Mifgash and Meaning: Challenges and Opportunities for Teen Leadership Development in the 21st Century

Especially with teens, it’s all about relationships.

[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 16 – Developing Teen Leadership with a Peoplehood Orientation published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]

By Simon Klarfeld

Sometimes I wonder
Where I’ve been
Who I am, do I fit in? Make-believing is hard alone Out here, on my own
From “Out Here On My Own,” Michael & Lesley Gore, 1980

Who am I? What is my purpose? And, where do I fit in? – These are fundamental questions for teens as they transition from childhood to adulthood. And these, particularly the third, are questions that the concept of Peoplehood addresses.

Encounter, exchange, experience, challenge, and embrace are all elements of any serious educational endeavor engaging teens, and teen leadership in particular. This [essay] will focus on what I consider to be the most powerful of these: the encounter, mifgash.

Especially with teens, it’s all about relationships. Digital natives’ ubiquitous use of social media is merely a contemporary expression of the need for connection – and offers an unparalleled opportunity to create and sustain personal relationships with others. Peoplehood education and experiences could not happen at a riper time.

Note that mifgash is both process and outcome: the process of the encounter itself is as important as the end goal of fostering a visceral, emotional attraction to the Jewish People. Our aim is to achieve what Martin Buber described in his essay “Elements of the Interhuman”: “… where the dialogue is fulfilled in its being, between partners who have turned to one another in truth, who express themselves without reserve and are free of the desire for semblance, there is brought into being a memorable common fruitfulness which is to be found nowhere else.”

Each encounter has four steps, reflecting the four stages of group dynamics that Bruce Tuckman called “forming, storming, norming, and performing.” (Tuckman 1965):

1. Preparing the facilitator and the group(s). From my experience as a facilitator, the selection of participants (or at least organizational partners) and the preparation of the two distinct sub-groups participating in the encounter, is critical. While diversity is clearly an important factor in selecting participants in a mifgash, there also needs to be enough commonality among the teens across the two sub-groups to create the possibility of community-building among them.

With teen leaders, the facilitator is not only the group’s guide through the encounter, but will serve as role model for the teens as they in turn facilitate similar conversations.

2. Developing common group norms and goals. Listening to and working with each other is often a challenge when two very distinct sub-groups from different cultures come together. It is essential to reach an understanding about how this will happen at the very start of the encounter.

3. Creating a “level playing field” among all participants – ensuring that one sub-group does not have “home advantage” and that all participants feel they can equally contribute to the group, teach as well as learn from each other.

4. Harnessing the power of creating or building something together. While building the community from the sub-groups is a positive outcome of the mifgash, success can be expressed even more profoundly by collaborative creation in which all participants can directly experience cooperation and collaboration, and – through reflection – feel pride in a shared accomplishment.

Tuckman, together with Mary Ann Jensen, later added an often ignored yet important fifth stage to the group dynamics model: “adjourning” – saying goodbye and figuring out next steps. So, to the list above, we add a fifth step:

5. Ending and follow-up. Here, 21st century technology offers us a powerful tool. With most of our teens having regular access to social media and using it naturally as a means of communication and collaboration, we have an unprecedented opportunity to extend the mifgash to an ongoing experience.

Mifgashim do not have to take place only on the national and international level. We also need to facilitate them in our own backyard, in communities that are more diverse and polarized than perhaps at any other time in recent history.

The mifgash can play a central role in fulfilling the goals of Peoplehood education: to create meaningful personal relationships with other Jews – in our community and around the world – that can last a lifetime; to learn about the concept of peoplehood in a profound way through direct experience and reflection; to learn Jewish values and texts regarding relationships, particularly between and among Jews; to offer teen leaders inspiring models of facilitating inter- and intra-cultural dialogue for the future; and to challenge, strengthen, and clarify individuals’ identities, perceptions, and views.

Let us begin at home, and reach out globally, reflecting the beauty, complexity, and diversity of the Jewish People.

Simon Klarfeld is the Executive Director of Young Judaea.