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Report from the Field: A final dispatch from Haiti

Micha Odenheimer, founding director of Tevel b’Tzedek, is blogging from Haiti this week for Repair the World. For the past two months, nine volunteers from Tevel b’Tzedek have been working to support the communities devestated by the January 12 earthquake, running the only school in the Petitionville refugee camp. Read the previous post here and check back tomorrow for more.

Tevel b’Tzedek works in teams. Although there are volunteer organizations that believe that it is best to send one person at a time into the field to work in local organizations, and I understand and respect their reasoning, we have a different approach—perhaps influenced by the Israeli/Jewish experience. We think that teamwork is essential, that building community among the volunteers (as well, of course, within the target population) is a crucial party of the volunteering experience. Israelis and Jews as well know how to create community—and how to draw strength from what community has to offer.
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Photo Journal: In the Forest with BINA and JNF

Just about every Jewish kid (and many non-Jewish kids too) has had a tree planted in their honor in Israel. Far fewer have ever actually seen said tree…or even visited a forest in Israel. But on a recent service trip with BINA and the Jewish National Fund (JNF), participants found themselves up close and personal with a bona fide Galilean grove.

BINA was founded in 1996 with the goal of being a “vibrant center [in Israel] for Jewish learning and Tikkun Olam.” Their programs for young adults include study, social action/justice work, and community leadership, including a 5-10 month program that engages 22-28 year olds in both service and Jewish learning. (Participants choose between a coexistence track and a community service track.) The organization also runs a secular yeshiva in Tel Aviv, along with a wide variety of other programs.
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What to do about Jewish teens

Observers of Jewish education for teens are increasingly concerned about a disparity between the participation of boys and girls. Lamenting the absence of boys in youth programs, Jewish educators and philanthropists have turned their attention more and more to enticing boys to become involved.

I wonder, however, whether the concern over boys masks a deeper issue that is more difficult to confront: Jewish teen participation rates are abysmal in general, regardless of gender.

Rather than lament the misguided notion that we have disenfranchised boys in the Jewish community, let’s focus on how to empower all Jewish teens.

Admittedly, most rational people fear teens. We fear their hormones and mood swings. We fear their experimentation with substances and sexuality. We fear their penchant for argument. We don’t know how to approach them or curry favor with them. Most professionals steer clear.

This seems to be true for many funders as well. Everyone is interested in primary Jewish education, with its crown Jewel of bar/bat mitzvah, and recently, major initiatives such as the reinvigoration of Hillel, the explosive growth of Chabad and the founding of Birthright Israel and Repair the World have targeted 18- to 26-year-olds.

Clearly, to be a young adult is hip. They get to dig ditches in Guatemala for spring break, fly to Israel for free, and choose a myriad of free activities at campus Jewish centers and Moishe Houses.

In contrast, options for Jewish high school students haven’t changed much since the 1950s, and despite impressive initiatives in Jewish camping and in particular Jewish communities, day school tuition and synagogue-based programs remain prohibitively expensive.

Nor do researchers take much interest in Jewish teens. The study that everyone cites on teen participation rates, “Being a Jewish Teenager in America: Trying to Make It,” already is 10 years old. I am hard-pressed to identify any rigorous large-scale studies that have been conducted since.

So what do we know about teens? Anyone who has taken Psychology 101 is aware that a defining aspect of teen development is a process of identity exploration, individuation and independence from parents, much of which occurs through the medium of a tightly knit peer group.

For the 85-88 percent of teens who do not attend Jewish day school, the 60-plus percent of teens whose families do not belong to a synagogue and the huge numbers of teens who do not participate in Jewish youth groups or camps, the peer group more often than not is a religiously, racially, ethnically and sometimes economically diverse group.

Faced with this reality, one option is to continue with business as usual: We can alienate a majority of Jewish teens by continuing to insist that they only bring their full Jewish selves to bear in Jewishly exclusive spaces. However, it is pretty clear that the standard model of ripping teens out of their everyday lives and placing them in artificial, Jewish-only peer groups has failed for all but the most affiliated teens.

