JCC program attracts teens with textual study — and a stipend
EducationMore Questions than Answers

JCC program attracts teens with textual study — and a stipend

She'elot Fellowship enables local Jewish teens to ask big questions, meet new people and get paid

Participating teens gather during the She'elot Fellowship graduation ceremony. Photo courtesy of Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh
Participating teens gather during the She'elot Fellowship graduation ceremony. Photo courtesy of Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh

Addressing life’s biggest questions doesn’t require knowledge of rocket science. In fact, all that’s needed is teens, source sheets, pizza and a small stipend.

Earlier this month, 17 local Jewish high school students completed the She’elot Fellowship.

Administered by the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh, with funding from the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, the 12-week program encouraged teens to explore timeless questions through regular textual study. About twice a month, participants met in Squirrel Hill and scoured classic rabbinic writings while investigating topics including “Do I choose to be Jewish?” “Who determines Jewish law?” and “Is it me or fate that causes my outcome?”

Maria Carson, the JCC’s director of Jewish education and arts, said the fellowship was a stepping stone to future inquiry.

It’s important for students to know “they can remain connected to Jewish sources even beyond their bar or bat mitzvahs,” she said. “Jewish texts can be a source of wisdom for questions people struggle with throughout their lives.”

The curriculum, Carson said, was inspired by her past employment and education.

Before joining the JCC, she was director of Jewish life at Susquehanna University and received a doctorate in religion, focusing on modern to contemporary American Jewish philosophy, from Syracuse University.

She’elot’s curriculum — which allowed the teens to engage in small group discussions, larger learning sessions and chavruta-style study — was designed to mirror the fellowship’s name, Carson said.

In Hebrew, she’elot means questions.

“It’s the ‘questions fellowship,’ not the ‘answers fellowship,’ and the idea was to explore the multivariate ways Jewish tradition has both asked and answered questions,” she said.

Adding richness to the fellowship was the diversity of participants, Carson noted.

Of the 17 Jewish students, three were modern Orthodox, four were Lubavitch and 10 were either Conservative, Reform or Reconstructionist.

“Everyone was coming from such a different place but we were all talking about the same thing,” She’elot participant Leora Goldberg said.

The Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh, Squirrel Hill. Photo by Adam Reinherz

Squirrel Hill resident Leah Ackner, whose son Zev Loring recently completed the fellowship, described She’elot’s value.

“For those of us looking to keep our teens engaged in Jewish activities, this is an opportunity to do that,” she said. “There are lots of service-based projects and there are lots of social things that they can do, but there’s not a lot of things that are based on text or further growth in that area and this combines those two things.”

Carson said she is pleased the experience was appreciated by students and parents, but the trick to getting so many young people on board wasn’t particularly novel.

“For today’s highly scheduled and time-focused students, we thought a stipend would make the program attractive,” she said.

Giving participants $250 was a way of acknowledging, “We are taking some of your time, where you could have had a part-time job, and we are investing in you,” she said. Between the stipend and the food, the JCC was saying, “We know learning is hard work and we want to reward you.”

Rachael Speck, JCC’s Children, Youth & Family Division director, said the fellowship served a vital communal role while supporting the organization’s mission.

“What impressed me the most was the thoughtfulness and high level of discussion that the teens engaged in regardless of how knowledgeable they are in Jewish text or what part of the Jewish community they come from,” she said. “The fact that they were learning together was such a big part of the learning itself, and it was really special to see them value each other’s different levels of understanding and the differences between them…This is classic JCC — a place where teens from such diverse parts of the Jewish community can learn together.”

Applications for next year’s program will be available in several months. More information is available at jccpgh.org/the-sheelot-fellowship. PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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