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ARTICLE Expanding Horizons, Ensuring a Bright Future

In two weeks from now, students at The Weber School, a trans-denominational Jewish High School in Atlanta, will have the opportunity to participate in a brand new program that promises to expand their horizons beyond the reaches of the science lab and the cafeteria. “Weber Teaching Fellows,” a signature program, will convene a cohort 10th, 11th and 12th grade students, who will work as a teachers, counselors, youth group leaders or other positions in an educational capacity in a community program (including Synagogue religious schools, camps, youth groups, preschool programs, etc.). In addition to their onsite supervisors, the cohort will participate in a teaching practicum facilitated by a member of the Weber faculty, and benefit from the input of guest speakers and teachers. The practicum will support the students in their work, providing study of content (related their areas of instruction and programming) as well as pedagogy, classroom management and child development. 

“Our goal is to offer the entire cohort exposure to a number of progressive Jewish educators and educational institutions doing innovative and experimental educational work with proven results, here in Atlanta and nationally,” says Rabbi Ed Harwitz, the newly appointed Head of School at Weber.

It’s programs like The Weber Teaching Fellows that make the school a standout place for Jewish teens. To that end, last year, students at Weber had the opportunity to participate in another innovative program called the Capstone Symposium, a yearlong course that offers the chance to pursue in-depth study and research on a project prompted by their own questions and interests.

For 10 months, Weber teens studied and researched topics as diverse as vaccinations, eating disorders, cell phone addiction, special needs, and the stigmas associated with YA literature, family dinners, the education system and stem cells. They also worked closely with faculty mentors, defended their ideas before a panel of educators and experts, and received a diploma with honors for their participation.

 Harwitz encourages and supports such innovative programming at Weber because he’s committed to helping Jewish teens develop into religiously and culturally confident members of the Jewish community, and interdisciplinary study can help them do that.

“We face a challenge in North American Judaism right now,” Harwitz asserts. “Ninety-eight percent of American Jews are functionally illiterate, in terms of their Judaic knowledge…but I’m hopeful.” He sees the Jewish high school setting as the perfect place to address this lack within the American Jewish community and “cultivate Jewish literacy” for students who are coming from a variety of backgrounds. “In the same way that we’re concerned with our students’ literacy in science, math, and literature—because we see these fields as essential for living in the world—so, too, must our Jewish studies program be centered around the same kind of literacy.”

To survive and thrive in North America as Jewish people for next 50 years, Harwitz believes that educators need to help Jewish teens embraces Jewish literacy, and reverse the trend. “We need to help our teens gain the ability to talk about issues of meaning and purpose, and so, at Weber, we debate and we discuss.”

 “I’m proud of Weber,” Harwitz says. “Our faculty challenges our students to ask themselves, ‘What values inform my life?’ And, ‘Which Jewish text might I access, to inform those values?’”

When Harwitz teaches Talmud, he reminds students that our Talmudic rabbis saw Torah study an opportunity to see the world through a Jewish lens, and invited those who studied Talmud to contribute intellectually to the global conversation. “A great Jewish education isn’t just Torah and Ivrit,” he says, “but rather, it’s also asking the question, ‘to what extent do I apply and integrate that knowledge of Torah to the world.”

To be clear, he isn’t suggesting that all Jewish teens practice a certain level of Jewish observance. In fact, he thinks that this would be counterproductive. “The goal of school is not to promote a certain type of practice,” he says. “That’s not an agenda item. Rather, on the agenda is figuring out whether a student is informed enough to make a meaningful decision about his or her own Jewish practice. To equip themselves with the skills to ask the right questions [when they gets to college]… and to grow a solid sense of who they are, in relation to the rest of the world.”

As opposed to seeing Jewish high school as some sort of insular bubble, where kids are shielded from outside forces and temptations, Weber offers students an opportunity to engage with diversity, too.

To wit, the Peace by Piece program offers students a real-time immersion into other religions and cultures. The program, run by Barbara Rosenblit, a Covenant Award recipient and faculty member at Weber, aims to help build relationships between Weber students and students from two other Atlanta-area high schools, one Catholic and one Muslim. A goal is “open conversation and mutual respect, building trust and understanding” amongst the network of young leaders who participate. Students spend a day at each school, participating in religious ceremonies and learning about the culture and history of all faiths. When Catholic and Muslim students visit Weber, they participate in a minyan with a full Torah reading, join in small Bible group study sessions and panels and even join in on Israeli dancing.

“Some educators might deem this kind of programming ‘artificial,’” Harwitz muses. “But we are starting to collect data from our graduates that when they get to college, they feel better prepared to interact and engage in all sorts of ways with their college community, because they had a profound identity-building experience here.”

To be sure, identity building doesn’t end with high school. In fact, some might say that’s just the beginning, and Harwitz sees how laying the groundwork for religiously and culturally confident young Jews might affect the negative trends mentioned earlier

Harwitz’s enthusiasm is contagious, and one can imagine how effective such an upbeat attitude about possibility must have on the Weber student body. “I am really excited about the people I work with,” he shares. “We all need and want to be a robust and a creative place.”

And Harwitz’s excitement moves beyond the present, too—he also has high hopes for the future of his students, and the future of young Jewish life in America.

“Can you imagine the turn around,” he asks, “if there were a critical mass of 20-40-somethings who were making decisions about their Jewish lives based on an elevated capacity for understanding Hebrew language and Jewish texts? It would be remarkable.”

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