By Samantha Vinokor-Meinrath

Like all of my fellow educators, I had a to do list in mind for Summer 2020. I was going to sit on my floor surrounded by neon index cards and thoughtfully rework my leadership development content for the year to come. I was going to visit my teens at their various summer camps, and get them excited for the new year. I was going to fly to Israel to recharge my batteries and find new artists and thinkers to inspire my work. Instead, thanks to COVID-19, I’ve become a connoisseur of Zoom calls, a banana bread baker, and an educator who has shifted her entire philosophy.

When it became clear that COVID-19 would necessitate a different plan for this summer, my colleagues at @akiva, the teen engagement arm of the Jewish Education Center of Cleveland and I pivoted our teen engagement work to a model based on two pillars: socially distant and emotionally connected. We created a program called J2Gether, which pairs together college students with high schoolers as mentors for hevruta-style learning on the Jewish topics of their choice. It subsequently expanded to give high schoolers the opportunity to serve as mentors themselves, taking on leader/learner roles with younger students in the community. With over thirty course topics ranging from Judaism + Self Care to Israeli Music to Jewish Leadership, each teen had the chance to take charge of their own learning by finding a content area that excited or challenged them, and spending four weeks tackling it with their hevruta/mentor. We know that the teens learned a lot from their J2Gether experiences, as did the staff, and we are eager to share our key takeaways with the field.

Connection through Content: There have been many debates, both prior to and during this new era of COVID-19, about whether we should be prioritizing content or connection. Through J2Gether and our focus on relational engagement with a Jewish lens, we have been able to use Jewish texts, values, and ideas as the foundation of the connections our teens have built. Rather than segmenting out what ‘counts’ as one or the other, we’ve focused on points of synergy. Whether it’s icebreakers that center around questions of identity, or text studies as getting to know you guides, we’ve found that by using Jewish content as the starting point, the relationships that we’ve nurtured look different than the others our teens may be used to. We’re forging friendships that go beneath the surface into true 21st century hevruta bonds.

Empowering Learners and Leaders: When J2Gether started, our mission was straightforward. Each teen would be paired with a college student, have four sessions of learning, and then pick a new topic. But immediately our nascent status quo was challenged, and our teens showed us that they weren’t satisfied with absorbing content. They wanted to take on the leadership roles they had anticipated this summer. So we built a training program, giving the teens a space to be the mentors themselves, serving their near-peers in lower grades. The key to the mentorship training model was emphasizing that we were not there to train them in the content. This was not meant to be the space to learn about Israel and teach it, or to get a crash course in Jewish history to be regurgitated later in the summer. Rather, we emphasized interpersonal skills, active listening, leadership, and facilitation. Each teen mentor committed to continuing their own learning on the topics that interested them, but was also pushed out of their comfort zone in their mentorship roles. They were asked to look beyond what they felt confident in teaching, and morph into leader/learners, navigating the balancing act of learning alongside their mentees, and they rose to the challenge spectacularly.

Method as Content: J2Gether was offered with as many options as possible. Teens had the chance to participate either on Zoom or in person in accordance with social distancing guidelines. During the training sessions with the mentors, we discussed which courses were best suited with which methodologies. Instead of automatically defaulting to saying that in person is ideal but Zoom is unfortunately necessary, we considered how to use the method as part of the pedagogy. The teens wrestled with questions about whether or not the barrier of the screen was more or less conducive to relationship building than the barrier of the mask, which icebreakers were best used in person and virtually, and how to adapt learning modules to our ever-changing circumstances. They saw the choices that take place at every step along the educational journey, and were able to weigh the pros and cons of different stakeholders as they were guided and empowered in the decision-making process.

Filling the Gaps: With the Fall coming quickly, and the challenges of an unprecedent school year upon us, we believe that empowering teen leaders to fill gaps within the Jewish learning landscape. Whether it’s providing mentors to each learning pod in our community, or partnering with our local synagogues, schools, and youth groups to offer trained teen leaders as supplemental educators/madrichim, creating a cadre of individuals who can be part of the learning community at this unprecedented time is a way that we can contribute to the community-wide need for connection, partnership, and togetherness.

As we move into the Fall, and each of us makes difficult choices about what our work will look like going forward, we are once again pivoting to adapt the J2Gether model to meet the changing needs of our community. We are bringing this model to synagogues, youth groups, and the pods of learners that are popping up throughout our community. With teens facing uncertainty about their next steps, both short-term and long-term, we know that meaningful relationships with mentors will be critical to their mental health and wellbeing. Creating opportunities for learners and leaders to find each other and connect through the lens of Jewish wisdom and content will give us a chance to meet each of our teens where they are, physically, emotionally, and developmentally, and to invest in their wellness at this pivotal moment.

Dr. Samantha Vinokor-Meinrath is the Associate Director of Adolescent Initiatives for the Jewish Education Center of Cleveland and @akiva. J2Gether is a project of @akiva and the Jewish Education Center, and is generously supported by the Jewish Federation of Cleveland. The @akiva team includes Samantha, Amnon Ophir, and Tina Keller. More information about the program can be found at www.akivacleveland.org/j2gether.

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