Barak Malkin, a youth advisor at Temple Emanu-El, Edison, NJ, recently earned a Certificate in Jewish Education for Adolescents and Emerging Adults from HUC-JIR, where he was a member of the inaugural cohort. During his congregation's "Spiritual Sharing" service on Yom Kippur, he shared the following:
Last year I was given an incredible opportunity when I was chosen off of the wait list for the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s new certificate program in Jewish Education. Since I was wait-listed, I was admitted a little late into the program when someone backed out after admissions had already begun. A year later, I have completed all of the courses, graduated from the program, and received a Certificate in Jewish Education for Adolescent and Emerging Adults. I don’t think that HUC-JIR realized it, but the material we learned would be just a small part of what made the program so wonderful.
Forty percent of the program takes place online and our first assignments were given through the website. I didn’t visually meet the other classmates at that point, but we began interacting in the chat room forums for our homework. The assignments were very exciting and, no joke; every time I finished a homework assignment for that first class I sat back and out loud said to myself, “Wow that was fun!” I couldn’t wait to see what the other classes had in store.
The first class assignments were given at the end of September and continued after we had our first in-person class in the Union for Reform Judaism’s Greene Family Camp in Bruceville, Texas in November.
My flight was probably the first to land as I remember being there about 3 to 4 hours early. I kept my eye open and after a while I noticed two other people talking to each other and one of them had on a shirt with some Hebrew writing. I asked and, lo and behold, they were in the program as well. So was one of the guys sitting nearby with a kippah. The four of us sat down near the wall outlet to charge phones and chat. One by one, the rest of our classmates arrived and, not too soon after, it became very obvious that we were a group of Jewish youth workers, sitting around in a circle on the floor of the airport with guitars.
On the two hour bus ride to the camp, our program coordinator had given us three assignments to complete: 1) Introduce ourselves to each other, 2) discuss the homework assignment we were given ahead of time, and 3) (no joke again) “become best friends.”
We all knew that this was just a joke, and kind of brushed it off, but by the time we arrived at camp we were closer than you would ever expect any group of 15 strangers from around the country would be in less than two hours. We all acknowledged how quickly a community had formed, too, but never really talked about it too much. I can see now that it’s likely due to the fact that we are all Jewish and youth workers and that these two things were very passionate aspects of each one of our personalities.
For most of our activities that weekend, we were assigned to pair up with someone and each time our teacher encouraged us to find someone new. Everyone was constantly changing partners and nobody seemed to fall into specific circles. Everyone was changing seats at each meal and changing tables as well. We got along well with each other and had an amazing experience. And now that we meshed as a group, it made the class discussions so much more exciting. People shared opinions and viewpoints in a room filled with fifteen Jewish professionals. You would be right in thinking that we had no less than 47 different opinions! But because we all got along so well, we were able to hold very opinionated and heated discussions without offending or being mean-spirited. We learned the values that each of us treasured and even if one of us did not agree, we acknowledged this and that the dissonance was okay. Group and one-on-one discussions about who we are, what we value, and integral moments of our lives strengthened this new community much faster than we all expected. So, not only did this cohort become a community in fewer than two hours, we became a family in less than a weekend.
The fifteen of us returned to our different states and our online class discussions became more lively and exciting since we knew each other much better. I talked and texted with a handful of my classmates during the fall and winter season, but I wouldn’t see them again until our next ten day session at the HUC-JIR campus in New York City. Still, with all that time apart, each hug hello that I received was just as tight as they were when we left in November. We had all remained in contact, but when we were all together again in our new classes, it was like we had picked up where we left off. Everyone worked great with one another and pretty much every meal was eaten with a different section of the group. (Everyone has different taste preferences and when you’re in NYC, you eat pretty much whatever you have in mind.) Our little family continued to grow over the ten days through heavy class discussions and being together outside of class as we walked around the city in the evenings when we didn’t have homework. The long period of time apart followed by almost a half a month together helped solidify some of the bonds that were formed.
We once again returned home for more online coursework. During this break though, one member of our cohort had experienced a loss of a dear one. Emails were sent, phone calls were made, and in no time at all, everyone had chipped in to send a condolence package from all of us. The support extended to our classmate was something you see from childhood friends. It was heartwarming just watching this take place. I can only imagine what it must have felt like to receive such love from a group of people one knew for only a few months.
At our final in person institute in May, we had a closing circle where we shared something about this past year. Nothing bad was said about the classes we had or the education we received because we all appreciated it so much, but almost nothing was said about the classes at all. Every single person had mentioned the community that was formed over the last 7, maybe 8, months. Everyone spoke of how quickly they felt welcomed, the bonds that were formed, and the laughs that were had.
I feel extremely fortunate to have been given the opportunity to be a part of this new up-and-coming program from the HUC-JIR with the most intellectual faculty members and staff. I learned a great, GREAT deal from each of my courses and have stacks of papers and books at home with diverse information and numerous references.
But, the experience would have not had the impact it did if our cohort of fifteen Jewish youth workers did not create the community that it did. It’s a year of my life that I will never forget with people that I will always consider a family.