In all the time that Ida Crown Jewish Academy students have spent living and learning Torah, rare is the occasion when they are forced to think about why be Jewish. For these teens, Jewish life is simply their reality–they attend Jewish day school, are growing up on Chicago’s Northshore and typically attend Jewish youth groups and camps. However, their peers in schools where there is not a large Jewish population may have never learned anything about Jews or Judaism. Bringing these two groups together is resulting in enlightening outcomes for everyone involved.
ICJA teacher Alissa Zeffren and a group of dedicated students at the Academy launched a new leadership program for teens this year, Student to Student. Twenty teens from ICJA, along with 10 Jewish teens from other local public and private schools were recently trained to teach non Jewish students about Jews and Judaism. Representing three branches of Judaism–Reform, Conservative and Orthodox—the students speak as a panel to classes and clubs at local high schools. The program has been in place in St. Louis with the Jewish Community Relations Council since 1992, but it is only beginning to spread to outside cities. Chicago is the fourth city to host the program, joining Des Moines, Indianapolis and Washington, D.C., and ICJA is the first ever school to host the program. Support for the program in five cities so far comes from Natan Fund in New York. Fawn Chapel, who runs the program with the JCRC in Chicago, says they hope to include three additional cities next year.
To participate in the program, students were trained by Mrs. Zeffren and Fawn Chapel of the St. Louis JCRC to speak to classes and be prepared to answer student questions on a range of subjects. In this process, the students gain a greater understanding of their beliefs and a stronger connection to Judaism. They also are exposed to teens who practice Judaism differently.
Mrs. Zeffren, who is coordinating the program and volunteering a tremendous amount of time, says, “I think it’s so important for our students to describe what they believe and justify it to an audience that doesn’t share our beliefs. Each kid from each branch of Judaism comes out with a stronger understanding of what they believe. This forces them to develop the language they need to describe what they do. They don’t have that ability until they do this program.”
In March the groups went for the first presentation to Naperville North High School, where they spoke to five classes of students in an elective course on world religions. The panels of students went through a series of basic topics on Judaism and brought props to represent each one. When they taught about Shabbat, they passed around candle sticks, challah to taste and havdalah spices to smell. When learning about kashrut, only a handful of Naperville students thought they had ever eaten kosher food before the group passed about a box of Oreos to enjoy. The group leaders wrote students’ names on the board in Hebrew, played Israeli music and passed around a thick book, And Every Single One Was Someone that includes six million names to represent the Jews killed in the Holocaust. “These students were shocked,” says Mrs. Zeffren.
Naperville North social studies teacher Ryan Dengel says, “The presentations were amazing! My students would not stop talking about the conversations that they had. The presenters did a great job of dispelling stereotypes, and misinformation without sounding like a text book. Acceptance often comes from making connections, friendships and relationships. Our students loved the whole thing. We would be THRILLED to have Student to Student come back every semester we teach comparative religions.”
Other surprising revelations to the students were that Israel is a tiny fraction of the size of Illinois—rather than as big as Texas—and that Jews are only .02 percent of the world population—rather than 40 percent.
The Naperville students had the chance to ask questions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, anti-Semitism and what Jews believe about the afterlife.
Student to Student representatives are planning to speak at Niles North and Loyola Academy this spring and are still seeking other schools to visit. “Our hope is to continue to expand this program next year,” says Alissa Zeffren.
So far, though, based on the feedback from the Naperville students and the Student to Student ICJA students, the program is already a success.