Director, Center for Youth Engagement, Stephen Wise Temple
I believe that today, authentic Jewish educational experiences cannot happen in a vacuum like they used to. There has to be collaboration across institutions. We have to engage students and they have to be at the center to make learning relevant to them – starting with young students, all the way through high school.
For example, when you talk about Israel, the approach used to be simple – “we must support Israel” – and you could easily tap into everyone’s emotions. But we can’t do that today. Our students aren’t connected to Israel in the same way. They don’t know the world without Israel – most don’t even know Holocaust survivors. It has to be more of an authentic experience, and we have to help them understand Israel in ways that connect with them. An example of this is the Federation’s twinning program, which is very powerful. Our teens visit Israel and the Vilnius Jewish community where they connect with young people their own ages, really sparking a link between the two groups.
We also have collaborated with Santa Monica Synagogue. It was really important to me to work with a smaller synagogue that may not have the same resources I might. We started by sharing our twinning program, so that our kids can visit Israel and Vilnius together, but it also forms new connections between our two synagogues. And the twinning is only the beginning. We’re also launching future collaborations on other programming like an up coming religious school retreat that will further aid in creating shared experiences for all of these kids.
In the past, I was somewhat disappointed in the Jewish community, because I came out of grad school feeling my work was going to be all about community. But I soon found that not everyone approached what we do with a communal spirit. Which is why we have to tap into the resources that are available to us, and be willing to share. Owning Jewish experiences is a thing of the past, and we cannot afford to do that any longer.
I am enjoying a wonderfully renewed relationship with BJE, because they really are at the forefront of making sure this collaboration is happening, while also championing the idea. I’m noticing that today in BJE’s Religious School Directors Network, people really do want to collaborate – this is the dream. It’s everything I was hoping for.
Interestingly enough, I started my career in LA at BJE as the Director of Israel and high school programs. I had come from Israel so it was a natural fit. Soon married and with children on the way, I knew that if I was going to stay in LA, I needed to be working in a capacity that let me be more available to my family and I needed to build a community for them. I’m very passionate about the engagement model, and synagogue is a great platform for it. I’ve never considered a different track in Jewish education. I love complementary education, working with adults, kids, teens, helping people connect to their own Judaism. Because when that light bulb goes off – there’s really nothing like it.