Engaging Madrichim with Meaning and Purpose

August 6, 2018Michelle Shapiro Abraham, MAJE, RJE and Rachel Margolis, RJE

Earlier this year, an educator posted in the Tent looking for insights about madrichim (teen aides/co-teachers) programs, and how synagogues can best engage teens as classroom helpers. The conversation that followed online generated lots of questions: How do we meaningfully engage teens as madrichim in our congregational education programs? What does it mean to run a successful madrichim program? What types of models work in congregations?

In response, the URJ hosted a webinar to address these questions and connect leaders who are thinking about this topic. Here's what we discovered as we talked and learned with one another.

Relationships Are Key

As with so much of our work, building a positive, collaborative relationship is crucial – and when madrichim and teachers are involved, multiple relationships need to be fostered. Our conversation focused on the interwoven web of relationships between educators, classroom teachers, and teens.

These partnerships must be built with care, paying thoughtful attention to how educators support and help develop teachers' expectations for the madrich(a) in any given class. It is important, too, to consider how educators provide learning and leadership development for teens to actualize their learning and flex their leadership muscles.

Questions to ask when building a madrichim program through this lens include:

  • What is the teacher's role in building a positive connection with the teen madrich(a)?
  • How does the congregational educator help support the teacher in developing a strategy for engaging each madrich(a) in the happenings of the classroom? How does the educator support teachers in setting expectations of the madrichim?

Most webinar participants expressed that it is important for the teens to have a positive relationship with the person running the madrichim program. Ask: How do we provide team-building experiences for the group and foster a deep and meaningful relationship with the madrichim program director?

Teen Autonomy is Important

Many of the participants in our conversation talked about giving teens some control over their time in the classroom and the school in general. Madrichim could decorate and manage their own office or learn and hone leadership skills by participating in staff meetings.

Through these experiences, teens will gain the skills needed to eventually teach a lesson, develop a program, or plan an event for the school. The more opportunities teens have to determine their own level of participation and express who they are as Jewish leaders, the stronger the madrichim program – and the community as a whole – will be.

Indeed, in Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain, Dr. Daniel J Siegel teaches it is crucial for the developing teen brain to have opportunities to try new things – yes, risk-taking is important for brain development! Providing opportunities for teens to take healthy risks within your religious school enriches their cognitive development.

Questions to ask when building a madrichim program through this lens include:

  • Where do we provide space for teens to be initiators and take ownership of something in the classroom or school?
  • In what ways do we give teens real responsibility?

Partnerships Make Teens Feel Valued

Strong madrichim models work to fully integrate teens into the life of the school. Ideally, teens and teachers will have a true adult-teen partnership or have a healthy mentoring relationship in which they can plan together, rely on each other in the classroom, and give honest feedback to one another.   Teens crave collaboration. Deeply connecting teens to one another and to their partner teachers can have long-lasting effects on their well-being and happiness throughout their lives.

  • How do we ensure that teens feel their role is necessary for the educational program to be successful?
  • What steps can we take to demonstrate how much we value teen involvement?

Successful Madrichim Programs are a Launchpad to Deeper Engagement

Madrichim models that embody these traits are one of many paths to meaningful post b'nei mitzvah engagement. Participants in the roundtable reported how they honor madrichim for their roles within the synagogue, offer a discount for teens to participate in the congregation’s high school programs, or, in congregations which pay their madrichim, allow them to bank their earnings for use towards camp, Mitzvah Corps, Israel trips, or other Jewish experiences. Each of these ideas demonstrates how being a madrich(a) gives teens a place in the larger ecosystem of the Jewish community.

Participants in the conversation also wondered what it would look like if communities worked together to engage and educate madrichim.

Questions to ask when building a madrichim program through this lens include:

  • How can our congregation collaborate with others to offer the best leadership development for teens?
  • How can a madrichim program help connect teens to other experiences?

There's no one right way to build a madrichim model in your congregation, but you can strengthen what you do by considering how to centralize the relationships, autonomy, and areas for partnership for all those involved.

Want to learn more? Join a network of educators who consider these questions and more in the Religious/Hebrew School Group in the Tent.

Michelle Shapiro Abraham, MAJE, RJE, is the URJ's director of learning and innovation for youth and a consultant for the Foundation for Jewish Camp.​ Rachel Margolis, RJE, is the URJ's program manager in congregational innovations.

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