Community Blog Hebrew College Youth Service Programs: Empowering Greater Boston Teens to Make a Difference

By Sydney Gross

When the pandemic began in March, Rabbi Or Rose, founding director of the Betty Ann Greenbaum Miller Center for Interreligious Learning & Leadership of Hebrew College, knew he had to do something. The interreligious center was in the process of launching the Hebrew College Dignity Project, which trains high schoolers as interreligious and cross-cultural leaders. Down the hall, Hebrew College’s Jewish Teen Foundation of Greater Boston was helping nearly 60 teens learn about professional philanthropy, civic leadership, collective giving, and grant-making through a Jewish lens so they could allocate grants for causes they chose to support. 

And downstairs in Prozdor, Hebrew College’s signature Jewish high school program, students were tackling classes like “What Can the Talmud Teach us About Social Justice,” “Selfishness vs. Selflessness: How Do I Know How to Balance Them?”, and “Jews & Whiteness: Exploring Identity, Diversity, and Racism,”—classes that called them to take action and serve our communities during this moment. 

Watching these Hebrew College teen service programs thrive, Rabbi Rose wanted to do more. He saw an opportunity to teach, inspire, and galvanize teens throughout Greater Boston to play a constructive role in addressing the unfolding crisis. 

“After we created the Dignity Project and COVID struck, it occurred to me that there were going to be a lot of teens struggling physically, emotionally, and spiritually. They would lose internship and job opportunities and have major disruptions to their schooling and co-curricular activities—music, drama, dance, and sports,” he said. “As the social protests ramped up across the country, it became obvious that ongoing issues of systemic injustice were erupting and being exacerbated in different ways by the pandemic.” 

Rabbi Rose forged a partnership with the Center for Teen Empowerment—which helps low-income, urban youth hone their understanding of the social problems they face and use their talents and skills to create change in their own lives and in their communities—to create a new COVID-19 Boston Youth Commission. The COVID commission was announced the first week of December and within a week had more than 250 applications for 20 spots, demonstrating the interest in and importance of this kind of opportunity in the world today. 

“We urgently need to bring people together from different walks of life to learn about each other; to understand what ails and encumbers them; what they hope and dream to be; and how we can create a more just and compassionate society,” Rabbi Rose said. “This is an ‘all hands on deck’ moment and we need the fresh and creative thinking of young people in the mix. They are an underutilized resource.” 

Rabbi Rose said both the Dignity Project and the COVID-19 Commission apply Jewish values to their work, including the importance of partnering with and learning from others to achieve true social justice. “As Jews, we have a mandate to care for all members of society, especially those who are marginalized, oppressed, or overlooked,” he said. “This responsibility flows from our sacred texts and from our historical experience. It also requires us to partner and humbly ally with individuals and groups closest to the pain caused by the brokenness in our societal systems.” 

Susie Tanchel, Vice President of Community Education at Hebrew College, said the College offers several youth programs where teens can learn and make a difference because no one program is going to speak to all teens. These include Prozdor, Teen Beit Midrash, the Jewish Teen Foundation of Greater Boston, and Gesher Israel, as well as the Dignity Project and the new COVID-19 Boston Youth Commission. 

“As they look around the world and see the complexities, teens are starting to feel a sense of responsibility towards co-creating and shaping the world that they are going to inherit,” Tanchel said. “They don’t want to sit on the sidelines of life. They want to get involved, and be a part of improving it. And that is a deeply Jewish value, that, ‘it’s not on them to complete the task, but neither are they free to desist from it.’ We hope that the opportunities we offer will propel teens to continued civic engagement, that as they see that their actions can have consequences, they will be even more inspired, as they continue to grow.”

In January, Hebrew College is offering an additional social justice program, a Prozdor Immersive day of learning, for 7th through 12th graders and their parents. Participants will have the option to take workshops in one of five tracks, including a teen community organizing training led by Hebrew College rabbinical student and organizer Frankie Sandmel.

“In this moment of great need and reckoning, many of our students are eager for opportunities to engage in change making work, relevant learning, and acquiring concrete skills to build a more just and equitable world,” said Rabbi Laura Bellows, Director of Teen Learning at Hebrew College. “One way we are meeting the demands of this moment and creating space for teen leadership is through JTFGB’s nonprofit and philanthropic training.” 

Teens say the situation in the world today, including the ways that COVID has affected so many underrepresented communities, has inspired them to participate in programs like JTFGB. 

“I personally feel that when there is so much in the air in terms of COVID and, with no real sense of normalcy, any contributions that I can make to society make me feel better about the world we live in,” said Brooke Lieber, a junior at Newton South High School. “JTFGB has allowed me to make a difference and educate myself about current issues.”

“If we do want our future to be stable—we need this generation to be better than the last,” added Malak Ahmed, a Dana Hall student who is part of the Hebrew College Dignity Project. “If we want to ameliorate life for the coming generations, we need to address how they are being brought up and the communities they are engaging with. If you put them in a program like this, they grow up having a global education and perspective on different people.”

Learn more about the Miller Center and Hebrew College’s other teen learning programs.

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