Jewish Teens in Boston Embrace Design Thinking

Design Thinking_2by Maya Bernstein and Charlie Schwartz

Last fall, in partnership with the Union for Reform Judaism and Combined Jewish Philanthropies, Brandeis University’s Office High School Program, decided to replicate their highly successful summer programs year-round. They wanted to engage both the teens who attend their summer programs, and teens less engaged in Jewish communal offerings throughout the year. After sifting through various ideas regarding how to approach this new initiative, the staff decided to use Design Thinking as a methodology – both because it is a cutting-edge initiative in education that they had not yet tapped, and also because they were hoping to use the methodology as a way of engaging teens to design their own Jewish experiences. They hired UpStart Bay Area to collaborate on 5 half-day workshops, partnered with area communities including Shir Tikva in Wayland and Temple Emanuel in Newton, and the experiment kicked off.

We are writing this piece to share the highlights of this pilot. We believe it is relevant for the Jewish community on at least two levels: it both provides an example of how Design Thinking can be an especially effective tool in engaging Jewish teens, and it also provides insight into the power of collaboration between various Jewish organizations and funders, especially when they operate in accordance with Design principles.

Design Thinking and Teens

Design Thinking is especially powerful as a tool for teens for a number of reasons:

  1. By definition, the methodology gives participants the autonomy to design their own experiences. Kurt Hahn, the 20th century German educator, made famous the concept that students should be the crew on the voyage, and not the passengers. The teens who participated in these series of Design Workshops were empowered with framing and beginning to tackle a challenge that they felt was relevant to their lives. Originally, we asked the teens to create meaningful Jewish programming in their communities and synagogues. As the workshops evolved, though, it was clear that the teen’s passion was not there. Instead, they discussed their own relationship with Judaism, and decided that it would be most meaningful for them to redesign the Jewish coming of age ritual. The very fact that they were empowered to choose the challenge they wanted to tackle, and that this freedom of where to put their energy was also contained within the framework of Design Thinking, was very motivating and inspiring to the teens. The teens were engaged in the program, and we believe that a core reason is because rather than imposing programming on the teens, we created opportunity for teens to be part of designing the content of those programs.
  2. Design Thinking places a strong emphasis on developing empathy. This aspect of the process is also critical for teens; a focus of each of our workshops was training the teens to better learn how to observe, listen, and develop more empathy for others. This is a life skill that is developmentally appropriate for teens, and an important piece of why we believe this methodology is so effective with that age group.
  3. Finally, Design Thinking is exciting and relevant outside of the Jewish world, but has tremendous potential for application within the Jewish world. It is a powerful tool to use with teens who are eager to explore their own professional future paths, who want to connect to pop culture, and who are looking for links between their Jewish and universal identities. The teens were excited to show up at each of the workshops primarily because they were excited to learn Design Thinking – the methodology that helped build Silicon Valley and that is being used at places like Google and Apple. And yet, they were as excited to take this methodology and apply it to re-designing their own Jewish lives and experiences. The tool itself is a powerful link for teens striving to make connections between the various pieces of their identities.

For a brief glimpse into the experience of the teens in this program, check out this clip.

Design Thinking and Experimental Collaboration

In this pilot project, the organizations that collaborated not only employed the methodology of Design Thinking as the core content, but also used its principles for our internal collaboration. What was unique about the collaboration was that all parties involved, the funders, the consultants, and the institution doing the work, were willing to stay open to the process, learn on the spot from mistakes, change course in the middle of the work, and trust one another and the process. Here are some of the lessons we learned from this type of collaboration, which we feel would benefit other Jewish organizations seeking to partner:

  1. Radical Collaboration – at the beginning of the project, we set up regular meetings before and after each workshop, in which the Brandeis staff, UpStart staff, URJ and CJP staff – consultant, organization, and funder – all met to discuss the goals for the workshop, and to debrief the workshop once it had happened. This is obviously a more intensive, hands-on approach – but what was so valuable was that all of the parties involved stayed in close relationship throughout, shared their fears and hopes, and, as a result, were more willing to trust one another and take the risks necessary to help the project grow and thrive.
  2. Genuine Risk-Taking – the project was set up with the goal that the teens would identify a design challenge in their own home communities. The first two workshops, out of five, were implemented to set the teens up to do that work. But, after the second workshop, the UpStart facilitators realized that the teens’ hearts were not in that space. They found that the teens were absolutely unengaged any time they began to talk about that aspect of the project. The teens were open to talking with each other about their own Jewish identities, but they did not want to design Jewish experiences for their communities. When the UpStart staff shared this with the Brandeis staff and the funders, these other partners were open to hearing their perspective. This was a huge risk. Because the way this pilot was framed to communities was that the teens would be designing something for them to use. The partners were willing to take the risk and have the UpStart facilitators open the next meeting with a question to the teens: we have a sense that designing something Jewish for your communities is not resonating; is there something else that you might re-design that would be more meaningful? This was risky not only because it was not what the project was funded to do, and not what was promised to the communities, but also because we were unsure how the teens would respond. But we all embraced the spirit of Design Thinking, trusted the process, and the teens rose to the occasion. They felt so empowered and understood and listened to; they had a meaningful conversation about what they would like to re-design, and arrived, on their own, at the decision to re-design the Jewish coming of age ritual. They then took on that challenge with passion and gusto for the next few sessions.
  3. Profound Empathy – Our ability to put our organizational and funding needs aside, and genuinely listen to the teens, reflects the profound empathy we developed for the teens in this pilot. We are still left with the pressing question: how do we balance our educational/organizational vision – especially around creating a meaningful Jewish space, and meaningful Jewish experience – with the interests and passions and needs of the teens – which is not always aligned with what we are striving to provide? We ended up doing less formal Jewish learning and content focus than we had planned in these workshops; and yet, the teens were engaged and inspired, came back week after week, and were definitely part of a meaningful Jewish experience. This tension is ongoing. But we hope that our experience shares with the broader field the importance of really listening to our constituencies, changing our plan based on what they are passionate about, and figuring out how to guide, educate, and inspire within the boundaries of their real interests.

Design Thinking is spreading in the world of education, and in the Jewish world. Like many of today’s “newest” theories, it is a methodology that resonates deeply with our tradition – and therefore actually is quite familiar and quite natural for us. If nothing else, its popularity should remind us of our deep tradition of iteration. God, according to Midrash Tehilim, created and destroyed nearly 1000 worlds until arriving at on that could be deemed “tov,” good. Even after the creation of our world, the iterative processes of ongoing striving towards perfection can be found throughout our sacred texts and history, and remains alive today. We need only to be willing to take the risks, and give ourselves the permission, to keep creating, over and over, not for the sake of getting it right, but for the sake of inspiring and including as many of today’s youth as possible in the journey, so that the journey continues.

Maya Bernstein is Strategic Design Officer of UpStart Bay Area, a social venture and innovation consulting firm.

Rabbi Charlie Schwartz is the director of the BIMA and Genesis programs at Brandeis University.