Program keeps teens linked to Judaism

BY JILL KASSANDER, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

By the time high school students reach their junior year they have a pretty good sense of what interests them and how they want to spend their time. If they are students in the Reform Jewish community they have quite possibly completed at least three years of Hebrew school, 11 years of religious school and been confirmed in 10th grade — and been with most of the same students the entire time. When the St. Louis area Reform rabbis compared notes they realized they are doing much better than most communities in keeping students through 10th grade. However, it also became clear they are really not doing any better than their counterparts around the country in keeping students in formal Jewish learning after confirmation. “And that’s just critical,” said Temple Israel’s Rabbi John Franken.

“When students are confirmed they are reaffirming their commitment to Judaism and the Jewish people,” Franken said. “Just when they are becoming sophisticated thinkers and beginning to make decisions that will sometimes determine the course of their lives and value choices for decades to come, too many of these young adults are disappearing from formal Jewish classrooms.”

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A new high school program for every student in the Reform Jewish community entering 11th and 12th grade is planning to change that trend. Beginning this fall, the Post-Confirmation Academy will bring together students from every Reform congregation and be taught by the clergy of the Reform congregations.

Part of the impetus for beginning the program was the closing of Camp Kee Tov. “While the camp closing made a small amount of funding available, the biggest impact was staff time availability,” said director of the commission on Reform Jewish education Michelle Brooks, who is administrating the program. “When we asked each Reform synagogue what service they would like to have, the same topic came up at every congregation — post-confirmation.”

The local association of Reform rabbis has actually been discussing pooling their resources and creating the program for over a year.

“The Post-Confirmation Academy was born of a recognition that Jewish continuity to a large degree depends on the continuity of Jewish education,” Franken said. While each synagogue will continue to have its own confirmation classes, post-confirmation students will be encouraged to attend the new academy. “I am very excited about the program beginning in St. Louis,” said United Hebrew’s Rabbi Brigitte Rosenberg. “Parents and students are already beginning to talk about it. I am planning on contacting each confirmation student to personally invite them to participate in the academy.”

The program will meet two Monday evenings a month with classes being held at Congregation Shaare Emeth for the fall semester and at Temple Emanuel for the spring semester. The rabbis spoke with members of the community last summer as they made decisions about the school. “We heard from many people in the St. Louis Jewish community that families have dinners together on Sunday evenings,” Rosenberg said. “We respect that and didn’t want to create a situation to compete with it. We also heard from families there is much less stuff happening on Monday evenings, which is when we decided to hold our classes.”

Classes will meet from 6:30-8:30 p.m. with a dinner at 6 p.m. built into the cost of the program. “It will be teen friendly food,” said Brooks. “We want students to be able to socialize with each other before the program. Also, the rabbis will be visiting at dinner to take advantage of being with the teens.”

Students will participate in core classes arranged by grade level for the first hour. The second hour all students will be able to choose from a variety of electives. Some possibilities that may be offered each semester include: Judaism and feminism; Jewish cooking; seminar on Yiddish language; Jewish literature; Jews in film, and art and Judaism. Every Reform congregation is supporting the new venture. Classes the first semester will be taught by Franken, Rosenberg and Rabbi Andrea Goldstein from Congregation Shaare Emeth.

The rabbis hope to give context and form to really engage the students with Judaism and great Jewish teachers to lead them through their most mature years of high school and beyond into their young adulthood. “By joining forces our programs will be much more powerful and attractive to the kids,” said Franken. “We realize there are great synergies that we share: the more rabbis the more passions; the more teachers the more subjects; the more subjects the more interest.”

The rabbis are looking forward to working together. “There is a lot of interest and enjoyment in collaboration, especially for a cause like this which is second to none,” said Franken. “How well we engage students and turn them on to Judaism and help them figure out their Jewish commitment in grades eight, nine, 10, 11 and 12 will have an inestimable bearing on the extent to which they are engaged in Jewish life and have Jewish commitments for the rest of their lives.”

The Post-Confirmation Academy enrollment brochure is being mailed in July, and the kickoff program will take place on Monday evening, Aug. 28, at Shaare Emeth. All 11th- and 12th-grade teens from the Reform community are invited. Teens who are musically inclined are encouraged to bring their instruments since it will be an open mike night. Local Reform clergy will also be performing. “Of course food is a given,” said Brooks. “It’s a great opportunity for teens to reconnect with friends after the summer, learn about the program and meet other Reform teens in the community.”

For more information on the Post-Confirmation Academy contact Michelle Brooks at 314-442-3774 or [email protected]