With a cue from scouting, BadgeQuest aims for greater Jewish engagement

With a cue from scouting, BadgeQuest aims for greater Jewish engagement

It’s sweeter than a Thin Mint and more lasting than a Do-si-do. BadgeQuest, a new initiative from the Joint Jewish Education Program (J-JEP), is an electronic effort to increase Jewish engagement among Pittsburgh’s youth. Similar to physical badges received in scouting, BadgeQuest rewards J-JEP students with digital recognition for successfully engaging with Jewish values, ideas and practices.

To earn badges, students must provide artifacts of learning, said Liron Lipinsky, J-JEP’s director. These artifacts could be written or video blogs, physical mementos or photographs demonstrating students’ experience with particular Jewish values.

Lipinsky and her staff selected eight core Jewish values (guarding the earth; dignified helping the poor; welcoming strangers; taking care of yourself; honoring parents and teachers; pursuing peace/justice; derech eretz/being a mentsche; and studying Torah). Each value offers a badge. In certain cases, students must earn three to five tokens before receiving the badge. If students receive badges in all eight values, an uber badge is awarded.

“It’s similar to scouting or gaming,” said Lipinsky.

The intent is to incentivize students’ interests and increase engagement.

“Five years ago, when I accepted this position, I was told to limit expectations because people try to cram all of their Jewish into Sunday,” said Lipinsky. “It’s not OK. One of the goals is to have students see almost everything they do through Jewish lenses, that Judaism is everywhere.”

Currently, 141 students are enrolled in J-JEP. Although J-JEP is a collaboration between Congregation Beth Shalom and Rodef Shalom Congregation, the student body reflects a broader Jewish base. Both affiliated and unaffiliated families participate in J-JEP. Yet, for the majority of students, J-JEP is the sole opportunity to engage Jewishly, said Lipinsky.

Between Sunday school and a shorter weekday Hebrew class, most J-JEP students receive approximately four hours of Jewish engagement per week. The mission of J-JEP, explained Lipinsky, is to provide innovative, experiential learning that inspires and prepares students to engage meaningfully in Jewish life beyond the hours spent in J-JEP classrooms and activities. BadgeQuest is designed to fulfill that mission.

Lipinsky explained how BadgeQuest will work: Hypothetically, a Sunday school J-JEP teacher discusses a particular Jewish value. At the close of class, the teacher sends the students on quests or missions to explore that value. Seeking to earn tokens or badges, students gather artifacts of learning, make connections and reflect on the discussed value. By so doing, students consequently spend more time “Jewishly” outside of their classrooms.

“With J-JEP (and BadgeQuest), they’re going out into the community,” said Lipinsky.

Lipinsky first developed the idea for BadgeQuest in spring 2013. She and a taskforce of parents, students, teachers and rabbis met to review J-JEP’s curriculum. In consultation with a representative of the Agency for Jewish Learning, the group determined that although the curriculum was “solid,” as Lipinsky described, there was a desire to change students’ experiences: “We wanted to change how we delivered the curriculum and what the students did with the content.”

Lipinsky was placed in touch with Sarah Blattner, founder and executive director of Tamritz, a badge-empowered learning network for Jewish educators and their students. Together, Lipinsky and Blattner developed a program that functioned not only as a glorified sticker chart, but also as a means of showcasing real learning. With its online digital platform where students can jointly earn badges and share blog posts, photographs or other artifacts of learning, Lipinsky is convinced that BadgeQuest will be both innovative and effective.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh agrees. Several months ago, the Federation’s Foundation provided J-JEP with a $12,000 grant. That money will be used to partner with Tamritz, said Lipinsky. Per Lipinsky’s grant request, Tamritz will assist J-JEP in designing and producing the initial badges, establish the students’ online platform and provide ongoing professional development for J-JEP staff.

Between the Foundation grant and funding provided by Congregation Beth Shalom and Rodef Shalom, Lipinsky recognizes what is at stake.

“It’s a pilot program and a huge expense,” she said, “but we’re investing.”

BadgeQuest will be unveiled in the coming months. A soft launch is scheduled for October, and a hard launch is planned for Nov. 22, said Lipinsky. “We’re putting the finishing touches on the program now.”

Adam Reinherz can be reached at adamr@thejewishchronicle.net.

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