Or we can promote Jewish learning that focuses on meaning-making and encourages teens to integrate their Jewish selves into every aspect of their lives.

To be sure, many believe that the purpose of American Jewish education is to prevent assimilation.

Wake up! We have already assimilated! Jewish teens see themselves in Rahm Emanuel, Sarah Silverman and Adam Lambert, among others. Jewish teens are smart, savvy and motivated. They understand complexity and fill their lives with myriad academic and extracurricular pursuits.

This is not a value judgment; it is simply reality. If we continue to frame Jewish learning as peripheral, as something to do in isolation from their friends and everyday activities, then how will Jewish values ever find a place in their lives?

Several initiatives have successfully developed models for Jewish learning in secular spaces.

The Curriculum Initiative partners with private high schools to introduce Jewish content into student clubs, all-school assemblies and classrooms. By partnering with Jewish student leaders and their teachers, TCI develops and teaches Jewish content that is rooted in student interests and developmental needs.

The Jewish Outreach Institute takes a similar approach by running Jewish programs in public spaces, where barriers to participation are lower than what is typically found in Jewish institutions. Even BBYO has conducted “Rock the Vote” programs at public high schools.

The beauty of Jewish tradition is that it imagines that every place and every act from the most mundane to the most extraordinary can be infused with meaning. This sense of integration should guide Jewish education.

Integration does not connote a “watering down” of Jewish learning. In-depth Jewish learning should be able to match the rigor of any learning and should energize Jewish teens and their friends. By way of comparison, wouldn’t it be absurd to assert that African-American studies are only relevant to African Americans? That African-American studies can only be rigorously pursued in historically African-American schools and colleges with exclusively African-American teachers?

Jewish students may internalize and personalize Jewish learning differently from their peers, but that should not affect the quality of the learning nor the potential impact.

Jewish teen education is in need of a massive paradigm shift, but the hand wringing about what to do is silly. All we have to do is talk to teens. They understand their worlds better than we do.

Repair Interview: Eliza Parad and the Jewish Organizing Initiative (JOI)

Eliza Parad has social work in her blood. Literally everyone in her family – her parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, brother and even sister-in-law – are committed social workers. And while, like her family members Eliza graduated college with a deep commitment to social change, she found herself growing deeply frustrated with the model of direct advocacy.

This past year through a bit of “right place right time” luck, Eliza became a fellow at the Jewish Organizing Initiative (JOI), a Boston-based organization that runs a year-long fellowship that engages Jewish activists in their 20s-30s in fostering “community organizing as a strategy for social change.” Over the past year, the JOI experience has surprised Eliza in more ways than one, and enlivened her enthusiasm for both her work and Jewish life. Eliza took a moment to speak with me about the importance of building power in a community, finding strength in numbers, and her experience co-leading her family’s seder for the first time.
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Report from the Field: Making the Next Move in Haiti

Micha Odenheimer, founding director of Tevel b’Tzedek, is blogging from Haiti this week for Repair the World. For the past two months, nine volunteers from Tevel b’Tzedek have been working to support the communities devestated by the January 12 earthquake, running the only school in the Petitionville refugee camp. Read the previous post here and check back tomorrow for more.

On the road back from Jacmel to Port au Prince, I talk to Ted, a young man we brought along to translate as we visited rural villages and the earthquake affected area outside the capital city in order to figure out what our next move in Haiti should be. Ted is a Haitian immigrant to the United States—he had a green card, but no citizenship, and moved back to Haiti several months before the earthquake after some trouble with the law.
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Weekly Torah: Parshat Acharei Mot-Kedoshim 5770

This post is part of a weekly series of Torah commentaries presented by the American Jewish World Service. It was contributed by Aviva Presser Aiden.

At the outset of Parshat Kedoshim, all Israel receives the nebulous command of “kedoshim tihiyu…You shall be holy, for I am holy; I am the Lord your God.” ((Leviticus 19:2.)) The text then proceeds to enumerate numerous laws appearing to detail the requirements of this injunction.

