It was early on a winter Sunday morning – early for teenagers – and they had all come together for the bagels, of course, but also to see each other, and impressively, to study Torah together. We were studying during the month of Shevat, the month of the Jewish holiday Tu B’Shevat, which is celebrated as the ‘birthday of the trees’, the day on which we mark the renewal of nature’s cycle of rebirth after the dormant winter. But rather than teaching about the origin and customs of the holiday, the Orot high school program was pushing our students to go deeper and to bring the holiday into their own lives in meaningful ways.
We were asking them the essential question: How do we find the unique Torah that lives in each of us and how do we bring it out into the sun, into our daily lives?
We were studying a selection from Genesis Rabbah, a collection of midrashic commentaries on the first book of the Torah. The midrash asks the question: How could Abraham follow the laws and teachings of the Torah, if the Torah had not yet been given? A rational question. And the midrash’s answer: “His (Abraham’s) kidneys became like two whole jugs and they would flow with Torah.”
“Wow,” one student observed, “really? The whole Torah was in his own kidneys? Inside of himself?” The students were blown away by this idea – the notion that Torah could be more than just the words in those five books of Moses. That Torah could be something else, something intrinsic, could be living within each of them, within each teenager sitting in that room.
This was an a-ha moment for our high school students. And so gratifying for us, the founders of Orot and the teachers in this Orot high school program, because we saw the realization of our vision: to show these teenagers that Torah can be an active part of who they are, in unique ways, and that that personal Torah can be brought into the world as a source of support, nourishment, and guidance for their often-stressful and challenging teenage lives.
High school is an intense time of life, filled with academic, extracurricular, social, and emotional challenges: meeting outside expectations, figuring out who you are and who you want to be, confronting shifting social pressures and demands. Judaism can be a true refuge from these storms, a shelter from the many stresses teenagers face on a daily basis. But only if it is offered in a certain way.
Through the development of our unique Orot high school program, we have come to understand that designing an innovative and impactful Jewish teen program requires the following:
- Invites teens to bring their whole selves into the room: the program has to be holistic, meeting teens where they are and inviting all parts of themselves to the table: head, heart, body, spirit. Being a teenager is enormously stressful and challenging today – that’s why we created a curriculum that is text-based and tradition-centered, but also built around the real social-emotional needs of teenagers, welcoming all of the messy realities of teenage lives.
- Open new doorways: the program must acknowledge openly and without judgement that there is no single ‘right’ path into personal Jewish meaning-making and identify formation. Show that truth to them by opening up multiple entry points through different modes of engagement – texts, music, art, writing, theater, meditation, yoga – so that the teens have a personal choice in the paths they take.
- Make it relevant: the program has to show them – explicitly- that Jewish wisdom can be more than ‘interesting’ – it can be an everyday tool that they can bring into their lives in concrete ways. It can be a place of emotional and spiritual refuge for them, as they face the stresses and pressures of adolescent life.
- Empower them to create their own Torah: the program must help them see themselves as actively shaping and co-creating their own Judaism, and must guide them in accessing the unique Torah that resides within their inner selves. Give the teenagers concrete takeaways that they can write down, create, practice during their week in class, during after-school sports, in their teenage relationships, in their family dynamics with parents and siblings. Help them to construct Jewish tools to carry the Torah into their daily interactions.
Keeping these core beliefs front and central each week of our Orot high school program, we have been able to create a new model of Jewish supplementary high school learning – one that is personally impactful and finds its resonance beyond the classroom walls, in the lives of these impassioned and open-hearted Jewish teenagers as they craft their own Jewish selves.
Rebecca Minkus Lieberman is one of the founders of Orot: Center for New Jewish Learning. In September of 2014, several Jewish educator friends came together to found Orot to construct a new paradigm for Jewish learning that speaks to the needs of today’s American Jews. Orot was founded to offer opportunities for transformative Jewish learning and practice that open up innovative and personal entry points into our body of Jewish wisdom through text, music, art, meditation, yoga, and creative writing. Jews of all backgrounds, all levels of belief and practice, are given the chance to own Torah and discover the ways in which it speaks powerfully to their lived experiences. Find out more at: www.orotcenter.org.