If there is one place to look where the Livnot Project is making a difference, it’s in who it’s attracting: Boys. It is no secret that participation of non-Orthodox men and boys has been rapidly decreasing in all facets of Jewish life over the past two or three decades. That fully three quarters of this newly created social justice-based supplementary Jewish high school consists of boys has made its organizers take notice.
“The feedback we’re getting over and over again is that finally there’s this Jewish education that’s hands-on,” says Livnot’s education director Julie Hayon. “They’re out and doing something that matters instead of sitting around talking about their feelings, which is what so many Jewish classrooms are doing.”
One of those boys, freshman Sam Sherer, signed up for the political advocacy track.
“We went out and did some stuff for Referendum 74,” the marriage equality referendum, he says. “When it passed, it was cool to come together and feel like we did something.”
Forty high school students who have chosen one of several different social justice tracks meet up on one of five nights a week to visit and learn about various agencies throughout the city — one group has spent time at Seattle City Hall to meet with leaders there — and perform direct service. Their teachers are not Jewish educators, but experts in their respective fields.
That’s a huge departure from the classroom-based high school program that preceded Livnot.
“I imagined something much more similar to the past, what’s been going on here for the last 40 years: One night a week, and somewhere central,” says Livnot program chair Donna Peha. “But there are so many issues about that [which] didn’t work more recently.”
Congregations Beth Shalom and Herzl-Ner Tamid decided to create the Livnot Project as a community-based program earlier this year. Started as a kernel of an idea between Peha and longtime local Jewish educator Carol Starin, they brought in Hayon, who “just took the idea and ran with it and made it what it is,” Peha says. “It’s much more creative than I ever anticipated.”
Hayon says not only are the kids showing up for class every week, they’re doing their homework.
“These students have said to their teachers, ‘But we want to do stuff outside of class.’ They’re doing research about the issue outside of class, they’re bringing it back, and then they’re looking at the most effective ways to create change, and they’re doing it,” she says. “It’s so powerful.”
During monthly think tanks, as they’re called, the students are invited to meet and discuss a topic of interest with experts on the subject. A recent think tank brought in representatives from Israel advocacy organizations StandWithUs and J Street to answer questions and give their views on the brief war with Hamas in Gaza and the United Nations vote to allow the Palestinians non-member observer status. But Israel wasn’t supposed to be on the agenda at all for this year.
“The students said that it was really important for them to have an Israel piece. They didn’t know how to respond to some things that were happening…and they wanted it,” says Hayon. “We took one thing out and put something else in. I think that dynamic response, for the students to say, ‘This is important to us,’ and for us to be able to make that happen, is unique about the project.”
While the goal of having the students learn about Judaism and social justice hands-on has taken off, Hayon sees another benefit as well: The future.
It’s “an unbelievable process in empowering the students, but also in terms of 21st-century education skills, where they are going to leave for college and then execute [their knowledge] in a really powerful way and motivate their friends and motivate their leaders to make real change,” she says. “My hope is that this changes the direction that they choose to study.”