Eleven years in. Teens’ Engagement Starts Every Day

@akivaEleven years in. Teens’ Engagement Starts Every Day – from Akiva Hebrew High School to @Akiva Teen Center and Back Again
By Amnon Ophir and Dr. Jeffrey Schein

For eleven years now we have been working very hard to transform the Akiva Hebrew High School into @Akiva, a center for teens. The transformation is ongoing. Ironically, the tale ends with a major project of @Akiva to further Hebrew literacy, professional development, and advocacy in the academic year 2015-16. In a certain, way it marks a curious coming full circle to the “hebraic home” of the project. Like all journeys, the path of innovation is more than linear.

Akiva, the High School, had an honored niche in the landscape of Cleveland Jewish education. Like many of its counterparts – community High Schools across North America – it was the “place to be” if one wanted to extend Hebrew learning beyond bar/bat mitzvah or wanted additional Judaic learning. The synagogues, the legendary Cleveland Hebrew School, Agnon, the community day school and Gross Solomon Schechter, all were the natural feeders. Students would receive high school and college credit, as an attractive incentive.

The concern with quality Hebrew learning remains. Eleven years ago Akiva began a collaboration with the NETA program that has provided a continuous upgrading of the quality of Hebrew as a second language. Yet, no matter how attractive this Hebraic option remains, we knew it smacked of a one-size fits all mentality in regard to teen engagement. The paths of teen engagement are multiple and as Akiva the High School has become @Akiva, a rich and varied set of teen learning possibilities has emerged that includes different initiatives:

High School (HS)@Akiva – is the core of @Akiva. A core community High School program that offers evenings instruction for local high school students wishing to enrich their knowledge in Hebrew language or Judaic Studies. Students may choose 1, 2, or 3 evenings/week or independent/tutoring courses of study.

israel.cleveland.next (icnext) – is a unique two-year program that educates a dedicated group of Jewish high school sophomores and juniors from all denominations in the core issues of Israeli society and the geopolitical situation in Israel today. In addition, students learn, engage and work with a group of Israeli peers from Beit She’an/Emek HaMayanot, Cleveland’s partnership region. The first year culminates in a 10-Day Israel exploratory mission, giving participants the opportunity to experience the realities of life in Israel.

In the second year, students are involved in initiating, organizing and galvanizing peer involvement in educational, political or cultural activities designed to build support for the State of Israel. Students will become expert Israel engagers in order to educate others about Israel.

HaZamir Cleveland – is a chapter of HaZamir:  The International Jewish High School Choir. Part of a network of 26 choirs from Israel and the United States, it promotes high level Jewish choral singing, Jewish unity, connection to Israel, and teen leadership. The chapter meets weekly to rehearse Jewish choral music and learn the repertoire that it shares with all other HaZamir chapters. The hard work culminates in an annual HaZamir Festival and Gala Concert in New York at venues such as Lincoln Center or Carnegie Hall. HaZamir Cleveland is the first HaZamir chapter to incorporate an Israeli chapter partnership visit into it’s annual programming, with HaZamir Beit Shean!

Shin Shinim Program (Israeli gap year students) – the Shin Shinim are four teen emissaries from Israel who work in the community providing Israel educational enrichment programs, and serving as Israeli representatives to our youth across settings and ages. @Akiva administers and coordinates the program for the community.

Seniors Seminar Goes to AIPAC Policy Conference – @Akiva seniors’ seminar takes community seniors to AIPAC Policy Conference. This program equips Cleveland high school students with the knowledge necessary for dealing with Israel-related challenges on college campuses.

As the program has grown we have been challenged to develop a model for working with Jewish teens. The challenge was threefold: structural, pedagogical and philosophical. Our answers were separate yet intertwined in many ways.

Structurally, we had to define the @Akiva organization. We created four divisions: HS@Akiva, the traditional community high school. @Akiva, the community programs facilitator in which @Akiva is an arm of the Jewish community to facilitate community programs like icnext and HaZamir Cleveland. @Akiva on the Road (Community Teens Connector) is the arm that focuses on enriching the teens’ programs in the community. This is an ‘R&D still’ division that initiates, funds, facilitates or supports existing programs (one time only) or new programs for teens. Last year this division initiated ten communal programs. For example: “Teens Night at the Films” with the local JCC, icnext students’ traveling photo exhibit, iDay – the community Israel day, Israel advocacy teacher in residence for the community, Israel artist-in-residence for the community, and Seniors trip to AIPAC’s Policy Conference. The last division is the Shin Shinim division.

Pedagogically, we were faced with two questions: who is our target audience, and what answers do we have to address their needs? Our audience is teens (post Bar/Bat Mitzvah) that we divide into two categories: “Connected” and “Potential connected.” The “Connected” are those teens that we already find to be involved in community programs (youth groups, supplementary schools, community programs, day schools or camps). The “Potential connected” are those teens that we could find in the community programs but for different reasons have either dropped out or have never been involved. Other “Potential connected” students are these who are not connected at all to any Jewish program.

The answers for addressing the needs of our target audience are in a map concept that we called “teen’s involvement map”. There are two basic types of activities that keep our audience involved. The first is an “engagement activity” where a teenager comes to a one-time activity (and he can come to few of these). In an “engagement activity” there is only time for the teens to experience the program. An example would be a Jewish movie night. The second type of activity the “education activity” is more rounded and a teenager comes on a regular basis for an activity, or the activity provides enough time to be a meaningful “pre-experience-post” model. An example of this is the learning of Hebrew every week.

But we did not stop there, and we embraced a third form of activity for teens emerging from both the “engagement “ and “education” activities – teen leadership in the form of teens leading teens. In other words, we began to invest resources on improving any activity that involved teens leading activities for other teens. This type of activity allows us to be working “with” teens rather than “for” teens.

Philosophically, our model is built on two assumptions. First, our role is to push the field to think out of the box and present/initiate/support new programs that address new/different needs of our teens. This goes hand with hand with our second assumption that believes that content/knowledge is the key for any program. We would like to push our teens to be the next Jewish leaders and leadership is about making decisions. Our ability to make good decisions is based on knowledge. This is for us a must in any teens’ program.

The re-engagement with Hebrew in the broader community through @Akiva after 11 years is not a surprise. It is part of @Akiva’s next phase in which @Akiva will take a Jewish idea and re/introduce it to our teens. This time, it will not only be through stand-alone programs, but it will be through multi outlets/initiatives. Hebrew tomorrow. Holocaust Education the following day and… the sky is the limit.

The new @Akiva complex initiative reminds us of how synergistic the notion of a major teen center has become. We know that if we continue to focus on our teens’ needs, continue to think out of the box, continue to support other teen’s organizations, and continue to initiate programs, teens in our community will be served.

Amnon Ophir is the director of @Akiva and the Israel Educator at the Jewish Education Center of Cleveland (JECC)

Dr. Jeffrey Schein is the JECC’s director of Adolescent Initiative and Special Projects