Sababa Surf Camp, “a week of surfing, spiritual growth and pure joy for Jewish teens,” ran for three exhilarating sessions last summer. It was precisely the sort of program that David Bryfman, chief innovation officer for The Jewish Education Project, had in mind when his organization put out a call for new, creative teen summer experiences.
It was fortuitous, then, that Danny Mishkin, who runs teen programming at a popular Long Island synagogue, happened to see the call for proposals hit his inbox at just the right moment.
“I’m literally sitting there on the beach, surrounded by non-Jewish teenagers who are having the time of their life,” Mishkin recalled. “I said, ‘I think I’ve got it right here.’”
“It became one of the most significant and nontraditional Jewish experiences that we had ever witnessed,” Bryfman added. “It was in the month of Elul, so they were blowing the shofar on the beach every morning. There was meditation through a Jewish lens every morning.” And, of course, there were many sun-drenched hours spent learning to ride the waves.
“Kids love being challenged,” Bryfman added. “Often in Jewish life we don’t challenge them enough.”
Bryfman, 43, is trying to change that. By replacing anecdotal accounts of “what works” with meticulous research, and challenging assumptions about what “working” even means, he is reshaping the conversation around the famously mystifying teenage demographic.
“If you’re making a big movie, he’s like the producer behind the scenes,” Mishkin, the co-director of Sababa Surf Camp (which received funding from the Jim Joseph Foundation and the UJA-Federation of New York) and director of the Waxman Hebrew High School and Youth Engagement for Temple Israel of Great Neck. “He has definitely been influential in building my philosophy towards teen engagement.”
Bryfman grew up in Melbourne, Australia, in an environment very different from the one he works and lives in today. Most Jewish kids went to day school through high school. He was active in the Habonim Dror youth movement, whose leaders he considered a “guiding force” and where, he said, “even as a teenager and a young adult I was entrusted in authentic leadership roles.”
“We now live in a world of individuals, so the very notion of a youth movement or a youth group may just be antithetical to where large swaths of teenagers are today,” he said. “For the kids they attract, they are very powerful. But the world has changed.”
At The Jewish Education Project, Bryfman and his colleagues work with hundreds of synagogues, schools, community centers, youth groups and other Jewish organizations in the New York area and, increasingly, beyond. They introduce those institutions to innovative practices from the worlds of business, education and leadership, and help them figure out how to incorporate those practices into their own work. They also train educators to develop new models for engaging young Jews.
“David not only frames the conversation based on tremendous knowledge and experience and wisdom, but he is a critical asset in asking the right questions about the type of innovation that we choose to implement,” said Susan Holzman Wachsstock, director of the New York Teen Initiative at The Jewish Education Project. “There are lots of great ideas out there that will speak to five kids or ten kids, but it’s important to look at the landscape out there and come up with solutions that will have broader impact.”
Teens have a special place in Bryfman’s heart. As a graduate student in education and Jewish Studies at NYU, he noticed a void in the research on Jewish teens. For his dissertation, “Giving Voice to a Generation,” he shadowed his subjects in their element: summer camp, day school and youth groups. “I happen to believe that in terms of identity development, the teen years are the most critical years,” he said. “Between 14 and leaving high school, so many decisions are made.”
It is precisely because those years are so critical that many Israel programs offer trips to teens in this age group. (Though several years ago, Bryfman created a stir when he questioned the long-term benefits of giving away such Jewish experiences for free.) He adds, however, that if money were no object and the field could build up programming in any one area of teen life, Israel trips would indeed be it.
“It’s the no-brainer of Jewish life today that if we could send every teen to Israel for four to five weeks in their 10th grade year, the ripple effect would be enormous,” he said. “All this discussion about college kids not being engaged, not wanting to talk about Israel, not wanting to go into the Hillel building — it would be off the table.”
If Israel trips can successfully engage Jewish teens, what else does? And what does “successfully engaging Jewish teens” even mean?
Those are questions Bryfman, working with a team of researchers, is trying to tackle. The research team conducted dozens of focus groups around the country over the past year, in an effort to understand what resonates with teenagers today. The goal, Bryfman explained, is to create new ways to measure programs’ effectiveness.
