By Bree Kessler
Programs where Jewish teens learn the “Jewish response” to social issues like hunger or homelessness are far from new. In fact, I can remember clearly as a youth at Hillel Day School in suburban Detroit the multiple field trips I made to Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger as a way for us students to understand the distinction between Jews helping Jews and Jews helping non-Jews – but in a Jewish way. This lesson was further ingrained in me during college when I joined an American Jewish World Service Volunteer Summer trip to Honduras where our group worked to rebuild houses in villages destroyed by Hurricane Mitch. Our relief efforts were a Jewish response to international development work and we were led through discussions and given Jewish text and readings that reflected that philosophy.
In my new role as Chief Education Officer for the Greenhouse, a project of Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, and a platform for teen-led social innovation, I’ve spent significant time thinking about if we can teach teens to be Jewish social innovators and what that phrase “Jewish social innovator” even means.
At The Greenhouse, we understand “innovation” to mean many things. Innovations can be products or programs, but we also talk about innovative approaches to “education” or ‘”teen engagement” or “social justice education,” or processes that lead to innovation like design thinking. We recognize that social innovations, like a technology that connects citizens together or a coat that turns into a tent or a food incubator kitchen for previously incarcerated women all have clear connections to Jewish philosophy, text, culture, and sensibilities. However, where we hope that we are innovating as a start-up program for teens, is how we provide the connection for our participants about why those social innovations are Jewish. Simply stated: We don’t provide the connection.
Our approach is instead of offering the Jewish connection, we allow each Greenhouse member to tease out how and why an innovation is Jewish or a Jewish response. We are continuing to create space and to offer the tools each teen needs to understand the relationship between social impact work and Judaism so that it can be a meaningful connection for each individual. What makes a social enterprise cafe that employs HIV+ youth a Jewish venture? Is it simply because a Jewish person founded the program? Or because the program is based on Talmudic text and incorporates Jewish sensibilities into its mission? We see the conversation that emerges around these issues as a crucial piece of the educational platform we offer across all our programs and experiences.
In the coming weeks we will initiate our Social Impact Labs with a local Lab on housing innovations in New York City and a Travel Lab to Detroit where we will focus on food justice and entrepreneurship. We know it can be scary to our faculty, to our funders, and to our participants’ parents that we don’t have a pre-defined definition or response to what makes for a Jewish social innovator. But we are doing the work to build programs that can be flexible and responsive to the questions our teen participants have about what makes “this” Jewish while they also learn how and to whom to ask these questions. Ultimately, we hope that through this approach we are not only assisting the teens in finding a meaningful connection to Judaism, but one that can grow with them as they transition into young adulthood and continue to explore who and what they want to be, or offer, to the world.
Bree Kessler is the Chief Education Officer at The Greenhouse. She can be reached at email@example.com.