By Rich Walter and Hope Chernak
First published on December 15, 2017 in the Atlanta Jewish Times ›

Rifling through a pile of random objects in a Tel Aviv youth hostel, 13 Atlanta youth professionals and one Israeli Reform rabbi listened to the words of their teacher, artist Hanoch Piven..

“We all have the ability to look at the world in a different way, a playful way,” Piven said.

Participants in the JumpSpark Professional seminar in Israel show the self-portraits they made with found materials.

As he spoke, those 14 participants selected from among the crushed soda cans, oddly shaped buttons, children’s toys, dried pasta and unraveled cassette tapes. We were using our creativity and objects others had discarded to create self-portraits representing who we were as educators and individuals.

Looking at our work in new and innovative ways was the overall theme of the eight-day seminar in Israel. Sponsored by the new Atlanta Jewish Teen Initiative through its professional network, JumpSpark Professional, the experience brought together local youth educators representing congregations, youth movements, summer camps and arts organizations.

AJTI is the result of Atlanta’s selection as one of 10 cities to participate in the Jewish Teen Education and Engagement Funder Collaborative, which brings national and local funders together to develop, nurture and scale new approaches to teen engagement.

The seminar was conceived and led by AJTI Executive Director Hope Chernak. Seeking a bold way to engage teen educators, she knew that Israel is the best place for inspiring these professionals to grow and innovate.

Rabbis Gabby Dagan and Na’ama Dafni-Kellen of the Leo Baeck Education Center and Congregation Ohel Avraham in Haifa served as her Israeli counterparts in planning and leading the program.

Chernak was also deeply invested in creating local partnerships to serve the group, both during its time in Israel and upon its return. She turned to the Center for Israel Education, which provided Rich Walter as a scholar in residence. Walter offered historical context and strategies for engaging learners with Israel in diverse ways.

For Molly Okun, the director of teen learning and engagement at Temple Sinai, a key takeaway is that “there are many ways to be a Jewish educator, and I found innovative ways to infuse Israel education into my programs. I am more comfortable with using a variety of modalities to teach about Israel after this trip.”

AJTI plans to build on the success of the trip to expand JumpSpark Professional to offer opportunities for personal and professional growth, networking and collaboration. CIE will continue to work with AJTI to offer Israel enrichment for Atlanta Jewish professionals.

Rich Walter is the associate director for Israel education at the Center for Israel Education. Hope Chernak is the former executive director of JumpSpark, formerly called the Atlanta Jewish Teen Initiative.

By Sarah Moosazadek
First published in the Atlanta Jewish Times ›

The Atlanta Jewish Teen Initiative is launching programs more than a year after the Jim Joseph Foundation announced it was giving an Atlanta partnership $2.1 million over five years to engage more teenagers with the Jewish community.

The initiative is a collaboration of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta, the Marcus JCC and the Atlanta Rabbinical Association under the leadership of Hope Chernak, who arrived in mid-April as the executive director of the $4.2 million effort (half from the Jim Joseph Foundation, half from local matching funds).

The initiative focuses on high-schoolers in the hope of boosting Jewish teen engagement and education throughout the community with new programs of interest to teens. Examples include an arts program, a seminar with lawyers and activists on how Jewish values inform social justice, and a possible seminar on civil rights in partnership with the National Center for Civil and Human Rights.

Each program will be taught through a Jewish lens to foster teens’ connection to Judaism and will operate during spring, summer, fall and winter breaks from school.

Hope Chernak is the executive director of the Atlanta Jewish Teen Initiative.

A national collaboration began in 2013 after the release of the Jim Joseph Foundation report “Effective Strategies for Educating and Engaging Jewish Teens,” whose goal is to connect tens of thousands of teens to meaningful Jewish learning experiences.

The San Francisco-based foundation picked 10 cities — based on their specific characteristics and history of communal partnerships — to participate and committed more than $29 million to support the resulting Jewish Teen Education & Engagement Funder Collaborative.