“The way we used to measure Jewish engagement was by, ‘Did you go to synagogue?’ ‘Did you light Shabbat candles?’” Bryfman said. “They told us about rituals and institutions.”
“No one’s ever asked, in a Jewish environment, questions like, ‘Did you come out of this initiative or program with more self-esteem?’ ‘Did you come out of it with more friends?’ ‘Did you come out of it with better language to talk to your parents or grandparents’?’” he said. “We deem these things to be far more valuable than just eating challah at Friday night dinner.”
Teens, Bryfman says, see traditional Jewish institutions “as a thing of the past.” They speak about Judaism as an ethnicity or culture rather than just a religion, and eschew labels that distinguish them from other “members of their tribe.” And don’t try telling them to keep kosher or study Bereshit because God commanded it. “That won’t fly,” Bryfman said.
But they are also extremely close with their parents, he said, and inspired by their grandparents. And if participation in Jewish activities drops off sharply after Bar and Bat Mitzvah age, that may be because “most product put in front of Jewish teens has been second rate.”
“They live in a world where it is cool to be a Jew, and they are proud of this fact,” Bryfman said. “The framework now is really, ‘In what ways do you believe being Jewish can make you a better human being?’ ‘Can being Jewish help you thrive in the world today?’ If it can’t, I would argue we go out of business.”
Bryfman, of course, believes it can.
“Jewish education has to be about optimism, and the positive change we can bring about in the world,” he said. “It’s not even about the glass half full. I just really believe these kids have the power to change the world.”
“There are children, grownups, everywhere
That would love to hear your voices
Singing for our health to be bright
So that we can join together...and paint our world with healing and hope”
-From the original song, Painting Our World with Healing Hope, by Karina and Debora Zilberman
“Families that share stories about parents and grandparents, about triumphs and failures, provide powerful models for children. Children understand who they are in the world not only through their individual experience, but through the filters of family stories that provide a sense of identity through historical time...Through sharing the past, families recreate themselves in the present, and project themselves into the future.”
—“Do You Know…” The power of family history in adolescent identity and well-being
Read more about Dr. Marshall Duke and his work, here.
“There are people out there who are educating their hearts as we speak. They’re getting on with the work, they’re loving their kids, they’re loving their students, they’re loving their communities. We must retrain our vision toward those people—we must develop eyes to see and ears to hear where that love is already happening—that is worth our energy and our care and our time, to tend that love, to show that love ourselves.”
—Krista Tippett, Founder and CEO, The On Being Project
“There are just two outcomes that really matter: First, that students feel Judaism is the fertile ground in which they get nurtured to grow, and second, that they find Judaism joyful.” Rabbi Joy Levitt, Executive Director, JCC Manhattan
"Civil discourse requires us to listen generously and to act as though—and to really believe—we could be open to persuasion. We each may think: 'I did not cause this situation, I am not to blame.' Yet we each have the capacity to help society turn the corner, if we honestly ask what went wrong and what we can do about it."
- Martha Minow, the 300th Anniversary University Professor at Harvard University and Joseph William Singer, Bussey Professor of Law, Harvard University
The Wow Metric of Success: Jewish Life in Bloom on the Farm: Spring has arrived, and the Jewish community is busy planting with purpose. In Vaughan, Ontario, the yellow coltsfoot and purple-blue scilla are just starting to flower at the Kavanah Garden, a half acre community garden that’s part of Shoresh, the Canadian-based Jewish environmental organization that includes the Kavanah Garden and Bela Farm. Last Sunday, on “Yom Manual Labor” volunteers gathered to turn the soil, plant seeds, paint outdoor tables and participate in construction projects with the Shoresh team, preparing the garden for growing season.
“Our Jewish community is only as strong as its ability to include all members in the fabric of Jewish life. Doing so helps each of us recognize the unique strengths we all bring to the Jewish community, and that community cannot possibly be complete until we actively and intentionally welcome each other.”
-Meredith Englander Polsky, 2017 Covenant Award Recipient, Director of Institutes and Training, Matan, and Developmental Support Coordinator, Temple Beth Ami Nursery School
“From all of my teachers, I have grown wise.” Psalms 119:99. Framing Jewish Education, a project of The Jewish Lens and supported by The Covenant Foundation, was created to engage teachers, students, and families in conversation about the value of Jewish education and to illustrate the power of great teaching and learning via a curriculum based on visual literacy and text.
