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Err on the Side of Adulthood: Encouraging Teens to Explore Conflict

This story was published in eJewish Philanthropy.

By Joey Eisman

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[This article is the fourth in a series written by participants in the inaugural Senior Educators Cohort at M²: The Institute for Experiential Jewish Education.]

A few weeks ago Facebook reminded me on that, “On This Day five years ago…,” I attended a leadership seminar for the teenage leaders of the Latvian and Lithuanian Jewish communities where I was serving in a year-long immersive program as part of the JDC Entwine Jewish Service Corps. Serendipitously, that very same week, I was returning to the Latvian community for the first time since I had left. This time, however, I had helped design the seminar and would be the teacher and facilitator.

I currently work at BBYO, helping to support our ever-growing Global Network of teens and programs. With the support of organizations like JDC and Maccabi World Union, especially over the past five years, BBYO’s Global Network has grown significantly to provide rich and meaningful experiences to Jewish teens across the world.

Fortunately, my work at BBYO has afforded me many opportunities to practice and refine my skills as an experiential Jewish educator, and throughout all of my experience, there is one mantra that I have carried with me from the time I was a camp counselor at Camp Ramah in Canada: err on the side of adulthood. The experiences that I have had both through my work as a JDC fellow and during my time at BBYO have taught me that if you challenge teens and make them think, they will rise to the challenge and respond in-kind as mature young adults.

During my time in the Baltics, I worked with an incredible group of smart and talented Jewish teens. Fresh out of college, my brain was teeming with questions about Jewish identity that I had explored myself that I very much wanted to ask them.

Naturally, there were questions about how deeply I could probe complex questions about identity and community with the teens.

However, when I returned a few weeks ago to a teen leadership seminar, this time in my professional role, I saw familiar faces and a newly organized peer-led program called Jew Beyahad, which was the continuation of the teen-led program that I had help start when I was a JDC fellow.

Today, Jew Beyahad engages in regular programming, annual elections for their teen board, and leadership education. Seeing how much the program had grown under the teens’ own leadership, I had a deep sense that, yes, they were indeed ready to tackle difficult questions and examine their Jewish identities.

I began the seminar by quoting Jon Dewey: “We only think when confronted with a problem.”

After sharing these words, the group agreed that it is only when we feel tension and leave our comfort zone, that we can grow as people. We began by identifying our personal values, priorities, and leadership styles and only when the teens truly understood what is important to them, did we discuss how they could create strategies for action that are driven by their values. We explored their personal values through Conflict Pedagogy, a methodology that I learned as a participant in the M²: Institute for Experiential Jewish Education Senior Educators Cohort, which suggests that we, as educators, should identify, invite, and deliberately explore conflicts as part of our programming, which will lead our students into a space of deeper exploration. When speaking with these Latvian Jewish teen leaders, they all had clear values, but had never been challenged to face conflicts that might be inherent to these values. Encouraging them to think deeper and better understand their unique motivations and drives provided a layer of depth to the training that was palpable.

As we learn from Angel Chernoff: thoughts lead to words, words to action and action to character. Too often we allow our students to think, but do not challenge them to articulate, which enables them to better express themselves. I erred on the side of adulthood and challenged my teens in a sophisticated environment that pushed them to think deeply about their values and to be self-reflective.

At the end of the training, after asking the teens what is the mission and goals of Jew Beyahad, they still had difficulty articulating the answer. To some, this might seem like a failure. But as I packed up after our last session, two of the teen leaders approached me and told me that by posing difficult questions, confronting them with a problem and making them think, they now felt inspired to continue to search for the answers. And for me, this was a real success.

Joey Eisman is the Senior Program Manager for Global Engagement at BBYO and a participant in the inaugural Senior Educators Cohort (SEC) at M²: The Institute for Experiential Jewish Education. SEC is generously supported by the Maimonides Fund.

Applications are now open for Cohort 2 of the Senior Educators Cohort. For more information and to request an application visit www.ieje.org.

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