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By Ellie Klein Goldman
In the fall of 2013 Temple Shalom in Newton, MA launched a new weekly program for 7th and 8th graders called MINCHA. The evening includes dinner, time with friends, creative Jewish learning and leadership development. In designing MINCHA we had a number of goals in mind:
Reaching this fifth goal has proven to be harder than we expected. We carefully crafted the marketing message to say - “We want you to be here, you play an important role in what we are doing and when you’re here, we will make sure it’s fantastic.” There are not rules about attendance or book-reports for missed sessions. Students sign themselves in when they arrive and sign out when they leave. Every step of the way we intentionally designed MINCHA to feel comfortable, easy and guilt free.
We have come to understand that there is just no good reason to waste time and effort trying to compete with extracurricular sports and activities. The special interests of our young people are what make them more interesting, more valuable to our community and, frankly, more fun to hang out with. Welcoming well-rounded individuals who have diverse skills and passions will ultimately create a community with vibrancy and depth. As a synagogue community we have a unique responsibility to our young people to support their exploration of the (whole) world, encourage them as they navigate the path to adulthood and create for them sacred spaces free from rush, worry and failure.
Despite our efforts, parents still often call when their child won’t be with us and the reason is inevitably couched between several apologies and several more explanations about why some other commitment simply wasn’t changeable. Each time I listen and say, “Thank you for calling to let us know, I hope the (practice/recital/study group) goes well, tell (Josh/Sarah/Ben) that we can’t wait to hear about it when they’re back”. That’s it. No guilt, no judgment, just understanding and empathy for the complicated logistical dance that we all endure.
There are notes from these phone calls, though, and they go out to our staff saying - “Naomi had a piano recital on Tuesday, be sure to ask her next week how it went.” Rather than shame our kids and parents when schedule conflicts arise we acknowledge their achievements and encourage all of our participants to share their whole selves with us when they are present.
At MINCHA our goal is not that they come every week, but that when they come we welcome them in to a space where the constant hum of their busy lives is stilled even for a few hours and they are free to think, create and befriend one another. We believe that this will enable their Jewish moments to be imprinted as moments of peace and pondering. We will become the calm in the storm that they seek out when the excitement and demands of adolescent reality becomes too much to bear. Rather than run from the sanctuary following B’nai Mitzvah we hope that our kids will return to find sanctuary in their synagogue when life is hard or overwhelming and we plan to be there when it happens.
We are now more than halfway through the inaugural year of MINCHA and so far the attendance numbers are holding strong around 90% each week. We have seen weeks as low as 70%, particularly during rehearsal week for one of the middle school plays. The highlight of that week happened during our staff meeting when someone suggested that next year we (the staff) all plan ahead and attend the play together to celebrate with them.
The next step in our Strategic Plan for Youth Engagement is the design and launch of a new High School program this Fall called Ma’ARIV. In the spirit of respect for the whole person, Ma’ARIV participants will be able to engage in community activities when they are available and we will continue to reinforce our support of all the interests in their lives that bring them joy, inspiration and excitement.
Ellie Klein Goldman is the Director of Youth Engagement at Temple Shalom of Newton, MA. In her work with 7-12 graders, Ellie works to create a vibrant and comprehensive Jewish experience for every young person and takes seriously her role as community builder. She began her career in Jewish Youth Work as the Regional Director of NFTY Michigan and then went on to complete the Double Master’s program at Hebrew Union College and the University of Southern California in Jewish Communal Service and Social Work. Ellie’s previous congregational experience was at Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles, CA and Temple Sinai in Denver, CO.