When it comes to Jewish education, teens in search of something more than the typical classroom learning experience have plenty of options. While several synagogues around the area have long offered supplementary education within their walls, two programs have been growing either independently or as consolidations of multiple congregations to allow teenagers who might not otherwise have an opportunity to meet to study and work together.
The Livnot Project debuted last year as a social-justice-learning program between Conservative congregations Beth Shalom in Seattle and Herzl-Ner Tamid on Mercer Island. It has renamed itself Livnot Chai upon bringing the Chai School, a four-year-old joint program between Temple De Hirsch Sinai and Temple B’nai Torah, both Reform synagogues in Bellevue, into its fold as the school year began.
“Creating a multi-denominational setting for high school students is really important in terms of how they’re going to experience their Jewish selves in college and post-college,” said Julie Hayon, Livnot Chai’s director. “This model is setting them up to feel connected to the Jewish community in a more successful way.”
Students also attend from Everett’s Temple Beth Or, the Kavana Cooperative in Seattle, and Congregation Kol Ami in Woodinville, as well as a handful of students who are unaffiliated with a congregation. Hayon said the program will see some changes with its larger footprint.
“On the Eastside we broadened the curriculum,” she said. “Whereas Livnot was always purely a social justice-based program, this is three tracks: An arts track, called Bezalel, a chochma track, which is more philosophy and learning, and then this Livnot social justice track. All three are going to be through the lens of social justice.”
Yohanna Kinberg, associate rabbi at Temple B’nai Torah, is running the Bezalel track, which runs the gamut from songleading to photography.
“I have 30 kids in my elective, and they all have different interests,” Kinberg said, which means that within the curriculum she is “piloting ideas almost in real time, working with the actual kids.”
The ability to make on-the-fly changes to the program made integrating the Chai School into Livnot a big draw for the temples and for the teens.
“You need to meet them right where they are,” Kinberg said, “and provide them the best experience possible.”
Rabbi Jill Levy, Herzl-Ner Tamid’s director of congregational learning, called the growth of Livnot “an amazing opportunity.” For her students, it increases the course offerings while increasing their friendship base.
“We really feel like it’s crucial in the post B’nai Mitzvah years that these kids are part of one Seattle Jewish community,” she said. “I would call this a broad-reach effort to bring as many teens together as possible and to form a partnership that previously hasn’t existed in the past.”
Another addition to the partnership is the J.Team teen philanthropy program, which was a program of the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle. J.Team will consist of monthly get-togethers for students to discuss social justice and charitable giving. Hayon said that because they found challenges in getting kids to cross Lake Washington each week, this program will run concurrently on both sides of the water with occasional joint meet-ups.
“There are a lot of ways that we’re bringing the two sides together, through grade-level retreats and through some service-learning opportunities through the community, and also through trips,” said Rabbi Daniel Septimus, director of
congregational learning at Temple De Hirsch Sinai.
Opportunities include volunteering at events such as We Day, which will connect 15,000 teens from around the world in the spring to discuss creating social change.
Septimus said the consolidation of the schools creates better opportunities for everyone involved.
“What Livnot is bringing is wonderful community resources, such as the Muslim-Jewish dialogue we’re doing,” he said. “The more resources you have in the same room, the better. We’re living in an age in the Jewish community where we have fewer and fewer resources and we have to figure out better ways to better utilize them together.”
Because, as Kinberg noted, the curriculum for the original Chai School was already in place when Livnot approached, Septimus said he doesn’t envision a huge shift from what the original Chai School was doing, at least in the near term. But, he said, Livnot is “adding some more selections and options for electives, and of course bringing new kids into the fold.”
While many of the original Chai School teachers have been integrated into Livnot Chai, the model established last year in Seattle brings in teachers who are experts in their fields.
“The way that we’ve chosen teachers is to pick professionals in the community who are passionate about what they do in their own work, and we’re asking them to teach teens about doing that and getting teens involved in that kind of work,” said Hayon.
This method of bringing in experts is very similar to a popular course called Business, Ethics and Torah (BET), a part of the supplementary Jewish High that meets each week at the Stroum Jewish Community Center on Mercer Island. One of Jewish High’s many offerings for high school credit, BET last year focused on personal finance, but is expanding outward this year to have more of a focus on the ethics and education of corporate business.
“It’s not finalized yet, but we’re looking at people who are in our community who are leaders of industry,” said Ari Hoffman, who oversees Jewish High as well as the NCSY youth group and Jewish Student Union groups that meet in public high schools across the Puget Sound Region. In addition, “some people are coming in from out of town who fit that mold as well who we hope to have the kids talk to.”
For teens interested in business careers, Hoffman said the mix of speakers from larger companies and local startups will be very compelling.
“One of the things that we based part of the curriculum on is the book ‘Startup Nation,’ and using key points to create a successful business,” he said.
Hoffman also noted that all of the graduates of the BET program last year who applied for internships both locally and as far away as Israel had been selected.
Jewish High’s principal, Rabbi Mark Spiro, said the other big draw for high school credit has been the conversational Hebrew courses, which qualify for language requirements.
One new Jewish High leadership initiative, Jewish Unity Mentoring Program (JUMP), brings together JSU groups and day school students — in this case from Northwest Yeshiva High School and Derech Emunah girls’ school — for a national challenge contest that helps the teens broaden their management and leadership skills by creating community service, education, Israel-related, and fundraising projects. The team will compete against other JUMP groups across the country. Judges in the past have included Donald and Ivanka Trump.
“They always have big names involved,” Hoffman said.
Hoffman said enrollment has expanded from last year, in particular with junior high students whose parents are seeking more structured programs and teens whose families are unaffiliated with a synagogue.
Spiro pointed to one such graduate of Jewish High, who sought out a Jewish education of her own accord, and has since joined the Israel Defense Forces.
“She really got a tremendous amount out of the school and actually was going on to further her Jewish education,” he said.
Both programs receive funding from the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle, and are also funded through tuition, grants and private donations.