Case Study: Teen Leadership Program at Temple Isaiah (Lexington, MA)
by Emily Messinger and Alicia McGee
“So mazal tov and thank you for achieving your goal of engaging an unengaged teen!”
This was an email we received last spring at the close of the school year after completing the launch of our new pilot program, TaMaR*: Teen Mentoring and Responsibility, a youth-directed learning experience designed to engage teens who are not involved in congregational life.
Following the launch of the Campaign for Youth Engagement at the 2011 Biennial (where our Temple Isaiah was the recipient of a URJ Incubator Grant), we spent significant time evaluating our existing programs, and quickly realized that our most meaningful and popular youth experiences include a NYC trip, youth group events, the Religious Action Center’s L’taken Social Justice Seminar, the Sacred Choices and Packing for College curricula, and our Rosh Chodesh and Shevet Achim groups, as well as confirmation and graduation. These experiences are successful — wholly or in part — because they provide teens with:
- Leadership roles
- Choices about learning
- Inclusion and immersion
- Connections between their personal interests and Jewish learning and experiences
- Relevance to their daily lives
- Opportunities to make the world a better place.
With this information in mind, we began to brainstorm new ideas, connecting with teens, clergy, staff members, and lay leaders until the concept of TaMaR began to take shape. In short, TaMaR enables teens to become mentors, to be mentored by adults in the congregation, and, with staff and lay leader support, to plan and implement small group service projects in the Isaiah community.
Tailored Scheduling and Topics: Currently, we serve 75% of Isaiah teens through our high school education and youth group programs. Of the 25% who are not engaged, many have challenges around our fixed weekly schedule or interests that do not align with our current offerings. TaMaR enables students to identify personally meaningful projects based on their own interests and to craft their own schedules.
Opportunities for Meaningful Work: We envision the learning between adults and teens to be two-way learning as it is written in the Talmud, “A wise person is a student who makes his or her teacher wiser.” (Chaggigah 14a)
A central focus of the initiative is to help students select and implement projects that are authentic contributions to the synagogue community. For example, one TaMaR member enhanced our fifth-grade Israel exchange program by teaching the students Hebrew and sharing with them his personal experiences around Israel. This support enabled the fifth-graders to be more prepared for and excited about their Israel school-to-school connection. It also boosted the TaMaR student’s motivation to generate high quality work, and fostered a true sense of pride within our Temple community.
High priority is placed on TaMaR projects that:
- Allow a significant portion of the community to view and/or experience the students’ work
- Provide opportunities for students to receive feedback from experts and peers at various points during the projects
- Enable students to reflect upon and adjust their work to maximize the impact and quality of the project
Build Teen Community: Currently our high school program offers grade-by-grade groupings. Our teens, however, have expressed a preference for cross-grade interactions, creating a wider pool of peers with whom they can choose to spend time. TaMaR features cross-grade learning groups and supports teens in building connections and friendships beyond their immediate age group.
Promote Inter-Generational Connections: Having teens’ parents serve as subject matter experts while other temple members serve as mentors to support the teens, we not only strengthen the Isaiah community, but also offer new entry points to Jewish life to parents of teens and other temple members who often search for a niche within the temple community.
Create an Open and Welcoming Community: Because TaMaR allows teens to feel valued and empowered, and to make worthwhile contributions—values we want to share with all Jewish young adults—we opted to open participation to teens both within and beyond the Temple Isaiah community.
Through TaMaR, we have created a more connected Isaiah community. Participants truly are able to understand the community’s needs and offer appropriate support to those in need. TaMaR also creates a deep sense of connection among participants. Said one young person, “I feel like TaMaR offers us a way to say yes to each other!”
In addition, TaMaR helps us better understand the needs and desire of our teens. Based on feedback from our current TaMaR participants, in the coming year we will, with their help, create and implement a new Leadership Development Retreat for our entire 8th-12th grade community.
We believe that TaMaR is an initiative that can be replicated in a community of any size. Key to the success of any replication, however, is to take time early in the process to understand the community and its needs, as well as to obtain support from the congregation’s lay leaders, staff, clergy and teens. Doing so will increase the likelihood that when fully implemented, TaMaR will impact the dynamic of the community and empower teens to take ownership of efforts to fulfill its needs.
* In Hebrew, tamar is the word for date, the sweet fruit. As a verb, it means “created change” and “gave value” (from the Hebrew word temura). Tamar has the same root as timmer — to rise up (like the sun) — and is a symbol for the ultimate mensch, as it is written in Psalm 92: “a tzadik shall bloom like a date-palm.”
Emily Messinger is the Director of Teen Engagement at Temple Isaiah in Lexington, MA, and Alicia McGee is a Jewish educator at Temple Isaiah. Do you have questions? Are you interested in learning more about TaMaR? Feel free to contact Emily at firstname.lastname@example.org and Alicia at email@example.com, or visit the TaMar website.
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