When a couple dozen former students and staff of the Jewish Educational Workshop convened recently for the 40th anniversary reunion of this innovative program for teens in the early 1970s, the words "profound influence" resonated throughout the room. What was it about this program, we asked ourselves as we reminisced and viewed slides of those years, that made such an impact on our lives? What was it about the workshop that helped give direction to our personal and professional paths?
A year before the program began in 1972, five graduate and rabbinical students — myself included — met frequently with two high school students with a single goal in mind: to create a program for teens that combined the best that Jewish education had to offer. We took the following ingredients: informal and experiential aspects of Jewish summer camps, the cohesiveness and peer leadership that youth groups produced and effective curricula of Hebrew schools.
But we realized that those weren't enough, since Shabbatonim had similar components. What was missing?
To our surprise, we found that our planning group was modeling what we were looking for — a small group, ongoing get-togethers and the direct involvement of teens. Those were the key factors that needed to be mixed into the recipe. But there was another intangible element that we took for granted — the five staff members were able to relate well with adolescents. This became a major criterion for accepting additional staff members later on. The low ratio of adults to teens was also central to our planning.
The program fell into place with a small group of 20 teens that met one weekend a month throughout the academic year. The students came from various Hebrew schools throughout metropolitan Philadelphia as well as from Akiba Hebrew Acad-emy. The facility, first a large country house in Fort Washington and then a colonial mansion on a 120-acre wooded estate in Horsham (a flood forced us to move from the first site), served as the center for the workshop as well as the home of the five staff members.
The weekend programs focused on various themes, such as the Holocaust, Jewish life-cycle rituals and customs, and holidays. As Robert Allender, a Jewish educator and fundraiser, put it: "We didn't just have a seder. We — students and staff side-by-side — dissected the Haggadah and then created our own. We didn't just study about the Holocaust and listen firsthand to survivors' stories; we built a monument of broken mirrors with barbed wire wrapped around and took it to the Yom Hashoah observance in Center City. We lived our Judaism together in everything we did, from making the meals, including the challahs, to conducting Shabbat services."
The following year, we added another group, a post-Bar/Bat Mitzvah class from Congregation Beth Or, and expanded our staff to nine. We shared our model with many other educators and institutions and received national attention at the first CAJE conference.The Second Jewish Catalog described our program as "one of the more creative projects available for the teenager … It has proved successful since its inception."
After four years, the program came to an end when the owners of the estate wanted to develop the property and utilize the mansion for other purposes. And we, the staff, had completed our studies and were ready to move on with our chosen careers.
At the reunion earlier this month, the former "kids," now in their 50s, recalled the tremendous impact that the program had on their lives. Bill Eisenstadt, general counsel of operations for a national recycling corporation, spoke for many when he described it as "a very special place where we could be free … safe, warm and protected. I'm not sure it is something every teenager gets."
The workshop not only provided a retreat from the daily angst of adolescence, but was also a laboratory for one's Jewish identity to germinate. Said Lynn Friedman, a psychotherapist in Wynnewood: "No day school experience could provide the nurturing and support that the workshop gave us. The workshop continues to influence me in so many ways. It also was my port in the storm during a challenging time in my life."
Some of the former students went on to become Jewish educators and rabbis. Whatever direction their careers took, they all agree that the Jewish Educational Workshop personalized Judaism for them, which they have continued in their own lives and the lives of their children.
The question has arisen many times over the years whether something like the workshop could be replicated or if it was just a convergence of the right people at the right time.
"Keep in mind," explained another cofounder, Jeffrey Eisenstat, co-rabbi (with his wife, Rabbi Sarah Messinger) of Congregation Shireinu in Bryn Mawr, "we were at a point in our lives where we had the energy to pursue full-time graduate studies and run this very labor-intensive program. Plus, we had to teach part-time on the outside, since the tuition we received barely covered the expenses. Busy doesn't begin to describe our hectic lives, but we loved every minute of it."
We have seen Shabbaton programs that have utilized some of the factors of the workshop. But, the truly unique elements, like the small, ongoing groups and the low student-staff ratio, have not been evident. We may have been the products of the '60's, but we were just incorporating a central concept of Jewish life into our program — a strong sense of community.
Rabbi Steve Stroiman retired two years ago after 34 years on the faculty of Akiba/Barrack Hebrew Academy.