New Project Impacts Teachers and Students

Students of all ages have to contend with many different factors that can affect their personal development. In the traditional classroom environment, however, issues such as bullying, eating disorders, healthy relationship building, and gender identity are difficult to discuss.

Confronting these types of problems is central to emotionally healthy students who go on to lead productive and fruitful lives. In 2006, through funding from the Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York, Dr. Shira Epstein, assistant professor in the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education, launched the “Addressing Evaded Issues in Jewish Education,” program. The project seeks to relate Jewish educational content to alternative or unhealthy adolescent behaviors and create an atmosphere in which these issues can be discussed.

“The Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York funded the Evaded Issues project because we felt it is a unique and cutting-edge program filling an important need. We are happy to have the opportunity to partner with JTS, given your commitment to education and goal of making a defining, positive impact in the lives of Jewish women,” says Madelyn Adamson, chair of the organization’s Grants Committee.

In the initial months of the program, Dr. Epstein brought together practitioners and organizations dedicated to the development of resilient, healthy Jewish girls and built the project’s advisory group. "As Jewish educators, we strive for authentic connection with our adolescent learners.  We know that this connection will enable these young people to feel that Jewish life links to their daily experience in friendships, intimate relationships, and self-understanding and discovery,” Dr. Epstein says.

Joining the program in 2007, Naomi Less, MA (Davidson 2000) serves as lead consultant. Through generous support by the Hadassah Foundation, Epstein and Less have authored a comprehensive Resource Guide, which discusses the best ways to equip Jewish educators with knowledge of the issues they may face. It also includes summaries of national programs and resources around evaded issues, and examples of professional development opportunities.

Dr. Epstein and Less have disseminated this critical information, conducting training seminars for a variety of organizations including Ma’yan, the Leadership Institute for Congregational School Educators, Keshet, and the Rebecca and Israel Ivry Prozdor High School. Their next training session is Thursday, January 8, 2009, at the Board of Jewish Education of Greater New York. “This training gives teachers an opportunity, in a safe space, to begin to work on how they can separate from the issue itself and be a proactive advocate for creating a safe learning environment for their students,” Less says.

The work within the Evaded Issues program has been rewarding and successful, both for the instructors and those learning from them. As Less points out, “The ability to develop a project under the roof of JTS that enables the widest variety of institutions and educators to come together to work on such challenging issues is a gift for me as a learner and advocate for safe learning situations.”

Dr. Epstein agrees, “I have fostered dialogue with professionals who care deeply about supporting the next generation of emotionally healthy Jewish teens, and who make space within a Jewish context for engagement on topics that weigh heavily on the minds of our participants.”