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B'NAI TORAH         (Summary: 2696)
RABBI JORDAN PARR AND RACHEL MARGOLIS

Goal: Integrate the formal and informal youth activities (religious school and youth group) to create a cohesive, engaging program for teens.

  • The B’nai Torah students will have a firm grasp of Torah, avodah and g’milut chasadim (learning, prayer and social justice).
  • The B’nai Torah students will realize that Jewish learning is a lifelong activity.
  • The B’nai Torah students will be prepared to live an independent, Reform Jewish lifestyle while in college and beyond.

Summary:
The integrated program was built on “Al Sh’loshah D’varim,” and had the following principles:

  • Torah: classroom learning (took place on Sunday afternoons, after religious school)
    • Classes included a lower and upper level; Rabbi Parr taught one class in each level.
    • Students had to take six semesters of study, and had eight semesters to do so. (This recognized that high school students are incredibly busy, and allowed them to take “time off” as needed.)
    • The classes were open to everyone—students were always able to come back after “dropping out”—but in order to achieve Bagrut (see below), they still needed to complete the six semesters of learning, even if it meant independent or summer study. This gave a sense of “fairness” to the other students.
    • Classes included a core class for the first hour and an elective class for the second hour.
  • Avodah: Youth Group
    • B’nai Torah “favored” some youth activities over others; for examples, students earned more credits for going to NFTY programs rather than to BBYO.
    • Students could get credits for participating in High Holy Day services, leading Shabbat services, etc.
    • This aspect revitalized youth programs so that students were running things like the Purim-spiel (which was the culmination of a Torah class).
    • This was an example of the integrated approach: if it was a NFTY retreat weekend, there was no class.
  • G’milut chasadim: various options for tzedakah
    • Most students were teaching assistants/madrichim; some weren’t interested in other programs.
    • Students would take a madrichim training elective in 8th grade

In addition, the program did away with the standard model of Confirmation in 10th grade. Instead, students had a special bagrut (graduation) ceremony in 12th grade. The Bagrut experience was carefully scheduled to be before the seniors’ secular high school graduations. This decision was made in conjunction with the kids, parents and educator in the congregation. A student needed 18 credits (six from each of three categories above) to achieve Bagrut.

In addition, they added some special symbolic markers:

  • At age 16, the students would participate in a “car mitzvah,” for which they received a mezuzah for their car. This got them coming to services and up on the bimah.
  • Based on a tradition Rabbi Parr had done growing up in Detroit, every single Bagrut has his or her name linked inside the ark. (This has the potential to link generations of students in a long-standing tradition)

Explain how the program did or did not help you reach your goal:
We were able to retain 85% of post-b’nei mitzvah students. Not all of these students gained enough credits to receive Bagrut (because they weren’t all interested in fulfilling the requirement), but they were at least involved. These students proved to be great role models for the younger students.

Administratively, the synagogue moved from having two committees focused on youth (religious school and youth) to one integrated committee.

Number of potential participants: 30
Number of actual participants: 25

How did you measure success?
Bagrut rate, number of students in classes, number of students as madrichim (teacher assistants), participation in youth group

What did you learn from this program?
Moving Confirmation to 12th grade was a stroke of genius enabling us to retain the kids for a longer period and to bring our educational program in line with their life experiences.

Did you make any changes after your initial foray into this program? If so, what were they?
The major change was to segregate student learning from adult learning. We had thought that the kids could study alongside adults but this did not work for either cohort. We also switched from trimesters to semesters; it was just easier from an administrative level to find two sets of teachers instead of three. Also, as this was a work in progress, we were constantly tinkering with it.

If you could run the program again, what changes would you make?
It would have been nice to open it to the community. We also would have found a way to introduce conversational Hebrew.

Is there anything that would be important for another congregation to know if they were to implement this program or something like it?
It was important to involve the students and parents in the planning from the start. Since we were making such a radical break with Reform tradition by delaying Confirmation, we had to make them our partners before we went to the Board to implement the change; it could not be “top down.” It took a year of planning and then at least two years of tinkering before we called it a success; that’s how long it took before our first class matriculated. You have to give it time to work.

How much did it cost the congregation? How much did it cost the participants?
The program was budget neutral. Some teachers volunteered to teach, since classes were only for 6-8 weeks. The students wanted to attend; discipline problems were non-existent as the students chose their classes and also chose to be present.

What were the roles/responsibilities of the people implementing the program?
The school director had overall responsibility. We also had a B’nai Torah registrar who helped with the record keeping (a rather large job) and weekly set-up, as the classes followed the regular religious school. The youth group advisor and madrichim supervisor also had major roles in the program (Torah and Avodah components). The rabbi also taught each semester, as did volunteer congregants and outside instructors. All opportunities for students to lead worship (High Holy Days, Torah, shivah, etc.) also were the responsibility of the rabbi. The Religious School Committee supervised the program.

RESOURCES: comprehensive “Welcome to B’nai Torah” guide

This summary is part of the Campaign for Youth Engagement, which endeavors to address the challenges of engaging teens and families post-b’nei mitzvah. To read others like it, search keyword “youth engagement,” and click here for the next one.


Learn more about learning opportunities by visiting the URJ’s Lifelong Learning web page or by contacting a Lifelong Learning Specialist.
 
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