rosh Hodesh program, described below—that when Jewish education promotes self-discovery, when it challenges traditional gender roles, and when it celebrates a diversity of voices, it has the power to help Jewish teens grow into adulthood with confidence, compassion, competency, and a lifelong commitment to Jewish community.

Therefore, instead of focusing on keeping teens Jewish, Moving Traditions focuses on developing a Jewish framework to help teens figure out who they are as human beings, as they navigate the confusing messages from their real and virtual worlds. In this way, teens find meaning and value in Judaism and Jewish life.

In our programs—Rosh Hodesh for girls and Shevet Achim for boys—we create gender-separate spaces that make it safe for teens to examine their own values, and to open up and explore together the issues they care about most, such as academic pressure, body image, friendship, romance and intimacy, dealing with stress, and getting along with their parents. Each session in Rosh Hodesh and Shevet Achim uses at least one (and often several) Jewish text, idea, or role model to deepen the exploration of a key issue in teens’ lives.

Moving Traditions partners with congregations to deliver our programs. To make a deep impact, Moving Traditions has learned that it is critical to provide thoroughly researched and tested programs, which involve the teens themselves in their creation, and to:

1. Train adult mentors who relate well with teens to serve as their group leaders. This is the most important factor in bringing our programs alive. Some group leaders are professional Jewish educators and clergy and others are lay leaders: social workers, artists, secular school teachers, and even in one case, a rocket scientist. Group leader training includes the teaching of core Jewish texts, ideas, and practices that inform our approach to working with teens around issues of gender and identity in a Jewish context.
2. Recruit a peer group of about 10 girls or boys from the same grade, who meet for at least two years and ideally continue from middle school through high school.

3. Hold the meetings once a month for two hours, preferably on a Sunday afternoon or evening. This is enough time to create deep experiences and enduring learning, while fitting in with teens’ over-burdened schedules.

4. Create safety so that teens can honestly explore fundamental questions of identity and society with each other and their trusted adult group leader.

5. Last, and critically important, connect Jewish wisdom to relevant, teen issues, including the issues listed above, such as friendship, academic pressure, and intimacy.

What impact has your program had on your participants?

In a recent independent evaluation, Moving Traditions has received proof of concept on the model of Jewish teen education that we have been honing for more than a decade with 1,400 small groups of girls meeting through the auspices of 388 institutional partners.

When we launched Rosh Hodesh: It's a Girl Thing! in 2002, a group of women and men wanted to offer a new, teen-girl-centric model of Jewish education, one that meets their authentic needs and desires rather than our adult preconceived notions.

The building blocks of this model, as described above, include a trained adult mentor, a supportive peer group of about 10 girls from the same grade, from middle to high school, the safety to openly explore fundamental questions of identity and society, and most important of all, relevant, adolescent-girl-focused content connected to enduring Jewish values and wisdom.

The evidence that this approach is successful is found in the enclosed report, Rosh Hodesh: It's a Girl Thing: Empowering Stronger, More Confident and Connected Jewish Girls. Researched by respected independent evaluators Dr. Pearl Beck and Dr. Tobin Belzer, the report shows that Moving Traditions has developed a model that in fact does keep girls healthy, confident, and connected to Jewish life.

As one young woman who participated noted, “We went to Jewish school to learn Jewish facts and we went to Rosh Hodesh to use them.”

According to the study, which included both qualitative and quantitative research and was funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation and the Covenant Foundation, Rosh Hodesh is successfully achieving results in four key areas of development:

1. Helping Jewish girls build greater self-esteem. Research indicates that, as a result of the program, girls gain a greater sense of self-worth and confidence.
a. 91% of group leaders reported that the program helped girls gain the emotional skills to deal with life’s challenges.
b. 81% of past participants said that Rosh Hodesh helped them acquire or strengthen their leadership skills.

2. Empowering Jewish girls. Research shows that the open discussion of gender and women’s issues empowers girls to believe that they can take action for themselves, other women, and their communities.
a. 76% of past participants reported that Rosh Hodesh helped them to think critically about societal ideals about women’s appearance and behavior.
b. 70% of past participants said that a significant impact of Rosh Hodesh was learning about issues facing Jewish women.

3. Fostering positive peer-to-peer relationships. Research indicates that the experience delivered through Rosh Hodesh enables girls to develop honest and supportive relationships with other Jewish girls.
a. 93% of past participants said that Rosh Hodesh increased their sense of connection with other Jewish girls and women.
b. 89% of past participants said the program helped them think about how they treat other girls.

4. Cultivating deeper Jewish connections. Research shows that the program engages girls through relevant, meaningful, and dynamic Jewish experiences, and encourages them to stay connected to Jewish life and practice.
a. 82% of past participants defined Rosh Hodesh as a Jewish experience with educational value.
b. 81% of institutional partners believe that Rosh Hodesh helped them retain girls post bat mitzvah.
c. 45% of Rosh Hodesh participants who attended supplemental school reported being highly involved in Jewish life in college, equivalent to the similar involvement of 46% of day school graduates.

The most unexpected finding of our evaluation study is that 66% of the group leaders are still connected to the girls who participated, 5-8 years after the program ended. Clearly, the critical role of the adult mentor cannot be overstated. For this reason, Moving Traditions invests heavily in finding, training, and supporting adults to mentor teens, even though our congregational partners themselves cannot afford to pay the full costs of this investment. (Another interesting evaluation finding was that many adult mentors see their role in facilitating Rosh Hodesh groups as enhancing their own Jewish identities.)

We already have evidence that the Rosh Hodesh model can be integrated successfully into Jewish teen programming for boys. After researching the needs, challenges, and desires of Jewish teen boys, in 2011 Moving Traditions launched Shevet Achim: The Brotherhood, which uses the same building blocks as Rosh Hodesh, substituting relevant, adolescent-boy-focused content connected to Jewish wisdom. Five years later, 130 Jewish institutions are finding that teen boys love the Shevet Achim program, especially when it is led by an effective adult mentor.

What have you learned about applied Jewish wisdom that contributes to your success?

In our training and curricula, we have found that by beginning with universal teen questions and then turning to the particular wisdom of a Jewish text, teens become more interested and connected to Jewish learning. For example, we have found that when we ask teens to reflect on and discuss the question: “How has social media changed the way that you think about who is or who isn’t a ‘friend’?” and then take a look at Maimonides’ taxonomy of friendship, we deepen the conversation. The teens begin to reframe their friendships through Maimonides’ lens. We have also learned that many teens have a short attention span for Jewish texts. Thus, generally the texts in our curricula are about a paragraph long, often shorter, and are translated for clarity. We use these texts to jump off (or into) a deeper and wider conversation.

In addition, ritual in our programs, especially in Rosh Hodesh, applies Jewish wisdom in new ways. We connect the Jewish wisdom inherent in the tradition associating Rosh Hodesh with women to create a powerful container for Jewish girls’ exploration of identity and community. Participants love the ritual of lighting a candle at the beginning of each gathering and using song and music and art to create sacred space, applying Jewish wisdom about hiddur hamitzvah and the importance of sacred time and space to this renewed Jewish girls’ tradition.