Adam Rogers knows what it’s like to face challenges in school or in interactions with friends. As a younger kid, he experienced anger management issues. Now, as a high school sophomore, Adam helps others overcome their own set of learning challenges through the B’Tzelem: Jewish Teen Learning Companions at five Cleveland area congregations.
“My role in B’Tzelem is one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done,” says Adam, who helps an 8th grader at Kol Chadash in Solon, OH.
“The student I help has become like a little brother to me, and I’m helping him prepare for his Bar Mitzvah and am teaching him blessings. It was really difficult at first, but I see kids with challenges in such a different light now, and I want to continue doing this type of work when I get to college.”
Adam joins 17 other B’Tzelem Teen Learning Companions for 4-5 training sessions each school year. The initiative is an innovative new opportunity for teens to engage in congregational school and life, while empowering them to lead and support others. The training sessions teach them skills to help their students have the best possible learning and social experiences at their congregational school. As part of this training, they go through a variety of exercises to try and experience the challenges faced by their students.
“Helping a student with autism requires split-second decision-making, patience, and adaptability,” says Caroline Creed, 17, of Anshe Chesed-Fairmount Temple in Cleveland. “To me, this is really about doing gemilut chasadim—acts of loving kindness. When I help my student, the entire classroom runs more smoothly and my student has a great time learning. I know this helps her build a stronger Jewish identity, and she’ll have happy memories of school here.”
The Teen Learning Companions play the crucial role of helping their students in subtle ways. When they accompany their students to class, they try to keep a low profile and help others in the class as needed.
“Every student can have a positive Jewish learning experience at their congregational schools, to truly feel good about it” says Dassi Shtern, Program Coordinator for B'Tzelem and Director of SEGULA: Special Education, Growth, Understanding and Learning Association. “When we create this environment, all students cement their friendships and relationships connected to Jewish learning, faith, and synagogue.”
Melanie Ryshen, a teacher at Kol Chadash, sees firsthand how B’Tzelem not only impacts the student, but the entire family as well.
“Adam helps a 3rd grade girl in my class with autism and social issues who wants to become a rabbi,” Melanie says. “Because of his work, other kids now embrace her personality and she has developed real self-confidence. It’s thrilling to see kids’ progress because of this program and to see their families feel so welcomed into the congregation and the entire community.”
Now in its second year, B’Tzelem’s Teen Learning Companions are recommended for the program by the congregations’ education directors. As the program has progressed, the Companions recognize that they too have grown as individuals and leaders.
“We all get better at what we do every week from learning and training together,” says Elena Flores, 13, also a member of Kol Chadash. “I feel honored to work with my student; it’s a mitzvah. It makes me realize that we’re really all connected as Jews and we can help each other.”
The Jewish Education Center of Cleveland, a Cleveland-based agency that fosters and strengthens all types of Jewish learning oversees B’Tzelem: Jewish Teen Learning Companions and is part of a national network with four other communities—known as “Shinui,” which means “Change” in Hebrew—designed to help share and implement new models in part-time Jewish education.
“We’ve created a structure for this initiative where the Teen Learning Companions see that they are part of a movement—and that has meaning,” adds Shtern. “We want to continue supporting the teacher-Teen Learning Companion-student model. Someone might learn a little differently, but everyone can experience success.”
The five congregations in B’Tzelem are Anshe Chesed-Fairmount Temple, Congregation Kol Chadash, Temple Emanu El, The Temple-Tifereth Israel and B’nai Jeshurun Congregation.
Dr. Jeffrey Schein is the director of the adolescent initiative and special projects at the Jewish Education Center. He is a Reconstructionist Rabbi and was a professor of Jewish education and department head at Siegal College in Cleveland for twenty years.