Thursday, April 28, 2011

Make Judaism Matter NOW

In his TedxPhilly talk Chris Lehmann argues “why can’t what students do matter now? I would argue that Lehmann’s charge to general education applies as much if not more to Jewish education. If anything, now more than ever Jewish students of the 21st century have capabilities and capacities to engage in real world work at younger ages, because they are of the digital age. We need to free them from the shackles of unsophisticated and four-walled Jewish learning rooted in the past, and engage students in learning that centered in their lives. We need to engage Jewish students in learning that matters NOW.

The Jewish Journal posted an article about the recent High School Jewish Futures conference and project I created along with Rabbi Gordon Bernat-Kunin at Milken Community High School as a means of engaging Jewish students in Jewish learning that mattered NOW. After years of satisfying our needs to create relevant learning through seniors sermons, personal theology statements and student led teaching sessions, this year we took the leap to true Jewish and educational innovation. 

Originally, this project started out inspired by Limmud and LimmudLA as a conference in which teens will lead sessions of their passion and choosing for other teens and the community.  However, we recognized early on that although this model contains much power and potency, it remains very difficult to curricularize. Our aim to encourage as many of our students as possible to engage other teens in ideas that mattered to them evolved into a specific project asking students to create their own unique approaches to renewing and innovating Judaism.  Inspired by the Jewish Futures Conference at last year’s GA, I started to consider how engaging our students in the question of the Jewish Future would ultimately matter more NOW than any other question we could pose to them.

Throughout the process of creating the project, Rabbi Bernat-Kunin and I struggled with defining an approach to the essential question and process of the project that would ensure that the project mattered to our students and that their work would matter to the Jewish community. In his introduction the HS Jewish Futures Conference, Rabbi Bernat-Kunin eloquently frames the tension between his renewal approach and my innovation approach, and you can view the video here.

Every student had to initially study the literature of the historical context of the questions of change, innovation and renewal in the 20th and 21st centuries; their presentations and essays are found on this wiki that collected their work. Following their literature review, students studied and reviewed current organizations, such as Hazon, Uri L’tzedek and Heeb. They differentiated these organizations based on sector of influence (i.g. community, learning, education, feminism, culture, etc.) and whether their process of engagement was renewal or innovation. Their synthesized findings were collected on a wiki, utilized by students throughout the classes as basic research for initial ideas and organizational structures. Finally students broke into groups to address a specific change area of their interest in order to create an organization or project they could propose to the Jewish community to address needs and transform the Jewish future. Their ideas range between low tech and high tech, local and global, and for a wide range of demographics.

The students, who opted to engage in an innovation approach, rather than a renewal approach,  created websites to exhibit their teaser videos, proposal and content for their change projects.  While eighteen groups created innovative projects, six finalist groups pitched their ideas during the High School Jewish Futures Conference. They presented to a panel of community leaders, including professional coaches, representatives of the Jewish federation, leading marketing experts and Jewish innovators.  In addition, in the audience were parents, community leaders and their peers. We livestreamed their pitches to offer those not present at the conference the opportunity to be a part of the experience as well. The project provided a thorough process into problem based learning that engaged students in serious inquiry in order to create something real for Judaism in the 21st century.

Just a few quotes from students about the importance of this project for them:
The Jewish Futures Project, which challenged me to think critically about the Jewish future and problem solve is a business-like "real" world scenario.

I think that the process of the Jewish Futures Project was important to my Jewish identity but I feel like the actual conference was the point where I just really felt proud to be Jewish.

I REALLY liked the Jewish Futures Project. Not only is it one of a kind and also a great idea, but also really got me and my group thinking about modern problems and how WE can change them NOW. The conference was a huge success I hope and I really think that there is a lot of potential in this project.

I think my Futures project has the potential to actually have an impact to go farther than just the confines of a classroom.

I always intended for this project and conference to be just a beginning. We hope to engage the Jewish institutional leaders, educational institutions and innovative organizations in Los Angeles and beyond in sharing the vision for how we engage the soon to be graduates of our teen programs, for whom the questions of the Jewish future truly matters. Rather than building a future FOR our teens, we can empower our teen to create a Jewish future WITH us.  Please be in touch with me if you want more information on our past project and conference and how you can be involved in developing the future.

Today’s generation of youth show a great hunger and promise in their ability to create real work that matters NOW (for the future). I intend next time to write more on the uniqueness of today’s generation of youth, and why I am so fortunate to be teaching in this day and age.

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