“For me, study is a divine and daily imperative; I study a page of Talmud daily so that I am not only teaching. My teaching is constantly being fed by my learning.” —Erica Brown Associate Professor, George Washington School of Education and Human Development. Director, Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership, 2009 Covenant Award Recipient
The Covenant Classroom means something different to every educator but common goals are to motivate, engage and be inclusive of all learners. In this volume, we’ve collected an array of Teachings on Inspiration and Motivation in all areas of Education.
#ThankATeacher It has been twenty-five years since The Covenant Foundation first opened its doors, and we continue to be humbled by extraordinary Jewish educators from across North America and across the spectrum of Jewish life who have devoted their careers and considerable talents to the field of Jewish education. Now, in celebration of a quarter-century-old tradition of honoring Jewish education and educators, and to kick off a year of public engagement around great teaching, we’re proud to share The Covenant Foundation voices app with you: a new digital way to give and share your gratitude.
“What would it look like if we bet on Jewish early childhood education for the long-term, as our tradition instructs? The task might seem large, but the reward, we know, is great (Pirkei Avot 2:15).”
“Countless leaders have been inspired by the story of the Jewish people leaving bondage in Egypt – those whose names we know, like Martin Luther King, Jr. and those whose names we never will know, whose every-day acts of kindness and resistance fuel social change. This story, our story, has become a cornerstone of modern social justice work.”
—Abby Levine, Director of The Jewish Social Justice Roundtable
This is how I see a “Covenant Classroom”: a place where challenging topics are passionately discussed; a place where complex ancient texts are grappled with; a place in which self- esteem grows, and motivation to learn increases exponentially because of it. An environment in which each Jewish soul is given the confidence to continue the eternal search for meaning.”
—Dr. Sandra Ostrowicz Lilienthal, Curriculum Developer and Instructor at The Rose and Jack Orloff Central Agency for Jewish Education of Broward County and 2015 Covenant Award Recipient
“When powerful, new approaches to learning are introduced through digital tools, meaningful disruptions occur along the way… When this happens, new approaches which previously seemed inaccessible, are suddenly within reach.”
—Barry Joseph, Associate Director for Digital Learning, Youth Initiatives, American Museum of Natural History
“The future of Jewish teen engagement can in fact be found in 3D printers, and in text-people, and in service, and outdoor education, and in anything that brings teens into contact with authentic learning experiences and passionate, caring, knowledgeable educators.”
—Charlie Schwartz, Senior Jewish Educator, Director, BIMA & Genesis, Brandeis High School Programs
Portal seems like a particularly apt metaphor for entry points into Jewish life and learning because ultimately we want those experiences to be deeply experiential and transformative. We also want them to be accessible. A portal has no toll; passage is free. At the same time, a portal is particularistic, not a generic entrance. It conveys a sense of magic, ritual, and power. Similarly, we want to convey that Jewish life is rich, layered, and meaningful beyond what is immediately apparent. We want the encounter with Jewish life to take you on a journey that is profound and surprising. And, given that each of us may enter through the same portal but have a completely different experience of what is on the other "side," the possibilities are endless.
— Judith Rosenbaum, Executive Director, The Jewish Women’s Archive
"We need a new kind of creativity in the classroom that’s going to reach Jewish kids… If a teacher is imaginative, he or she is going to connect to students’ hearts and souls.”
—Dr. Arnold Eisen, Chancellor, Jewish Theological Seminary, Board Member, The Covenant Foundation.
"There are four types of students... The sponge absorbs everything. The funnel brings in on one side lets it out the other. The strainer lets out the wine and retains the lees. The sieve lets out the flour dust and retains the fine flour." —Pirkei Avot 5:15
"There’s a misconception that a venture must depend on large grants from big donors. It makes more sense and it’s more sustainable to test out an idea, and see whether it has the opportunity to make an impact on people’s lives."
— Ariel Beery, founder, PresenTense
I think [creating new Jewish texts] is a really good description of what we’re trying to do. These days we’re increasingly creating products that are intended to be shared on the web. We’ve felt and continue to feel that this medium, and virtual communication as a whole, is being under-tapped for its possibilities for making art.
— Reflections from Sam Ball on the New Jewish Filmmaker Project