New program aims to get B’nai Mitzvah teens to open up

In Jewish communities today, the b’nai mitzvah ritual is seen as a culmination — graduating from adolescence to adulthood. There’s a powerful ceremony, often followed by a lavish party.\n\n
September 7, 2016

In Jewish communities today, the b’nai mitzvah ritual is seen as a culmination — graduating from adolescence to adulthood. There’s a powerful ceremony, often followed by a lavish party. 

Then what? 

One organization hopes engaging teens, parents, teachers, clergy and their communities in honest, open-ended discussions about faith and adolescence will encourage sustained involvement long after that — and its mission just got a big boost. 

Moving Traditions, a Jenkintown, Pa.-based organization specializing in Jewish youth engagement, was among the 12 recipients of this year’s Cutting Edge Grants, given out by the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles (JCFLA) and announced Aug.  16. It will receive $200,000 over the next three years to institute its pilot b’nai mitzvah program in Los Angeles, beginning this fall. 

Since its inception 11 years ago, Moving Traditions has grown into a wide-reaching organization, partnering with more than 400 institutions across North America — mostly synagogues, JCCs and schools. Los Angeles boasts 23 of the organization’s partners with programs benefiting more than 850 teens as of last year. Overall, Moving Traditions’ programs have trained nearly 1,400 educators and reached more than 17,000 teens nationwide, according to figures on Moving Traditions’ website.  

The organization’s primary focus so far has been on its signature programs, “Rosh Hodesh: It’s a Girl Thing” and “Shevet Achim: The Brotherhood.” The former is an experiential education program using Jewish teachings and practices that touches the lives of 3,500 girls and gives them a place to feel safe, articulate concerns, consider the impact of gender on their daily life, have fun and be honest with their peers. The latter is a similar program aimed at boys; it partners with more than 100 institutions and impacts more than 1,300 boys. 

Now, the organization will bring its approach to the realm of b’nai mitzvah preparation. The organization’s California director, Beth Tigay, a Los Angeles resident and member of IKAR (where her husband, Hillel Tigay, is cantor), will spearhead the implementation in L.A. with as-yet-unnamed partner institutions. She said the key is framing Jewish values in a way that connects with teens as they undergo everything that surrounds the big day. 

 “We as communities have to find ways to make the b’nai mitzvah process relevant,” she said. “We impart all of these traditions and teachings that are sacred in Judaism, then declare them a Jewish man or woman. Then we kind of slam the door. What does it mean? We come in to say that what you’re going through is a tough time, one of the most complicated, confusing times of your life. We give that place to talk about it, to process it.” 

Tigay has two children of her own and equated the fervor of bar and bat mitzvah season and attending parties every weekend to “clubbing for 12- and 13-year-olds.” The social pressure and anxieties — impressing peers, the advent of constant posting on social media, who’s invited and who’s not, whose dress looked best — require a place for teens to voice thoughts and concerns with well-trained mentors, she said. 

 “Believe it or not, all of this is a critical part of the process. We need to help them process all of that. Right now, there’s no one else doing that,” she said. 

The process of developing a program curriculum for this began several years ago with focus groups made up of 15- and 16-year-olds, because they weren’t far removed from their own bar or bat mitzvah and had the capacity to articulate like adults, according to Moving Traditions’ chief of education and program, Rabbi Daniel Brenner, who is based in New Jersey. 

Rosh Hodesh girls express Jewish identity through art. Photo courtesy of Moving Traditions.

Brenner then created a nine-session supplemental b’nai mitzvah curriculum for trained mentors. He will be traveling to Los Angeles in November to begin training clergy and sixth- and seventh-grade Jewish educators with hope of things kicking off at the start of 2017.  This will be key to the program’s success, he said. 

 “Good mentors can get teens talking on topics for hours,” Brenner said. “It’s a matter of having the right space. We’re talking about what’s really going on in their lives. That’s a role of the Jewish community. We’ve seen it in our other programs, and we’ve seen how effective it can be. We even see how effective it is for the adults and how it engages them. Mentors aren’t there to tell you something. They’re there to talk about what’s going on and to listen to you. Teens need that just like adults do.” 

The nine sessions will cover topics including what it means to enter the teenage years, being a party host versus being a guest, what fashion tells us about how we’re supposed to be seen, humility and pride, social media, being the center of attention, teen romance, and gifts and money. Some sessions will be single-gender, others co-gender, and some will include parents to inform them about what their kids are learning. 

Brenner said the program will follow the strategy of Moving Traditions’ signature programs when it comes to getting teens to talk about uncomfortable subjects. 

 “This issue is an issue we deal with in a lot of our programs,” he said. “We find the best approach is to be reactive in the pedagogy. A lot of work with teens is helping them understand expectations placed on them. We need to discern between things that are really challenging for them and things that aren’t. Example: Give them a question like, ‘Which of these things in your family produces the most stress? Is it academic concerns? Is it chores and household work seen as non-negotiable?’ Which is real stress and give them a couple of options. That’s easy to talk about as opposed to, ‘What is stressful in your life?’ You’re probably not going to get an answer. 

 “When talking about feelings, being able to make choices opens up space to start reflecting on what’s going on in their lives. A lot of our training is about helping educators have access to simple pedagogic tools that help with conversation.”

With hopes of eventually expanding the program across North America, Brenner felt Los Angeles was the perfect launching pad, pointing to the uniqueness of the city’s diverse, bustling Jewish community. 

 “This pilot here in Los Angeles is critical for us,” he said. “The city has an incredible diversity in terms of Jewish community. We want to work with traditional synagogues that have a lot of involvement and buy-in from members as well as synagogues that struggle on that front with members not as connected. The grant enables us to develop relationships with pilot partners and understand the needs in diverse community environments and build something that has deeper impact. Many of our partners across the country are interested in rethinking b’nai mitzvah education. This is program is going to help us and help a lot more communities,” he said. 

Elana Wien, JCFLA director of the Center for Designed Philanthropy, said the Moving Traditions’ b’nai mitzvah program concept upholds the ideals and values of the Foundation’s overarching mission and should yield tangible results in the local Jewish community. 

 “The path to b’nai mitzvah represents a pivotal period of discovery into the deeper meanings of being an engaged contemporary Jewish adult,” she said in a statement. “The Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles was impressed by Moving Traditions’ approach to fostering reflection, connection, confidence and positive decision-making during the b’nai mitzvah preparation stage, creating more meaning for our young people in the process, and laying the groundwork for future continued engagement in the Jewish community.” 

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