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After the first day of religious school classes at Monmouth Reform Temple this year, I sat with key lay leaders to recap the day. As we spoke, we noticed three teachers in their mid-20s gathered around a table, talking and laughing as they did their own recap of the first day of school. Watching them filled me with immense pride. We had originally planned to hire two teachers for our Mitzvah Academy program: one for 7th grade and one for 8-9th grades, but due to a last-minute influx of 8-9th grade registrants, we brought in a third faculty member just a week and a half before school started. Observing our first two faculty members welcome the third with open arms made me realized they were modeling exactly what we want our children to learn: creating a k’hilah k’dushah, a sacred community.
So, how did we end up with a surge of 8th and 9th graders in Mitzvah Academy?
I attribute it to five factors:
All professional staff working with our youth – from clergy to full-time educators, tutors and office staff – have adopted consistent messaging about the importance of youth engagement. This is amplified with our parents and families, Religious Education committee members and the congregational board. Declining participation numbers in the past made us recognize it wasn’t enough to say youth engagement is important, but that key stakeholders must also be willing to do whatever it takes to include youth. Not only are we telling our youth that we want them to stay, but the board is specifically allocating money to ensure the success of youth programming.
We moved 7-9th grade programs to a newly renovated basement. This provided a designated place for teens. We applied a fresh coat of paint on the walls, retiled the floors, and decorated the hallways leading into the space with fun memes. We added couches to classrooms to create a space that is distinct from school, where serious learning could still happen. We added large post-it paper on the walls of all classrooms to invite creativity. Instead of calling it “the basement,” we now call it “the martef,” meaning basement in Hebrew. Even when we are strapped for cash, we find money for things that are important to us. When making the investment, we focused the conversation on long-term results and the Jewish cycle, thinking about 20 to 30 years from now when these teens become parents and start making decisions about their children’s Jewish education.
The three teachers we hired built relationships with their students. This became an incentive for the teens to open up to the learning process and education happening, without even realizing it. We incorporated more NFTY-style experiences, and reinforced to the teachers that their first priority is creating a fun community in the martef. If they don’t complete the lesson, it isn’t the end of the world, so long as the teens leave happy and want to return to the building and their community. When some of our teens were asked to give a quote about their teacher, one said, “You say you are not our friend, but we do not believe you."
Student-driven curriculum is one of the greatest gifts we can give our youth. We know that teens who are “hooked” and enjoy coming will have the opportunity to be exposed to more educational material in the long term. To keep our eye on that prize, we empowered teachers to discuss with students what they want to learn. The administration then guided the teachers in creating curricula. Our teens and teachers became empowered by this opportunity, which led to a positive educational environment.
Cultivating the opportunity for friendships to form and deepen is a priority for this program. In creating a kehilah kedoshah, we want our teens to be comfortable with each other and develop friendships within these walls that they carry with them in their daily lives. Our students come from a variety of different communities and schools – so when they arrive here, we try to provide time and space for them to be together. Many of our teens do not care if there is a change in curriculum, as long as they can be in class with their friends.
The three teachers giggling on the first day of school proved we made the right choices for our congregation. Doubling the number of our 8-9th graders in our Mitzvah Academy program didn’t happen due to these five factors alone, but the process proved to us that we have the power to retain our teens. We can build the next generation of Jewish leaders by focusing on their needs and interests now, allocating space and money to design experiences with them in mind, and cultivating the support of our greater community.
Stephanie Fields is the current Religious School Principal at Monmouth Reform Temple in Tinton Falls, NJ. She has worked in congregations and Jewish Federations ranging in locations, from the Northeast to the Midwest, and the South. She is driven by a passion to provide dynamic Jewish educational experiences for all ages.