Jewish learning Keeping Social Issues Relevant During a Pandemic
What’s important to you? What are the social issues you want to really stand up and fight for? Do you feel more connected to and passionate about some things over others? There are many things that are important to me, but it can be difficult to focus on just one at a time. In Hebrew College’s Jewish Teen Foundation of Greater Boston (JTFGB), we get the opportunity to figure that out and choose something together that matters to all of us as a group—in one way or another.
We spend the year learning about philanthropy and working our way through the grant-making cycle. The first stage in the process involves deciding on an issue that the group (or what we refer to as a “board” in the program) prioritizes on the basis of urgency, interest and relation to our moral and Jewish values. Unfortunately, there seems to be no limit to the world’s problems. In the past, participants have selected topics such as youth education, domestic violence, poverty, mental health, veterans, substance abuse, sexual assault, immigration, child abuse and climate change. Each of these areas are multi-faceted and require a certain amount of background knowledge. After gaining some exposure to the topic, JTFGB teens begin researching specific nonprofits that combat the identified issue, and then raise funds to go toward the final organizations.
When my board picked “education inequity” as our issue area for this year, we justified our decision based on the criteria mentioned previously (urgency, interest and values). Last October, nobody anticipated a pandemic in the near future. None of us expected that a virus could heavily impact almost all aspects of life as we knew it. We definitely had no idea how much more relevant education inequality would become in our country and the world.
Initially it was reported that COVID-19 is an “equalizer” because anyone can contract the virus. In other words, people of all races, religions and classes are susceptible to getting sick. What we soon learned is that the coronavirus has a wide range of consequences on people from different backgrounds. For example, people who do not have access to adequate sanitary facilities and protective gear will generally be at a higher risk. Those who are considered essential workers also are not as safe. Usually those who fall into these categories come from lower-income households and live in lower- to middle-class areas. That also means that the kids in these communities may not have access to quality education—especially if you compare them to many of the participants in JTFGB.
At the start of the pandemic last spring, thousands upon thousands of kids were not able to continue learning. This could have been due to insufficiencies with technology, the inability of public schools to adapt to online education and lack of resources. Nevertheless, the disparities in this country (and around the world) have only been further exposed during this time. These past few months have unfortunately widened the opportunity gap for certain students. Although there has been an entire summer to try to come up with plans for this new school year, we are still seeing so many inequities across different communities in this country.
Of course our board did not see any of that coming. When we originally selected education inequality, we acknowledged that there was a massive imbalance of access to education throughout the United States, and we wanted to support organizations that aim to overcome that difference. In the mission statement we created last fall, we referenced the importance of education in one’s life. It reads: “We are a community of Jewish teens in the Greater Boston area who are inspired by the values of equal opportunity, knowledge and tikkun olam (repairing the world). We believe in equal access to quality education, as well as its importance in one’s life and our society.”
Essentially, with a solid foundation when you’re younger, the chances increase of attending college and then being employed in a steady job. Our Jewish values teach us to value education, or limud, and that reasoning had only contributed to the commitment we felt toward education inequity.
We soon set out to do our research and find the best nonprofits all across the globe. We identified over 30 nonprofits and received grant proposals from around 15 of them. From there, we managed to narrow it down to seven, and those would be the organizations we would (virtually) visit. We realized they are all doing such amazing and unique work that tremendously inspired every person on our board. However, we did need to narrow it down further. After much deliberation, we confirmed that our funds would go to Mother Caroline Academy and Education Center, Yemin Orde Youth Village and Education Matters USAP Community School. Each of these organizations emphasized that they would be continuing their efforts and working harder now, more than ever, especially during these trying times as we all get through this pandemic. This certainly only reinforced our commitment to them and the work they do. These inspiring initiatives will go on to impact students in Massachusetts, Israel and Zimbabwe.
I am so glad I was able to participate in this incredible program last year, especially with an issue I am so passionate about. I know it will continue to play a role in my life going forward. Not only was I able to learn about everything that goes into philanthropy and fundraising, but I also gained exposure to the topic of education inequity and its effects on a rapidly-evolving society. I look forward to starting another year with JTFGB in a few weeks and can’t wait to see what issue area my board decides to focus on. I know that whatever important topic we choose, we will still find its relevance and connection to our lives during this pandemic. There is so much work to be done right now, and we’re here to do it.
Danielle Frankel (pictured above, bottom right in the white and purple shirt) is a Rashi School graduate and a junior year at the Nobles and Greenough School in Dedham, Mass. This will be her second year participating in JTFGB. To learn more about JTFGB or apply for the 2020-21 year, visit hebrewcollege.edu/JTFGB.