Within this collection of verses we find an interesting parallel: In Leviticus 19:3, the text dictates that part of fulfilling the commandment to be holy includes the obligation to “… revere [one’s] mother and [one’s] father, [and to] keep my Sabbaths, I am the Lord your God.” ((Leviticus 19:3.)) Toward the end of Chapter 19, a second verse, also linked to holiness, structurally and linguistically parallels 19:3 quite closely. It requires that “you shall keep my Sabbaths and venerate My Sanctuary, I am the Lord.” ((Leviticus 19:30.)) In these two verses, the language of Sabbath reverence is identical, and the word for reverence—tira’u—is used in relation to both parents and the Sanctuary.
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Report from the Field: More from Haiti

Micha Odenheimer, founding director of Tevel b’Tzedek, is blogging from Haiti this week for Repair the World. For the past two months, nine volunteers from Tevel b’Tzedek have been working to support the communities devestated by the January 12 earthquake, running the only school in the Petitionville refugee camp. Read the previous post here and check back tomorrow for more.

The streets of Port au Prince are far emptier than on any “normal” day—there’s a gas shortage, so buying gas means a wait of hours at a gas station, or buying “loose” gallons on the black market for 12 dollars and fifty cents. Still, on the way to a meeting, traffic is slow enough to be startled and delighted by the names the Haitians give their businesses: The Shekhina Food Shop, Adonai hardware and utensils, the El Shaddai School. Biblical language—and especially, apparently, sundry and profound varieties of Hebrew divine names—are burned into Haiti’s consciousness. The Biblical story of liberation from slavery resonates here. I wonder how it feels for my secular Israelis compatriots to see their own religious language—both strange and familiar to them writ large on sign boards in a place so far from home.
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Report from the Field: Tevel B’Tzedek in Haiti

Micha Odenheimer, founding director of Tevel b’Tzedek, is blogging from Haiti this week for Repair the World. For the past two months, nine volunteers from Tevel b’Tzedek have been working to support the communities devestated by the January 12 earthquake, running the only school in the Petitionville refugee camp. Read more about Tevel b’Tzedek’s work in Haiti tomorrow.

The Petionville refugee camp, stretched across what was, before the earthquake, a country club for the Haitian elite, houses some 60,000 people – it’s the largest refugee camp for the earthquake victims in country. Thousands of tents, constructed of red, yellow, blue or orange tarp, cover the rolling hills of the camp like strange plastic flowers; in the distance, you can see the sea. People from all over Port au Prince and from a cross section of Haitian society are living here—some come from crowded slums not much different than the camp, others are middle class families; all of their former lives, and often some of their closest relatives are buried in the rubble of their homes.

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On Tap: Earth Day Turns 40

Tomorrow (April 22), Earth Day will celebrate its 40th birthday.

The environmental movement has changed a lot since 1970 when Senator Nelson decided to throw an annual awareness party for the earth. (Fun fact: Earth Day was founded not by a bunch of hippies, but by a straight-laced Senator from Wisconsin.)

In many ways, the threats of polluted air and water, species extinction, global warming and environmental injustice are just as dire as they were 40 years ago. Meanwhile, some activists suggest that Earth Day has lost its initial power and relevancy, and that focusing the ideas of conservation and care of the planet on one day makes them easier to forget the rest of the year. The very fact that the holiday is reaching middle age while humans’ consumption of fossil fuels remains sky-high is perhaps a case in point.

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In Their Own Words: AJWS Volunteers

Traveling abroad is incredibly rewarding, but it can be frustrating to figure out how to share the amazing, life-changing experiences one has during the trip with loved ones back home. Sure there are photographs, blogs and lengthy group emails, but nothing quite captures the experience like telling someone about it in one’s one voice.

This frustration holds true for any vacation, but feels especially powerful after a service trip. Not only has the participant experienced a new place – it’s culture and people – but they have also made deep, lasting connections with a community and, hopefully, made an impact on that community. More often than not, the participant is often significantly shaped by the experience as well.

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