A teen havruta

Supporting our teens, one text at a time

In Short

COVID-19 has upended the rituals, milestones, hopes and dreams of so many people. For adolescents, the experience has been even more acute because they do not have the experiences and memories to fall back on like adults do

A response to “The Transformative Torah of ‘Ordinary People’” by Rabbi Joshua Rabin

How does a precious rock collection or an undying love of Abraham Lincoln build Jewish community for teens? One weeknight evening at Teen Beit Midrash at a time. I run programming for Jewish teens. Teen Beit Midrash of Hebrew College (TBM) is a pluralistic, inclusive after-school program focused on the study of Talmud. At the beginning of each class we have what we call “fandom,” where one student shares something they are passionate about. We thrive on our quirkiness, devotion to text and love of tricky questions. 

When COVID-19 hit we were able to pivot TBM to Zoom without missing a class, thanks to my experiences with Zoom education in my semicha program at Yeshivat Maharat. We had already had a ritual of dedicating our learning each meeting to people who need our love, support or appreciation. This gave the students a forum to raise concerns about people important to them and express gratitude for healthcare workers, teachers, families and their peers. It also gave them a chance to celebrate their achievements, like finishing AP exams or learning a new gymnastics routine.

Like Rabbi Rabin, I am concerned about Jewish teen engagement, normalcy and mental health. COVID-19 has upended the rituals, milestones, hopes and dreams of so many people. For adolescents, the experience has been even more acute because they do not have the experiences and memories to fall back on like adults do. The lack of communal and family gatherings has meant that memories of seders and shofar-blowing are sometimes missing — or, at least, harder to remember. In addition, the world has in many ways become a scarier place. I worry what Jewish continuity means for our teens.  

For some students, in the first months of the pandemic, TBM was the only regularly scheduled activity while their schools struggled to figure out how to proceed. In the weeks and months that followed, we balanced the need to talk things through and the need for ‘normal’ learning. Valuing text study gave students an identity that they could hold onto beyond the shakiness of the world around them. Our focus on traditional paired havruta learning meant that students had time with friends in addition to frontal teaching and allowed for peer-to-peer communication (and occasionally flirting). We let them play with Zoom stickers, have private chats and be silly together. After a while, the students were comfortable enough to share more of their worlds. They spoke about how to navigate Christmas in school and the feelings of marginalization and isolation that emerged from it. Connecting over shared texts and concerns helped them build community that they were lacking elsewhere. 

We decided to stay online in the fall of 2020, which enabled students from outside our geographic catchment area, Greater Boston, to join us. In addition to class time, we had regular game nights after which the teachers left the Zoom room open and walked away. The students would hang out for several hours. In fall of 2021 we decided to go back in person, in Boston, but did not want to abandon our students further away who had become part of the TBM community. To do so, we launched TBM online. It attracted a group from across the Northeast, South and Midwest. They shared jokes, Zoom glasses and mustaches, and serious discussions and joined our in-person folks for game nights, even organizing a WhatsApp group without the teachers. When our in-person students couldn’t make it on Tuesday nights, they joined the online group on Wednesdays, sometimes reconnecting with camp friends.

This past year, I chose to study the third chapter of Tractate Taanit, which is about Jewish responses to crises. My students surprised me by focusing on different themes from how to argue with God and whether it was better to be flexible like a reed, or solid and strong like a cedar. One group of eighth- and ninth-grade boys spent four hours on Zoom outside of class preparing a pamphlet titled “Does God Deserve Our Respect?” complete with Talmudic references, grammatical analysis and reviews. By giving the students the time and a challenging text they could find their voices in our tradition, knowing that there have been difficult times before and that our Rabbis struggled with how to navigate uncharted paths. Giving them the guided space of havruta learning helps them understand those lessons for themselves with their peers. 

As Omicron surged last winter, I asked my TBM students if they would like to postpone our return from January break. The answer was a resounding no. One parent said, “please don’t stop class — this is my child’s safe and happy place.” Many students, in my in-person cohort and online, viewed this afterschool as their Jewish community. What do Jewish teens need? They need adults to create spaces for them and model what Jewish community could mean for them. As one student wrote in their college essay, “When I walk up Hebrew College’s winding steps each week, I feel proud: I’m proud of the listening and analytical skills I have learned that I apply in practically every part of my life; I’m proud of the ways I have grown, becoming a role model, just like those whom I admired back in eighth grade; and I’m proud and excited to continue walking through the world as a havruta member, carrying on this powerful tradition of deep learning, respect for those who have different perspectives and identities, and unequivocal support and appreciation for one another.”

I agree that teens need spaces to meet that are facilitated by adults but not completely controlled by them.  If we do our job well, we can help them grow up to be the next strong link in the great chain of our tradition. Our students said it better than I can in this video

To learn more about Hebrew College Teen Beit Midrash, visit: https://hebrewcollege.edu/programs/teen-beit-midrash/

Rabba Claudia Marbach is director of Hebrew College’s Teen Beit Midrash.