By Cantor Katie Oringel
“I chose to be a peer mentor because I think that the Bar/Bat Mitzvah is one of the most significant parts of a Jewish person’s life. To be a part of someone’s Bar/Bat Mitzvah is a very special experience and a great opportunity to practice leadership. I have grown significantly as a leader. Being a peer mentor is one of the few opportunities for kids to share experience, knowledge, and communication. These skills are essential for the future.” –Aaron
In the haze of post-B’nei Mitzvah dropout, it took Kehillah (community) to hear these words from an engaged, grade 11 student at Temple Sinai congregation of Toronto. Kehillah is the name of our group learning model for B’nei Mitzvah. The goal is to teach youth Jewish and life skills for B’nei Mitzvah and more so, for beyond. Creating an environment of learning and mentoring has raised engagement in other temple youth programs, deepened relationships between youth and sparked their interest in taking on more leadership opportunities within their Jewish community.
Group learning models exist around the world for preparing for B’nei Mitzvah. Learning from these successful models helped us create a thoughtful and strategic plan for our weekly, one-hour sessions. An initial concern was creating a comfort level within the community for singing. Somewhere along the way, group singing fell from popularity and in the wake of shows that celebrate the harsh judgement of singers, youth have a genuine anxiety around singing, especially in front of their peers. While this is true, research done by Chorus America (2009) tells us that involvement in a choir strengthens a child’s “sense of self-worth or self-esteem.” With this in mind, one-on-one learning happens only after we have sung prayers together as a group. It is useful for the learning process and even more for the community process to briefly become a choir.
Indeed, community is at the core of everything. We begin our hour with some kind of game or activity, often led by peer mentors that allow youth to play together. The games encourage communication, problem solving and skill building. After each, we debrief and create a learning connection to B’nei Mitzvah. We conclude our hour with a celebration circle. Peer mentors offer public praise for their students and students share their prideful moments. Our final few moments return to the impromptu choir, and everyone sings Shehecheyanu.
Who are these teen superstars, A.K.A Peer Mentors? They are essential to the success of Kehillah and perhaps the greatest success to come out of Kehillah. Peer mentors are post-B’nei Mitzvah (as little as four days) who have committed to sharing their knowledge with their peers. The learning begins in grade six with a curriculum created by and delivered by several teen superstars. Young students are welcomed into Jedi Trope Master Training Academy. Through games and play, they acquire a basic understanding of Torah trope.
As the B’nei Mitzvah learning continues, some develop a full understanding of chanting Torah and haftara. Even those with the basic understanding have the ability to peer mentor new students as they begin their learning. Students work with multiple peer mentors throughout their learning journey depending on which skills they are trying to acquire and which peer mentor has them to give.
Peer mentors have become superstars in the community. Younger students are excited for a day when they can be one. Peer mentors are identifying this role as a reason they are more confident in themselves and in their leadership skills. Personal growth has become a source of great celebration in reflecting on this model. Peer mentors share they have gained, patience, organizational skills, dedication, acceptance, joy for learning from others, leadership, communication skills, and positivity.
In Pirkei Avot we read, “Find yourself a teacher, make yourself a friend.” Ultimately, these learning relationships have created a more vibrant and connected community of teens. We asked them, “What is the best part of Kehillah?” They nearly all gave some variation of the following: “The best part of Kehillah is being able to see my friends and make new friends.”
Katie Oringel serves as cantor and youth director at Temple Sinai Congregation of Toronto. She received her ordination and Masters of Sacred Music from Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in 2009 and a Certificate in Jewish Education Specializing in Adolescents and Emerging Adults in 2014.