Helping Preteens Connect to Their Jewish Roots

Tags: Federation, Israel, Teens

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For more than 10 years, jHUB, a subsidiary of Federation beneficiary agency the Jewish Education Center of Cleveland (JEC), has been providing ways for interfaith couples and families to comfortably explore, discover and personalize the meaning of Jewish culture and values in the modern world.

Recently, jHUB has launched two new initiatives to address the growing demand for different opportunities for preteens to experience Jewish traditions and culture. The B-Mitzvah Experience is an eight-month project that prepares kids approaching b’nai mitzvah age to better understand this transition into Jewish adulthood, through real-life experiences, such as tikkun olam (caring for the planet), mindfulness and yoga, and challah baking. The Hebrew Club is for any preteen (ages 7-13) who wants to explore modern basic Hebrew vocabulary and Israeli culture in a fun and hands-on way through experiential learning opportunities like ordering ice cream at Mitchell’s, reading Israeli books, or watching Israeli movies.

“We want to give the students the idea of independence, responsibility, and what’s expected of them as a Jewish adult as they get older,” said Erin Gabay, jHUB educator for preteens and families. “Both programs have a hands-on approach with different themes, everything from leadership to embracing their Jewish family heritage.

“Likewise, in light of the current situation in Israel, it is important that we help our kids understand what Israel means to the Jewish people and to our culture, and how our community is committed to the future of the State of Israel,” she added.

Our community's Shinshin (Israeli emissaries) hang out with students from jHUB's Hebrew Club.

Both programs work directly with our community ShinShinim (Israeli emissaries), who are living in Cleveland during their gap year between high school and military service. “Being with the ShinShin and studying with them is so fun because they’re not much older than I am and they can relate to me and the activities we’re doing,” said Caleb, a Mentor resident and participant in both the B-Mitzvah program and Hebrew Club. “I’ve really liked getting to know them and learning about their life in Israel. It’s so cool to learn about what it’s like to grow up there. Even in the first class, which was at Mitchell’s ice cream, we jumped right in and learned how to speak Hebrew and order the ice cream.”

“The ShinShinim are the glue that hold this program together,” added Gabay. “They bring the energy from the start and our kids connect with them so quickly. They are so involved in working with these kids. That’s exactly what this is about!”

Students in jHUB's Hebrew Club create art for a holiday project.

Another benefit of both programs is connecting teens around our community who may not otherwise have the opportunity to meet. “I really enjoy hanging out with other Jewish kids because none of my friends from my synagogue go to my school,” said Noa, a Euclid resident and participant in both programs. “We already have so much in common, and learning more about prayers, Jewish traditions, and Israel together – it’s definitely a highlight for me.”

Over the years, Noa’s family has participated in many jHUB programs, from beach clean-ups to Friday night Shabbat dinners. Enrolling her into the Hebrew Club felt like a great way for Noa to learn the Hebrew language and do so in a way that further connected her to Jewish Cleveland. “I was blown away with what she’s learned – the day they came home from the movies, she was able speak full sentences in Hebrew about what they saw,” said Stacey, Noa’s mom. “And seeing the connections she’s making with the Shinshinim has been a big part of why she’s enjoying the programs. She sees Israel as a special and joyful place – a connection to her heritage. Not only that, she wants to have her Bat Mitzvah there next year. I can’t thank jHUB and the people in charge of this program enough.”

Caleb’s sister and cousins have also participated in the B-Mitzvah Experience to have his family involved together as they learn the traditions. “The transformations they experience through the B-Mitzvah program, at this age, is so incredible because they can understand the responsibility that comes with it within themselves and religion as a community,” said Jonathan, Caleb’s dad. “They learn about tikkun olam (repairing the world) and how important the community aspects of Judaism is in such a short amount of time. They’re able to learn this from the beginning and continue that lifelong commitment to the Jewish community.”

Teen participants in jHUB's B-Mitzvah Experience take the Rapid to Downtown Cleveland during one of their experiences.

None of these programs from jHUB can continue without the support of the Jewish community and the support of the Federation, something everyone involved is grateful for. “The fact that they think outside the box and envision a future to keep families engaged and connected and bring families together to meet each other is invaluable,” said Jonathan. “We’re able to stay connected to this community and that is critical. They’re able to engage the adults, the kids, and the whole families in general. And I give them so much credit for continuing to always stay ahead of the curve.”

“It's crucial in helping our kids develop those connections with other Jewish kids their age and seeing themselves as part of this incredible, diverse Jewish community,” said Stacey. “And so I hope that support for it continues even after my kids are grown and living wherever they're going to live, doing whatever they're going to do. ‘Doing Jewish’ can look very different from person to person, from family to family. And that is a wonderful thing that we should celebrate.”

For more information on jHUB, contact Rabbi Melinda Mersack at mmersack@jecc.org.

Learn More: Federation, Israel, Teens