In Jewish tradition, 11 and 12 are transitional ages, when children begin studying with adult tutors to prepare for their b’nai mitzvot and for the passage into Jewish adulthood. Those ages, it turns out, are pivotal in the development for all children, Jewish or not.
The United Jewish Federation of Pittsburgh is joining a citywide recruitment effort to get professionals to spend a year mentoring sixth-grade students across Pittsburgh. The United Way of Allegheny County, the Mentoring Partnership of Southwestern Pennsylvania and the Youth Futures Commission are coordinating the “Be a 6th Grade Mentor” program.
The partnership allows the UJF, a beneficiary of the United Way, to help Jews get involved with local mentoring efforts without having to build a program from scratch, according to Jeff Cohan, director of community and public affairs for the UJF.
“This was a very happy alignment for us,” Cohan said.
The UJF began promoting the program last week in an e-mail to some 5,000 people. Jewish Family & Children’s Service also sent out a mass e-mail about the program.
“It’s a fantastic volunteer opportunity, but it’s a big commitment,” Cohan said.
The program asks mentors to spend 45 minutes with a student each week between October and May, as well as maintain monthly interaction over the summer. The mentoring sessions all take place in school, and every visit is supervised. The program will run out of the eight remaining sixth- through eighth-grade schools in the city: Pittsburgh Allegheny and Pittsburgh Schiller on the North Side, Pittsburgh Arsenal in Garfield, Pittsburgh Classical in the West End, Pittsburgh Rooney in Brighton Heights, Pittsburgh South Brook in Brookline, Pittsburgh South Hills in Beechview and Pittsburgh Sterrett in Point Breeze.
To prepare for the program, mentors must take six and a half hours of training and submit to several background checks. The UJF is hosting a training session on Sept. 15 at the Jewish Community Center in Squirrel Hill, which will include a special program on mentoring from a Jewish perspective being prepared by the Agency for Jewish Learning.
Cohan said it shouldn’t be too hard to find a Jewish perspective on mentoring. The UJF prefaced its promotional campaign with a verse from Pirke Avot, the ethical teachings compiled in the Mishna: “Let the honor of your student be as dear to you as your own.”
“Mentoring our youth is a mandate for Jews from our text, and is also central to our culture,” Cohan said. He added that the UJF’s support for area public schools through the program would not lead to less support for Jewish educational facilities in Pittsburgh.
The program focuses on sixth graders because that grade is considered a pivotal time for young students, according to Colleen Fedor, executive director of the Mentoring Partnership.
“Sixth grade is a very concerning place for us,” Fedor said, when students either become engaged in learning and start thinking about careers, or “they fall off that cliff.”
The program looks both near and long term.
It’s trying to create an incentive for students to avoid pitfalls like drugs and gangs, to try harder in school and to attend class more frequently, with the hope of getting more children eligible for the Pittsburgh Promise, the local scholarship for high school graduates.
But by bringing in a diverse group of mentors from various professional backgrounds, the program also hopes to expand the notions students have about their futures.
“A lot of children grow up in Pittsburgh with a very narrow range of experiences. Many of them seldom leave their neighborhood,” Cohan said. “The real benefit is exposing these kids to career possibilities they may not have ever imagined, because in their narrow experience they may not have had opportunities with those careers.”
The program is the largest recruitment effort for mentors ever undertaken in the Pittsburgh region, Fedor said. Since the program launched in early June, around 500 people have applied to become mentors, double the number of mentorship applications typically received by the coordinating agencies in the course of an entire year, Fedor said.
In addition to the UJF, Fedor said several other local community groups have also undertaken recruitment campaigns, Fedor said, mentioning Christian Associates of Southwest Pennsylvania, law enforcement groups and higher education groups.
“It’s just been an amazing collaborative effort,” she said.
(Eric Lidji can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)