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Teens “A Newer Lens”:
Dignity Project Fellow Q+A

By Adam Zemel
dignity project fellows

The Miller Center for Interreligious Learning and Leadership’s high school fellowship, the Dignity Project, is open for applicants for the 2024-25 school year. We sat down with two 2023-24 Dignity Project Fellows to hear more about the experience from a fellow’s perspective, and to learn about how our teens grew and changed through their participation. The following conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.


How does the Fellowship year begin? How does it set the table for your time together?

Bee: Our year together started with the opening retreat, three days at the beginning of the school year. It started with a sort of deep dive into each of us thinking about our own culture and background. And then sharing that with the group, learning about each other, and a bigger conversation about the importance of identity. That was a big focus of the opening retreat. But we did a bunch of fun activities, to just connect on a basic level. We had all our meals together in our formation groups, which are smaller groups each assigned to a mentor. And the formation groups sort of helped me feel like I had people to talk to, play a game with, and open up to the bigger group from there. The mentors also led workshops–do you want to talk about those, Grace?

Grace: Sure! We got to pick these smaller group workshops, like one or two of them depending on our interests. [Editor: the workshops were led by our Dignity Project mentors, each of them led a workshop about a spiritual practice or life practice that was important to them.] The one I remember most is the singing one that Rosys led. It was very cool, kind of a make-your-own-song type thing. Each person got an instrument, hand percussion, like a maraca or a tambourine or something. And we just made a sound together. And I think that connected to the bigger idea of what we were doing. Making something from different sounds and different perspectives by bringing them together into one song. Which sounds corny, maybe, but it was really cool.

Also, I loved meeting my mentor, Jay. I really appreciated that they checked in, not only when we met, but also randomly like, “Hey! What are your plans this weekend, anything fun?” Or just reminding us to keep on schedule for our project groups. And they were very open to having deep conversations, answering hard questions.

How does the fellowship unfold after that opening retreat?

Bee: After the opening retreat, we moved to gathering once a month on a Sunday. Each session had a different theme. We would all get together and learn about something, eat pizza. One that stuck out to me was the social justice ecosystem—a concept and map of all these roles people can play in social justice work. Sorta exploring how we connect to the work, what roles there are to play. But also how the people around us do, where to find a place in it. Other sessions were about dialogue, about implicit bias. Always topics that are sorta central to the Dignity Project. So not a full retreat, but a really good seminar, and a good opportunity to take a break from whatever else is going on, like homework or other things.

Grace: Then we got to the mid-year retreat. That was really a bonding experience for all of us. The opening retreat was great, but we didn’t know each other like we did at the mid-year retreat. That’s really when we all became as close as we are now. And this retreat was when we started doing dialogue groups. We were sent off with a mentor and a dialogue outline and a schedule. That was a really cool experience. We stuck to that strict schedule, and then we also then got to move away from it a little bit if we wanted to. And the dialogues sort of resolved at the closing retreat. We got to pick our own topics, that we all decided on together. And there was no structure unless we wanted it. We didn’t have our mentors. We were sent off on our own. We got to be with each other and make our own rules, but we were still using all of the dialogue skills, and some of the structure, that we learned in the mid-year retreat.

Can you share a little about the concluding projects?

Bee: From the beginning we knew there was a project at the end. Each of us got to choose from all these different forms of art. So like, writing, storytelling, visual art. We were in the dance group. Each group got one of the Dignity Project values, to go with our art form. And the project assignment was, “In 100 years, what does the world like like where this value is embodied to the fullest.” We had a few meetings to figure out what we were doing. And then we had time during Sunday gatherings to work on them. And then our group also had to do rehearsals for dance.

Grace: Our group was unique, because we were dance and movement, we had to choreograph. It required a lot of rehearsal time. So we spent a lot of time together. I think it was impactful that the three of us, who share a love for dance, and are so different. But like, I think that we’re similar in that we share a vision of what makes dance and movement so special.

Our value was humility. So, we created a definition for it. Three or four words that describe humility to its fullest. And then we used those words to pick songs. Each of us had a different song. We mashed them together, and then each person choreographed their song. But it was very open, collaborative. And then at the closing retreat or at the closing celebration, we just got to share all of that with our family and friends. That was really special.

What were you looking forward to going into the Dignity Project, and what did you take away at the end of it?

Bee: I was looking forward to having this long commitment for the year, learning about myself and other people—which is definitely my biggest takeaway. Now, when I meet people, even if I have snap judgments—which I often have—of who they are, what I know about them, I have a newer lens, too. There’s so much that I don’t know about them that could change my perspective, if I try to get to know them. And to treat everyone with this lens. Give them their dignity, respect who they are, what they think about, how they interact with the world. Like how beautiful it is that each person has their story?

Grace: I have a better understanding of how I fit into the world around me. The world is changing so rapidly, it was great to have this space to sort of re-learn, or consider for the first time, how people approach the world. And how I can be more aware. The Dignity Project helped me realize that what I have to say is important, but what others have to say is really important as well, and that listening can sometimes be a greater power than using your voice. It was a totally unique experience, a space for asking hard questions, taking risks, being vulnerable. It feels impossible, but it actually exists!


Applications for the 2024-2025 Dignity Project cohort are now open! Please encourage outstanding high school students to apply here, or send your nominations to Liz at laeschlimann@hebrewcollege.edu


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