Amanda Abrams, the chief program and innovation officer at the Marcus JCC, said Atlanta was selected because religion is more of a normal practice in the South than in the other nine locations: Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, Denver/Boulder, Los Angeles, New York, San Diego and San Francisco.

Abrams said Atlanta’s initiative has been well received so far and was acknowledged by a Jewish Federation in New Jersey, which requested further information after hearing a presentation by Abrams during the General Assembly of Federations in Los Angeles in November.

“They thought what we shared was very informative, and my hope is that what we’ve done in Atlanta will transfer to other communities, at least in the planning process,” she said.

Input from the community and collaborations with existing organizations are important, Abrams said, as the initiative looks for sustainability early instead of waiting until the grant runs out after five years to seek new funding. The initiative therefore is flexible and open to change along the way.

The AJTI has canvassed in various communities, including Alpharetta and intown, to reach as many teens as possible. Although areas inside and outside the Perimeter present a challenge for the initiative, Chernak said AJTI is prepared to cross any boundary.

The Marcus JCC is working behind the scenes to implement the initiative by providing human resources, technical and financial support, supervision, and management. Federation is leveraging the funding with aid from the Jim Joseph Foundation and the Marcus JCC.

The ARA is serving as a resource to the initiative’s staff and volunteers by providing Jewish educational components and having members, including The Temple’s Rabbi Peter Berg, serve on the AJTI board. He said: “I am very proud because the AJTI is our community at its finest. We are working to not only offer great programing for teens that are not involved in Jewish life, but also toward a positive goal in the community.”

Chernak said the initiative remains in the pilot stage but is reaching out to agencies, synagogues and student clubs to schedule one-on-one meetings and explain the initiative.

“We are not trying to become another youth program but in fact support and provide any resources and … fill in a gap where students are currently not involved,” Chernak said.

AJTI’s first intensive session for teens, JumpSpark Sports, is scheduled for January and will provide a behind-the-scenes look at Atlanta’s sports industry.

AJTI also launched JumpSpark Professional for the development of communal professionals working with teens. A professional seminar in January will feature a discussion about teen behaviors and challenges.

The initiative hopes to create a pocket of communities with 15 to 25 kids each who will get to know one another and learn together. The initiative also wants to establish a leadership track in a year to help students learn what it means to be mentors.

Teens can learn more about the initiative at www.jumpsparkatl.org.

“Teens are at a critical stage of their life when they are building up their Jewish identity, and although we have great programs in the community, such as BBYO, there are still plenty of teens who have no Jewish connection, and having more options that are different and unique is important,” Federation CEO Eric Robbins said.

Abrams added, “It’s sometimes hard for people to understand what the AJTI is because there’s truly nothing like this that exists in Atlanta. It’s such an innovative way of serving Jewish teens.”

By Hope Chernak and Kelly Cohen
First published in the Atlanta Jewish Times ›

No matter your organization, mission or audience, there are hurdles to teen engagement, and success in today’s world requires new models of engagement to confront obstacles facing teens, including overextended schedules, academic pressure, the feeling of not fitting into existing programs, and a lack of relevance of the Jewish community and its teachings.

We know that effective Jewish programming needs to engage teens through their interests and speak to their passions. Teen program providers should recognize the obstacles to participation while offering a range of ways for teens to connect and stay connected within the Jewish community.

The Atlanta Jewish Teen Initiative kicked off its first engagement by gathering teens across Atlanta for an Atlanta United game. The first JumpSpark intensive session, set for January, will focus on sports.

With this in mind, a new platform has been conceived by the Atlanta Jewish Teen Initiative, the ninth city in the Jewish Teen Education & Engagement Funder Collaborative. This bold experiment targets Jewish teens not fully engaged in Jewish life through a new program, JumpSpark, which offers interest-based intensives for Jewish teens during school breaks.

