The more we encounter others, the more deeply we learn about ourselves.
Beth Tzedec Congregation wants to develop a program for Jewish teens involving purposive, meaningful encounters with groups that are different than themselves, but through whose stories and traditions they gain insight into and appreciation of their own culture and heritage. This unique initiative will be a structured reflective opportunity for Jewish teens from Beth Tzedec and other Toronto congregations that will culminate in a multi-day encounter with teens from an Ontario Aboriginal community.
The program, to be known as Tawiskam Mifgash, from the Cree and Hebrew words for Encounter, is an exciting and enriching Jewish identity-building initiative. The idea for Tawiskam Mifgash was born out of Beth Tzedec’s highly successful Tolerance trip of February, 2011 during which the synagogue led a delegation of 35 teens (members and non-members) on a trip to the Paperclips exhibit in Whitwell, Tennessee. The focus of the trip was “teaching tolerance” through the dual themes of the Holocaust education and Jewish/Black relations. Participant feedback indicated that the teens were overwhelmed by their experience and challenged when learning about the complex history of Jewish and Black communities in North America. The trip was very successful, but was missing a crucial element….Encounter.
In the spring of 2011, Beth Tzedec Congregation soft launched a one of a kind pilot project, The Bar/Bat Mitzvah Club, targeted at Jewish children who have difficulty with social situations (i.e. diagnosed non-verbal learning disabilities, social anxiety and Asperger’s Syndrome, etc.) and who are approaching their Bar/Bat Mitzvah year. We want to hard launch the project as a full scale program for the entire Jewish community beginning in the spring of 2012.
The Bar/Bat Mitzvah Club combines the best practices of a social skills group for students with high functioning special needs with the content and process of Bar/Bat Mitzvah preparation curriculum in the context of how these children learn (differently), form friendships (or have difficulty forming friendships), and find value and comfort in a Jewish setting. We see this model as a replicable one for excellence in inclusion and outreach for the entire Jewish community and beyond. In order to meet the needs of the larger community, we would benefit from formal curricular development, program development in light of comparative research in other religions’ integration of this population, enhanced budget requirements for programmatic add-ins such as outings, and a comprehensive recruitment strategy to attract more participants.
The 2011 pilot project, which will continue into the fall, enrolled four boys, coming from homes of varying degrees of Jewish commitment and attending different types of schools. All of their families struggle with integrating their children into mainstream Jewish life – whether camp, school, synagogue, etc. While the program is sponsored by a Conservative synagogue and co-facilitated by one of its rabbis, it does not have a specific denominational agenda and is open to the whole community. The pilot project ran for seven 90 minute sessions, in addition to an orientation and intake interviews. Through games, activities, dinner and discussion, the participants, who often don’t participate in activities offered from organized Jewish life and feel anxiety toward celebrating a Bar-Mitzvah, were able to discuss and process what it means to be Jewish. Topics addressed included being part of a group, expectations of a community, responsibility, mitzvah, our relationship with G-d, creating a Bar Mitzvah ceremony and celebration that works for them, and identification with Israel.
The parents of the children met concurrently with a group facilitator from the team. They discussed the challenges of raising children with these difficulties and established peer support. The parents were able to create a clearer vision of how to proceed in directing their children toward the Bar Mitzvah celebration and future participation in Jewish life that met the needs of both their child and themselves.
The Bar/Bat Mitzvah Club was conceived in partnership between interested synagogue parental leaders and synagogue clergy. It was designed by a team of educators, clergy, and committed congregants together with a team of skilled, highly trained experts in various fields. The team included:
1. Adam Cutler, MA – Rabbi, Beth Tzedec Congregation
2. Jonathan Leef, M.A.- PhD candidate (5th year), School and Clinical Child Psychology Program, Department of Human Development and Applied Psychology, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education/University of Toronto; Research Coordinator, Autism Research Unit, Hospital for Sick Children
3. Barbara Muskat, PhD, RSW - Academic and Clinical Specialist, Department of Social Work, The Hospital for Sick Children; Assistant Professor, Status only, Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work, University of Toronto; and Child and Adolescent Therapist, The Redpath Centre
4. Connie Putterman and David Golden – Parents, Board Member for Jewish and Autism Spectrum Disorder related organizations and others including: Jerusalem Foundation of Canada, Canadian Friends of Hebrew U, Autism Care Ontario, Autism Speaks Canada, Danny Grossman Dance Company (Toronto)
5. Lili Senman, MA - Research Coordinator, Autism Research Unit, Hospital for Sick Children
6. Jill Shuster, MA – PhD Candidate, York University, Clinical-Developmental Psychology, (degree expected 2012) and Psychology resident, London Clinical Psychology Consortium, Child and Adolescent Track
7. Abbie Solish, M.A. - PhD Candidate, York University and Psychology Intern, Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital
8. Jennifer Turack, MA – Director of Family Education, Beth Tzedec Congregation
9. Jonathan Weiss, PhD, CPsych - Assistant Professor and Clinical Psychologist, Department of Psychology, York University
The participants’ program was facilitated by Rabbi Adam Cutler, Abbie Solish and Jill Shuster. Jonathan Leef facilitated the Parent Group.
With the full launch, we hope to partner with local schools, camps, and youth movements and are open to developing a long term relationship with Jewish Family and Child.