The Ripple Effects of Meaningful Peer-to-Peer Mentorship



By Rabbi Laura Novak Winer

When I recently asked a group of colleagues to help me think about examples from pop culture in which teens mentor other teens, we found it surprisingly difficult to come up with genuine examples.

In the movie Clueless (1995), Cher (Alicia Silverstone) becomes the self-appointed fashion mentor to a new girl at school in order to help propel said new girl up the social ladder. In the Broadway show Wicked, a similar dynamic is at play when Glinda and Elphaba overcome their dislike of each other and Glinda attempts to give Elphaba a makeover. We came up with a few similar examples, but none quite fit the bill.

Where are the examples of true peer-to-peer mentorship – peers helping each other learn and grow into their best selves? Are there times when adolescents can be there for each other to create healthy bonds and build relationships with each other for the sake of positive, worthwhile connections and enrichment?

Yes, there are! We may not see it in pop culture, but it’s happening in our Jewish communities.

The quintessential rabbinic text about mentorship is found in Pirke Avot 1:6, “Provide yourself a teacher and get yourself a friend.” In reading this text, we often imagine a teacher who may be older or have much more life experience than ourselves. We imagine a traditional mentor/protégé relationship. Yet, for some communities considering how to revolutionize the b’nai mitzvah experience, the idea of finding teachers from amongst peers is creating significant impacts in their adolescent communities.

The B’nai Mitzvah Revolution is a network of congregational professionals, lay leaders, and educational thought leaders seeking to bring renewed depth and meaning to Jewish learning. Participating congregations experiment with and create new models of preparation and engagement for b’nai mitzvah that are meaningful and relevant to young people and their families.

Peer b’nai mitzvah tutoring is a model of mentorship frequently emerging in congregations.

The Tzofim program at Temple Adat Elohim in Thousand Oaks, CA, is a peer-tutoring program designed to help the congregation’s newest young adults maintain their connection to Judaism and the synagogue after becoming a bar/bat mitzvah. Beginning as soon as the week after their own ceremony, 7th-10th grade students become tutors, guiding their own students through the process of becoming a bar/bat mitzvah. Post-b’nai mitzvah teens experience tangible ways to make an impact on the lives of others, while pre-b’nai mitzvah teens find mentors and role models with whom they can share concerns, ask questions, and gain guidance about the b’nai mitzvah experience.

Temple Beth El in Charlotte, N.C., runs a similar program, B’nai Mitzvah Madrichim, in which 9th-12th grade teens experience the responsibility of a “real job,” earning minimum wage and working two to12 hours per month tutoring pre-b’nai mitzvah teens in prayers, Torah, and Haftarah trope. The program has created a culture in which younger teens are often heard saying, “When I’m a madrich…”

Social justice work is another venue in which peer-to-peer mentorship has great potential. In the Detroit area, families from participating congregations can enroll in the Peer Corps Detroit program as a way of completing their mitzvah project requirement. This paid mentorship program invites Jewish teens (10th-12th grade) and pre-b’nai mitzvah students to work together at a service site in metro-Detroit for three and a half months. Through their mentor relationships, b’nai mitzvah students participate in meaningful mitzvah projects, while older teens learn leadership and mentorship skills. Together, they create genuine and long-term relationships with each other and their service sites.

In each of these instances, the institutions are learning lessons about youth engagement, the value of peer-to-peer relationships, and the subsequent impact these programs can have on adolescents, congregations, and communities. Here are a few of the positive impacts:

  • These programs build a culture in which preteens are able to connect with older teens in order to find guidance, ask questions, and share life experiences together.
  • Older teens find a niche for themselves in their Jewish communities. Whether it’s in teaching, tutoring, social justice work, or other areas, these youth learn that Jewish connections don’t end at 13.
  • Older teens maintain and strengthen relationships with the adults who guide them. In each of these examples, adults supervise the older teens, providing them with training and mentoring them in their own growth as Jewish leaders.
  • Older teens continue to grow and learn. Whether it’s learning additional prayers and trope, teaching skills, or how to mentor, these teens come away with new skills and talents that will serve them into the future.
  • Older teens hold real leadership roles and take responsibility. They are held accountable for their work: Someone is relying on them to show up, prepared and ready to do their job. Again, this life skill is invaluable, especially at this time in their lives.

The wisdom of the passage from Pirke Avot is that it recognizes the bilateral nature of a mentorship relationship. Both parties learn and grow; both are enriched by the relationship. Inspired by this notion, our Jewish communities are seeing that peer-to-peer mentoring programs that connect pre- and post-b’nai mitzvah youth in significant ways have ripple effects in adolescents’ lives and in their communities.

Surely other valuable peer-to-peer mentorship programs exist, so tell us: What is your community doing in this area? What have you learned? Share your experiences in the comments section below so we can all learn and dialogue together.

If you’re interested in learning more about the B’nai Mitzvah Revolution and these innovations and others like them, please visit www.bnaimitzvahrevolution.org.

Rabbi Laura Novak Winer, RJE is an independent Jewish education consultant working with the LA Cohort of the B’nai Mitzvah Revolution and currently serves as the President of the Association of Reform Jewish Educators (formerly NATE). She blogs at www.rabbilnw.com.

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