Teens have diverse interests and talents, so there cannot be a one-size-fits-all approach. The goal and methodology of JumpSpark addresses the gap between the pursuit of areas of interest and Jewish involvement.

The innovation in our platform is adaptable and can be replicated in any community across the country with four guiding principles:

Don’t make teens choose.

We know students’ lives are complex and busy. Successful teen models will find topics that students are already interested in and meet them there. Jewish values are part of our everyday lives, and, as educators, it’s our role to help build those bridges for our teens.

As an example, our pilot intensive, JumpSpark Sports, will run from Jan. 2 to 5, the final week of the holiday break for many Atlanta school districts, and will engage students through a behind-the-scenes look at the sports industry.

This intensive program offers stadium tours, speakers, hands-on skill-building clinics and exposure to the business of sports. The intensive will couch those experiences in the language of Jewish wisdom and learning.

A trip to the College Football Hall of Fame will culminate in a discussion of Jewish models of heroes and how those values translate to modern sports heroes in a partnership with Beit Hatfutsot. A clinic with associate director of referee development for the NBA, Scott Bolnick, will be a lesson in tochecha, the Jewish laws of giving rebuke, with a larger focus on giving and receiving feedback.

Help teens build their résumé of life.

Teens prioritize activities that they feel are valuable, engaging and exceptional and are more likely to participate in activities that they think will help them get into college or assist their career path.

Every JumpSpark intensive will bring together a small cohort of teens who will use the unique features and people of Atlanta to learn, work and give back to the community together. Our participants will increase their knowledge, develop skills, clarify values, build Jewish identity and develop the capacity to contribute to the Jewish community and the world at large.

Partnership, partnership, partnership.

From its inception, the Atlanta Jewish Teen Initiative is rooted in collaboration. We cultivate partnerships with community professionals, educational institutions and other organizations, enabling us to use Atlanta as our classroom. However, AJTI is also the first programmatic partnership among the Marcus JCC, the Federation of Greater Atlanta and the Atlanta Rabbinical Association.

Meet teens where they are and show them how their interests are meaningful using a Jewish lens.

Programs need to be offered during a time that works for students today. The Atlanta Jewish Teen Initiative’s educational vision is to engage Jewish teens in growth opportunities through exceptional educational, community-building programs.

Motivated by the words of Isaac Luria, the 16th century master of Kabbalah, who said, “There is no sphere of existence that is not full of holy sparks,” the Atlanta Jewish Teen Initiative will guide teens to uncover meaning in their areas of interest and empower them to lift those “sparks” through engagement with Jewish wisdom, texts and values in accessible and relevant ways.

JumpSpark was inspired by a Brandeis University study, “Engaging Jewish Teens: A Study of New York Teens, Parents and Practitioners,” which said: “Virtually every teen is engaged in at least one extracurricular activity and over half hold at least one leadership position. Sports appear at the top of the list and Jewish activities at the bottom. The main reasons teens choose these activities are that they are fun and give them opportunities to learn new things and develop skills.”

Students should not have to choose between extracurriculars and Jewish involvement. Our goal, thus, is to ignite a spark in teens and to lower at least one hurdle to engagement. In the months ahead, JumpSpark will offer intensives on culinary arts, music, esports, dramatic arts, fashion, and writing and publishing, just to name a few. We are planning a weeklong program discussing civil rights in collaboration with the National Center for Civil and Human Rights and Etgar 36.

When electricity jumps across a gap, a spark, called a jump-spark, is produced. This is the inspiration behind our program name and reflects our mission to help ignite sparks within individual teens and within the Jewish teen community.

To learn more about our teen program and to join our mailing list, visit JumpSparkATL.org. Registration for JumpSpark programs is open. Contact info@atlantajewishteens.org for more information.

 

Hope Chernak is the former executive director of JumpSpark, formerly called the Atlanta Jewish Teen Initiative. Kelly Cohen is the education director of JumpSpark.