CAJE finds early success with new JOLT teen program

BY VICTORIA SIEGEL, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

Starting with August’s kick-off event at Olivette Lanes to this current trimester, the response to JOLT’s (Jewish Opportunities and Learning for Teens, formerly known as Hebrew High or the Jewish Community High School) new programming has been very positive and energetic. In fact, the number of students who registered for the first trimester is double compared to last year’s enrollment numbers.

“We have 64 students, representing eight congregations,” Maxine Weil, educational director of JOLT, said. “That’s a biggie. When we started planning last spring we really wanted to grow the program and to attract students from all the area congregations and all the denominations.” Her efforts have paid off as the school now has students representing Reform, Conservative and Traditional branches of the area.

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New to the school, which has been in existence for well over 20 years, are brothers Noah, eighth grader at Parkway Middle School, and Max Ockner, senior at Parkway Central High School, of Traditional Congregation. Their mother, Lois, decided to enroll her sons because she wants them to have Judaism in their consciousness as they get older and have families. “I want them to experience something Jewish that’s beyond shul and religious school…something past prayer,” she said. “I want them to have a cultural experience as part of a collective Jewish experience.”

Noah is enjoying seeing friends and having a Jewish learning experience. So far, he gives JOLT an ‘A.’ “It’s interesting and I can relate to what we’re talking about in class. I like the mix of ages and synagogues. You can share opinions with others and learn from others,” he said.

Lois agrees with Noah and thinks the plurality of the students and teachers is great. “It was the thing that was attractive for us.” She thinks JOLT, which is a project of Central Agency for Jewish Education (CAJE) and a beneficiary agency of the Jewish Federation, is a completely

natural extension of Traditional Congregation and would

recommend it to other families.

Another newcomer to JOLT is 18-year-old Daniel Freedman of United Hebrew. A senior at Parkway North, he wanted a new and different learning environment including different kids, different rabbis, and different courses. “I think the diversity is nice. I hadn’t been able to see those ideas before. Now I’m being mixed with others who are Jewish but have different viewpoints. It’s nice to be able to put all this together,” Freedman said.

Barbie Barnholtz, the camp and youth director at Congregation B’nai Amoona, said Weil spent the summer working with the rabbis and education directors around town to create a diverse school. She said that regardless of a student’s home synagogue or denomination, she’s seeing students coming together and divisions breaking down. “They’re kids coming together to learn Jewishly together. Doesn’t matter when you come here if you’re Reform or Conservative or Orthodox,” Barnholtz said.

Ellie Rosenblatt, 16 years old, is in her fourth year of the

program. A member of Congregation B’nai Amoona and a student at Parkway Central, she likes the variety of classes and that it’s a different way to get a Jewish education. “This year there is a lot of new people so I get to see people not only from B’nai Amoona but from around the community.” She says her experience at JOLT has made her more knowledgeable of Judaism as a whole.

Weil attributes part of JOLT’s success to having a variety of class offerings. They include: “Jews R News,” taught by Bob Cohn, editor-in-chief emeritus of the Jewish Light; “Crazy Rabbi Stories” with Rabbi Ryan Dulkin; a Hebrew speaking course with Chani Pinsberg where students and teacher speak only Hebrew in the class; English is not allowed. Another innovative course is called “A Bite of the Bible” led by Cyndee Levy. In this class students learn Midrash and cook with foods from the Bible. Currently, they are studying Creation and the Garden of Eden so they made pomegranate smoothies and made apple pies. The class talked about the apple and good and evil.

A popular new addition to JOLT this year is a dinner option where teens can come early to eat and socialize together before going to class. “Before, I worked at CAJE Hebrew School and would come straight to JOLT without time to eat dinner. Now I get to sit down and eat,” Rosenblatt said. This response to teens’ busy schedules has created an unexpected, and very positive, outcome: an energetic and relaxed environment. “There’s a lot of great energy this year,” Weil said, “and a lot of enthusiasm.” Freedman said the whole atmosphere is relaxed, especially compared to daytime high school. Barnholtz, who had attended Hebrew High as a teenager, has also noticed the different energy and believes that the dinner option is

contributing to it because friendships are starting before classes begin.

Another new feature is the mid-evening break when students get a chance to visit with one another, grab a cold drink, and fill out a card for a raffle drawing each week. And the new trimester schedule has turned out to be another reason enrollment numbers are up. “I like how it’s broken up throughout the year,” Lois said. “It’s really manageable as far as the commitment they ask you to make.” Sonia Dobinsky, executive director of CAJE, said they understand that teens have very busy and unpredictable lives so they wanted to create a schedule that could accommodate them. “By offering trimesters if you participate in a fall sport you can attend the middle and spring sessions.” For Freedman, this new schedule fits well with his sports commitments since he plays tennis in the spring.

Dobinsky is very pleased with JOLT’s new programming and how it fits into CAJE’s overall strategic mission to be pluralistic. “We have diverse groups of teens religiously, congregationally, and by age who don’t regularly come together under the same umbrella. This is something really only a community organization, like CAJE, could do.”