ROSH HASHANAH EDITION 5780 SECTION D PAGE 5
At Moving Traditions, not all those leading the educational programs are professional Jewish educators. Rabbis, cantors and Hebrew school teachers, of course, but they make up only part of the ranks. So do artists, social workers and young adults.
One of the latter is Tal Arnold, 24, who is leading a Shevet group for teen boys at Congregation Beth Evergreen. (Moving Traditions also has groups for girls, “Rosh Hodesh,” and nonbinary teens, “Tzelem.”)
Arnold is Moving Traditions’ first second-generation group leader. His parents, Rabbi Jamie and Marti Arnold, led Shevet and Rosh Hodesh groups, respectively.
Tal’s earliest memories of Moving Traditions are the times each month when he and his siblings were not allowed to go into the basement as Marti was leading a Rosh Hodesh group. The girls needed privacy for their conversations and activities.
“After their meetings,” Tal Arnold recently told the IJN, “my siblings and I would go downstairs and see the leftovers of whatever activity they were working on. We would be left guessing what they were doing. I was always curious about what happened to their cool projects and we wished we could be a part of it.”
He became friends with many of those girls, who “raved” about the program. He came to admire the support system it seemed to provide.
It is therefore perhaps not surprising that Tal Arnold has set off on the path of mentoring and education. He was a camp counselor for a number of years at Camp JRF (now called Camp Havaya), where he worked with the same age group — 13-15 year olds — as he is with Moving Traditions.
He also teaches religious school to 4th and 5th graders at Beth Evergreen.
His work with children spills over into his day job as a theater director, where in addition to directing an adult improv troupe, he directs children’s shows.
Moving Traditions, he says, differs from religious school, in which the focus is largely on education: learning Hebrew, learning the prayers, skills that he calls “really important.”
But religious school, he says, can become uniform because of how much material must be covered.
Moving Traditions, he says, is oriented toward the teens. “In a group like this, [the connection to Judaism] can be personalized.”
A primary focus is creating a space for discussion and support in confronting contemporary social challenges. He says this fosters “a sense of community and Jewish identity that’s outside of an educational structure.”
“It’s really important for guys to have the kind of community that my mom had for these girls,” he says. A community that’s “willing to listen and talk about some of these topics that are kind of taboo. They don’t want to be judged for asking [these questions].”
Arnold’s approach is to create a dialogue. He may open a session with a pointed question, or set of questions, but his goal is to get a conversation going, not lead a Q&A.
While it is social issues that he is addressing, the Jewish aspect threads its way through the conversations.
A lot of Biblical stories and texts include themes that teens today grapple with, he says. Take toxic masculinity, or gender in general. He cites Jacob and Esau as an interesting case study: two brothers, one more “feminine,” one more “masculine,” he says. Both have moments when they believe they aren’t going to receive their father’s blessing. “They handle it differently,” he says.
Another Biblical figure he mentions is King David, who is a warrior, but also a poet and dreamer. Compared to his nemesis Goliath, David is not the “most masculine.”
These texts, he says, let the kids see that these issues are not exclusive to their experience. It’s not just them going through “I’m much smaller and I’m afraid of him,” perhaps with regard to another child at school.
“We can talk about how you’re not the first person to feel this way. And what do you do with those feelings? With that fear? The thinking that bigger means better. How can we address that?”
Or the male-female dynamic. How does the Torah — not contemporary media — portray men and women?
“I’m excited on a personal level to see how they’re thinking about issues,” he says.
Arnold hopes the Shevet group will strengthen Jewish identity among its participants, enable them to embrace their identities as teenage boys and as Jewish people. “I think it’s important that Jewish teen boys have a sense of pride in being Jewish. Some of that comes from enjoying being Jewish. It can also come from being with other Jews,” he says.
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