With the objective of transforming the way Jewish teens can engage each other in the Jewish community, an exciting new program launched in Atlanta called the Atlanta Kesher Teen Engagement Fellowship. The program is run by the Union for Reform Judaism and funded in part by a JumpSpark grant through the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta.
The fellowship is based on the peer-to-peer engagement method that began in the Northeast and has been scaled to the Atlanta community. It emphasizes the impact Jewish teens can have on each other through face-to-face interaction.
“I think this program is a great example of having an inner circle of teens that are getting a huge amount of leadership training and mentorship and strengthening their own Jewish identities, and then impacting a much wider circle of teens throughout the community,” said Adam Griff, Kesher Teen Engagement Fellowship director. “They’re being empowered to co-create with their network these new events.”
The teens will develop social and leadership skills and receive mentoring from experts in peer-to-peer engagement. The program is designed to allow busy teens to participate by managing their own time and at the end, each fellow receives a $200 stipend.
“This model is unique in the Jewish teen landscape,” Bobby Harris, director of URJ Camp Coleman said in a press release. “The teen fellows are creating experiences that are fun and meaningful for them and their friends, instead of just trying to bring them to large-scale programming. Like the chavurah or ‘small circle’ model, this is about friends connecting to friends and building circles of peers living Jewish lives.”
The teens chosen through the application process range from 12 different high schools and six synagogues across metro Atlanta. The fellowship chose applicants who already have a strong Jewish identity and are involved and engaged in Jewish youth groups such as BBYO and NFTY or other high school clubs. “Not only do they represent a diverse range of Atlanta congregations, schools and neighborhoods, they are smart, passionate, and excited to be part of this endeavor,” Griff said in the release. “We know that building relationships is the key to increasing engagement. I feel confident that this group of teens will help us push the needle and reach teens that until now have stayed on the sidelines of Jewish life.”
The fellows are required to execute three pop-up events throughout the program that involve Jewish content, but the teens have some room to get creative. “This fellowship gives these teens the opportunity to think outside of the box; they are planning really unique programs for teens all around the metro Atlanta area,” said Jessie Schwartzman, Kesher Teen Fellowship engagement coordinator. She described one fellow who planned a Chanukah party at which the students made Chanukah cookies together. “We want their Jewish identity to translate on unengaged teens in Atlanta,” Schwartzman said. “We’re just really looking for ways to connect with teens on a different level.”
The program is having a positive impact on the teens involved, according to Schwartzman. “The fellows themselves who are part of this experience have really started to learn the value of leading a program – how to delegate tasks, what it means to share their Jewish story with others,” she said. “This type of training is not common in this generation; they’re so used to using their phones. [The fellows are] really learning the value of face-to-face communication.” This extends to a wider circle of Jewish teens who are being engaged by the fellows and growing in their Jewish connection.
The fellowship kickoff was Nov. 17. “I am excited to be a Kesher Fellow because I believe Jewish Atlanta is relying on today’s Jewish teens to ensure a strong Jewish Atlanta in the future,” Sophie Kieffer from Temple Sinai said in the release.
Schwartzman said that Atlanta is one of the few cities around the United States that’s participating in peer-to-peer training and they hope to expand their reach across the city. There are a growing number of organizations, such as OneTable, that are promoting this form of engagement with young adults, but it’s fairly new with teens, Griff said. “I think it’s exciting that Atlanta’s on the forefront of this.”