Teens Connect to Israel, their Past, and their Future in ARTEL

artelfron2By Jonathan Fass

In May, the first cohort of the ARTEL Teen Fellowship met for a shabbaton. This group of 21 Russian-speaking teens from Marks JCH spent that time exploring the intersection of their Russian and Jewish identities and their connection to the Jewish homeland. Central to the weekend was a hands-on project where teens created artwork that celebrated their thoughts and feelings about Israel; they also developed a cooperative blog that reflected on both the weekend as whole and the journey to Israel that the group will take together at the beginning of July.

ARTEL is a unique partnership between the Edith and Carl Marks Jewish Community House of Bensonhurst and JCC Association of North America, which have a powerful opportunity to transform the lives of Jewish teens from Russian speaking homes. This yearlong experience allows teens to explore their Jewish identity, discover their Russian-Jewish heritage, and build a connection to Israel. Teens will filter Israel through the lenses of studio arts and hi-tech, exploring Israel’s contributions to these fields. The Israel itinerary also provides opportunities to sightsee, to meet Israeli teenagers from Russian speaking backgrounds, and to reflect on the unique relationship that these teens can develop with Israel in light of their affinity interests.

However, the Israel portion of this program is only the midpoint of the journey these teens are taking. Following this immersive summer experience, with the assistance and guidance from mentors, these teens will in turn create community projects highlighting their abilities and self-expression of Jewish identity. The mentoring experience following the Israel seminar allows the teens the time to integrate their Jewish and Russian selves and their Israel experience into a rich and interconnected identity.

The program was developed with support from the New York Teen Initiative for Immersive Summer Experiences for Jewish Teens: Incubator for Emerging Experiences, a joint project of UJA-Federation of New York’s Commission on Jewish Identity and Renewal (COJIR) and the Jewish Education Project, with support from the Jim Joseph Foundation.

ARTEL, a Russian word for a cooperative association that flourished in Russia through the 1950s, is built upon core principles for both successful adolescent programming and Jewish experiential education. ARTEL engages teens in a process of self-definition, creative expression, and participation in creating an authentic product that research suggests are the key factors in successful adolescent programming (Future Child. 1999 Fall; 9(2): 96-116). As part of a Jewish journey, ARTEL follows the Jewish experiential education model outlined in the article “What We Know About Experiential Jewish Education” by Joseph Reimer and David Bryfman. ARTEL takes participants through a process of recreation, socialization, and challenge that lead participants to consider how their interests outside of Judaism and their unique heritage as Russian speakers can be incorporated into a deeply personal relationship with Israel.

As we continue to think about how to connect teenagers to their heritage and to the Jewish homeland, the ARTEL program model is one that holds promise by bringing together the broader theory of adolescent development and Jewish experiential education.

“Daily, more than 200 teens come through the doors of the J, to participate in unique and engaging programs that strive to spark their individual and collective growth,” says Alanna Skydell, director of teen services at the Marks JCH. “ARTEL epitomizes the essence of innovation and creativity as it connects teens to their Russian-Jewish roots and Jewish homeland through their existing passions and interests in arts and hi-tech.”

To follow the program’s success and personal journey of each participant throughout this year, visit www.artel2015.weebly.com to view live and personal blog posts capturing the entire experience.

Jonathan Fass is JCC Association’s vice president of JCC Maccabi and the Merrin Center for Teen Engagement.