By Rabbi Laura Novak Winer
Recently, I asked a group of colleagues to help me think about examples from pop-culture in which teens were mentoring other teens. It was surprisingly hard to come up with a genuine example of peer-to-peer mentorship. In the movie Clueless (1995), Cher (Alicia Silverstone) gives herself a project by becoming the self-appointed fashion and social-standing mentor to a new girl at the school in order to help propel that girl up the social ladder. In the Broadway show Wicked, we see a similar dynamic at play, when Glinda and Elphaba overcome their extreme dislike of each other and Glinda attempts to give Elphaba a makeover. And in The Hunger Games series, is any one teen really out there to help another teen for the sake of true and sincere mentorship? No, they build alliances with each other in order to survive, but in the end, there is supposed to be only one tribute left standing. It ultimately requires revolt and revolution to really get the tributes to work together and support each other.
Where are the examples of true mentorship – peers helping each other to learn and grow into their best selves? Are there times when adolescents can be there for each other, not to fight some dystopian revolution, but to create healthy bonds and build relationships with each other for the sake of a positive and worthwhile connection and enrichment? Yes there are! We may not see it happening in pop culture, but look around. It’s happening in our own communities.
The quintessential rabbinic text about mentorship is found in Pirke Avot 1:6, “Provide yourself a teacher and get yourself a friend.” In reading this text we often imagine a teacher who may be older or have much more life experience than ourselves. We imagine a more traditional mentor/protégé relationship. Yet, for some congregations and communities thinking about how to revolutionize the b’nai mitzvah experience, the idea of finding a teacher from amongst one’s peers is creating significant impacts in their adolescent communities.
The B’nai Mitzvah Revolution is a network of congregational professionals, lay leaders and educational thought leaders seeking to bring renewed depth and meaning to Jewish learning. In the B’nai Mitzvah Revolution, congregations seek to experiment with and create new models of preparation and engagement for b’nai mitzvah that are meaningful and relevant to young people and their families. In some congregations, that translates into a desire to not only transform the b’nai mitzvah experience but the post b’nai mitzvah experience as well.
Peer b’nai mitzvah tutoring is a more frequent model of mentorship that we see emerging in congregations. The Tzofim program at Temple Adat Elohim in Thousand Oaks, CA, is a peer-tutoring program designed to help the congregation’s newest young adults maintain their connection to Judaism and the synagogue after becoming a bar/bat mitzvah. Beginning as soon as the week after their own bar/bat mitzvah ceremony, 7th-10th grade students become tutors, and guide their own students through the process of becoming a bar/bat mitzvah. Post b’nai mitzvah teens experience tangible ways to make an impact on the lives of others, while pre-b’nai mitzvah teens find mentors and role models with whom they can share concerns, ask questions, and gain guidance about the bar/bat mitzvah experience, while learning the prayers required of them to lead.
Temple Beth El in Charlotte, NC runs a similar program for B’nai Mitzvah Madrichim in which 9th-12th grade teens experience the responsibility of a “real job”, earn minimum wage and work anywhere from 2-12 hours per month tutoring pre-b’nai mitzvah teens in the prayers, as well as Torah and Haftarah trope. The B’nai Mitzvah Madrichim program at Beth El has created a culture in the congregation in which younger teens often are heard saying, “When I am a madrich…”
Social justice work is another venue in which peer-to-peer mentorship has great potential. In the Detroit areas, families from participating congregations can enroll in the Peer Corps Detroit program as a way of completing their mitzvah project requirement for B’nai Mitzvah. Peer Corps Detroit is a paid mentorship program inviting Jewish teens (10th-12th grade) and pre B’nai Mitzvah students to work together at a service site in metro-Detroit over a 3.5 month long project. Through the mentor relationships, B’nai Mitzvah students participate in meaningful mitzvah projects, while the older teens learn applicable leadership and mentorship skills. Together they create genuine and long-term relationships with each other and with their service sites.
In each of these instances, the institutions are learning lessons about youth engagement, about the value of peer-to-peer relationships, and about the subsequent impact these programs can have on adolescents, congregations and communities. The positive impacts include:
- Building a culture in which the younger adolescents are able to connect with older adolescents in order to find guidance, ask questions and share life experiences together.
- Older teens are finding a niche for themselves in the Jewish community or congregation. Whether it is in teaching or tutoring, social justice work, or a variety of other potential areas, these youth are learning that Jewish connections don’t end at thirteen.
- Older teens are maintaining and strengthening relationships with adults who guide them. In each of these examples there are adults who support and supervise the older teens, providing them with training and learning necessary, and mentoring them in their own growth as Jewish teachers and leaders.
- Older teens are continuing their own learning and growth. Whether it is learning additional prayers and trope, learning teaching skills, learning how to mentor, older teens come away with new skills and talents that can serve them well into the future.
- Older teens are taking responsibility as they hold real leadership roles. They are held accountable for their work. Someone is relying on them to show up, prepared and ready to do their job. Again, this life skill in invaluable at this time in their lives.
The wisdom of our passage from Pirke Avot is that it recognizes the bilateral nature of a mentorship relationship. Both parties learn and grow; both are enriched by the experience and the relationship. Inspired by this notion, these communities are seeing that peer-to-peer mentoring programs that connect pre and post b’nai mitzvah youth to each other in significant ways have ripple effects in adolescents’ lives and in their communities.
I am sure there are other valuable peer-to-peer mentorship programs out there. What have you done in this area? What have you learned? Please share your experiences with us so that we can learn and dialogue together in this on-line venue.
If you are interested in learning more about the B’nai Mitzvah Revolution and these innovations as well as others included in the BMR Interactive Innovations Guide, please visit www.bnaimitzvahrevolution.org.
Rabbi Laura Novak Winer, RJE is an independent Jewish education consultant working with the LA Cohort of the B’nai Mitzvah Revolution and currently serves as the President of the Association of Reform Jewish Educators (formerly NATE). She blogs at www.rabbilnw.com.