Last year I was given an incredible opportunity when I was chosen to be part of the first cohort of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s new certificate program in Jewish Education. A year later, I have completed all of the courses, graduated from the program, and received a Certification 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 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, literally 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 else was in store.
We continued our learning at the first in-person class in the Union for Reform Judaism’s Greene Family Camp in Bruceville, Texas in November. My flight was one of the first to land and I kept my eyes open for potential classmates- after a while I noticed two people talking to each other and one of them had on a shirt with Hebrew. I asked and, lo and behold, they were in the program as well. So was one of the guys sitting nearby with a kippah. One by one, the rest of our classmates arrived and it was soon 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) “become best friends.”
We all knew that she was kidding, 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. We acknowledged how quickly a community had formed, and I can see now that it’s likely due to the fact that we are all Jewish and youth workers, and that these were very significant aspects of each of our personalities.
For most of our activities that weekend, we were asked to pair up with someone. Everyone was constantly changing partners and nobody seemed to fall into specific circles. Once 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 we were also able to hold very opinionated discussions without being mean-spirited. We learned about the values we each treasured and if someone didn’t agree, we acknowledged that the dissonance was okay. Not only did my cohort become a community in fewer than two hours, we became a family in less than a weekend.
We returned home and our online classes 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 Institute at the HUC-JIR campus in New York City.
When we finally reconvened for our new classes, we picked up where we left off. Everyone worked well together and pretty much every meal was eaten with different people. (Everyone has different taste preferences and when you’re in NYC, you eat pretty much whatever you want!) Our little family continued to form over the ten days through heavy class discussions and being together as we explored the city in the evenings. Spending almost a half a month together helped solidify our bond.
During our next break, one member of our community experienced the loss of someone dear to them. Emails were sent, phone calls were made, and in no time at all, everyone had chipped in to send a condolence package. The support extended to our classmate was something you see from childhood friends. It was heartwarming and 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 institute in May, we had a closing circle where we shared something about this past year. While we all greatly appreciated the classes we took and the education we received, little was said about the classes- Every single person mentioned the community that was built. 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 program at HUC-JIR with the intellectual faculty members and engaging staff. I learned a great, GREAT deal from 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.
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. He shared this reflection during his congregation’s “Spiritual Sharing” service on Yom Kippur. This post originally appeared on HUC-JIR’s website: http://huc.edu/news/article/2012/barak-malkins-spiritual-sharing-on-yom-kippur