Through Community Collaboration, Youth and Teen Programs Enriched with Judaic Curriculum are Creating Lifelong Jewish Leaders

As a result of strategic planning arising from community study data, and an education workgroup of rabbis and community leaders convened by the Jewish Philanthropies of Southern AZ (JPSA) in 2020, the Tucson J is intentionally enhancing Jewish learning opportunities for youth and teens through formal and informal channels and advancing educational offerings across the community, creating a pipeline of community engagement with a variety of entry points.

As an extension of the work of the original education workgroup and recognizing the power of collaboration to create more inclusive and accessible opportunities to engage with Jewish life, the J convened a group of rabbis and educators to create a variety of opportunities for families with children to be in community together. One such event included the Rosh Hashanah Fall Family Fest in 2022 which brought over 450 people from the Jewish and broader community to the J to celebrate the New Year, and in partnership with Congregation Anshei Israel, Congregation Bet Shalom, Congregation Beit Simcha, Congregation Chaverim, Kol Ami Synagogue, JPSA, PJ Library, Tucson Hebrew Academy, and the Weintraub Israel Center, will bring a number of organizations together to give back to our local community in honor of MLK Day for the community-wide Day of Chesed on January 16, 2023.

Utilizing J-Care, JClub, and BBYO as both entry points and pathways to engage youth and teens in Jewish life, and as a vehicle to deepen Judaic curriculum through accessible, experiential learning, the J is achieving its mission to cultivate and enrich Jewish identity, ensure Jewish continuity, foster wellness, and broaden communal harmony—subsequently fomenting one arm of its strategic plan to robustly engage Jewish families raising children in Tucson.

In the J-Care afterschool program, children in grades K-5 explore a different Jewish value every week, participating in activities including cooking, fine arts, performing arts, play, and physical fitness that link back to the weekly value. Hebrew language also plays a role as a common thread woven throughout each lesson. The curriculum is developed by Corey Cravens, who has run the program for five years and was recently accepted as an inaugural fellow of the Martin Pear Fellowship through the JCC Association of North America for his outstanding leadership in this area. At the end of each week, an email is sent to parents of children in the program, serving as both a recap of the week, and an opportunity to explore the value themselves and go further with their children through a variety of linked resources—bringing the education home.

“We see an 80% open rate with those emails, which speaks to the depth of engagement we have cultivated with families, but what’s more, is that the kids are actively learning and absorbing these ideas, sometimes without even realizing it,” said Cravens, noting that, “Even staff members are picking up Hebrew.”

“Recently my youngest was learning about kindness (or chesed, in Hebrew) in J-Care. As the week progressed, he became our DeFacto Jiminy Cricket, reminding us of when we had mis-stepped and how we could improve. He even started to apply the concepts to his own behavior, both at home and at school. It’s so nice to have others model and reinforce the values that we are teaching at home,” said Mary Margaret Marcantonio , a J-Care parent.

“While the curriculum may be based on the tenets and themes of Judaism, the lessons apply to people of all faiths and beliefs. It’s an attempt to make people better humans. And being better humans makes the world a better place for all of us,” she added.

While Judaic learning is optional for youth who participate in the JClub program, which is like J-Care but for older kids in grades 6-8, Libby Bacal, who leads the program, said most are choosing to engage with it. At least one day per week, JClub-ers can do an activity developed through a Jewish lens, in collaboration with other Jewish agencies and organizations, including Israel education with the Weintraub Israel Center Director, Abbii Cook and others like Congregation Bet Shalom’s Midbar Project.

In BBYO, for which the central ethos is Jewish learning, the opportunity to really strengthen cultural identity is apparent. To achieve this, the J’s chapter of BBYO applied for and was recently awarded grant-funding through Better Together Grants. The program employs cross-generational relationship building to connect Jewish teens and elders through social and educational opportunities, which has manifested as a partnership between Handmaker Jewish Services for Aging and BBYO.

“Once or twice a month, the teens and Handmaker residents connect to something new, together, through Jewish education and values. For example, in December, the focus is connecting to the past to find similarities and celebrate differences in our Jewish stories across generations. Much like the written and oral histories that have kept Judaism alive through the ages, and the lessons in them which remain relevant, exploring these shared connections through authentic relationship building is an incredibly powerful tool for strengthening Jewish identity,” said Bacal.

L, dor V’dor means from generation to generation. I demonstrate this value by making sure I teach and train the younger members so they can become strong leaders as well,” said Ryan Rudner, a teen who participates in BBYO at the Tucson J and a member of the Tucson J Board of Directors, “BBYO has given me a place to connect to other Jewish teens and has taught me to fully embrace my Jewish values. It is the place where I feel the most comfortable to be myself.”

With these pathways in place and a commitment to continued community collaboration to enhance Judaic learning opportunities for youth, teens, and their families in Tucson, our communities both locally and globally are made stronger and our collective identity as the Jewish People fortified.