Where Judaism and Relationship Skills Meet: Daniel Brenner

“Being teen-focused doesn’t mean giving up on Jewish literacy, it just means you have to start with the teens,” said Rabbi Daniel Brenner, vice president for education at Moving Traditions. 

For the past 11 years, Brenner has worked at Moving Traditions, whose mission is “to embolden Jewish youth to thrive through the pursuit of personal well-being (shleimut), caring relationships (hesed), and a Jewish and feminist vision of equity and justice (tzedek).” The Moving Traditions model of monthly facilitated-discussion groups was developed through initiatives like Rosh Hodesh groups for teen girls and Shevet groups for teen boys and now also includes the B Mitzvah Family Education program and Tzelem for trans, nonbinary, and LGBTQ+ teens. Moving Traditions provides curriculum and training to the educators who lead these groups.

“Our curriculum combines Jewish wisdom made relevant for today with insights from positive psychology and social-emotional learning models, generating proven methods of learning that foster well-being,” said Brenner. Training the group leaders in both Jewish texts and how teens think and interact with peers is a core part of Brenner’s responsibilities.

Brenner believes that while it can take a special person to work with teens, there are proven tools and structures that can be learned and that dramatically shift Jewish education in this age group. At the core of Brenner’s work training educators is one question: how do you structure a learning experience that will lead teens to have the discussions that speak to their search for meaning? 

“Our work is at the nexus of Judaism and relationship skills,” said Brenner. “We are bringing Jewish learning together with what we know about developmental psychology.” The Moving Traditions model—entering its 18th year—empowers teens to engage in meaning-based conversations about ideas that they already care about. “We train group leaders to expect initial push back from teens and help them to avoid the dynamics that shut down a conversation. Guided informal dialogue on challenging topics helps teens to broaden how they see themselves and everyone around them in a healthy, age-appropriate way.”

Ordained at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, Brenner knows that rabbis and educators in general do a great job talking about their own personal spiritual journey. “With teens,” said Brenner, “you can put a charismatic figure in front of them to talk and they will listen, but it is far better to get someone who is less likely to put themselves at the center and ask the teens to talk about their own experiences.”

Many of the influential adults Brenner encounters have been trained in careers outside of Jewish education, such as social work or general education. “Teens connect to adults who show a sincere interest in them, and that can be a sports coach, a 20-something part-time synagogue employee, or a caring aunt or uncle.” 

Brenner discovered a key lesson about working with teens when he coached his daughter’s soccer team and realized that he couldn’t be everywhere on the field. “Even if I were the best coach ever, I couldn’t be in the ear of each girl on the team at all times.” Brenner learned at a coaches training that he needed to engage all the players on the team to be supportive of each other, in effect to coach each other. “There are definite limitations to the role of adults,” he said.

When teens support, challenge, and uplift one another, the learning is much more effective and long-lasting, a message Brenner reiterates in the training he provides. “Giving teens agency takes trust and accepting that sometimes things might seem a bit chaotic. Chaos is okay,” said Brenner. 

Brenner knows that to be successful, group leaders have to understand teen mindsets. “The best educators know there are profound differences in development based on gender and age,” said Brenner. “A group of sixth-grade boys are likely going to be engaged very differently than seventh-grade girls, for example.”

Moving Traditions designs and leverages the pedagogies that work best for teens, even down to providing content for specific grades and genders. “We have invested a tremendous amount of time in curriculum development, and our trainings are designed to help educators understand what insights are baked in for each unique population.”

“Part of our role is to say, ‘This model has worked,’” said Brenner. He knows that group leaders will always want to add their own insights and approaches. “We ask educators to have faith in the structure that Moving Traditions has designed so that they can build toward a specific group dynamic. After that, they’ll find the freedom to explore,” he said.

Moving Traditions pedagogy follows a structured order: play, debate, sharing, ritual. “Each element is tested,” said Brenner. “We know from hundreds of successful groups that if you follow this order, adjusting the time allotted to each element according to the developmental needs of the group, and you repeat the structure with different themes, teens will come to feel safe and will open up.” Building trust will lead to a cohesive group.

“The themes we use are what is relevant to teen’s life—such as competition, friendship, sexuality, money—all paired with texts from tradition,” said Brenner. 

Brenner gave the example of how Moving Traditions trains educators to use a “text” like a Super Bowl commercial as a conversation-starter. “Our goal is to focus on one piece and help educators be the best they can be, which often means looking at the same topic multiple times and using multiple senses,” said Brenner. 

First, he will ask the educators to watch the commercial in its entirety, then the group will watch it without sound, then listen to it without video in order to analyze it from every angle. Educators begin to notice the more subtle cues and messages the commercial is conveying about gender roles and the social codes that it may be imprinting. “Through this analysis, group leaders start to discover the many possibilities for how to open a discussion,” said Brenner. “The same is true, of course, with a Jewish text—it could be taught a million ways.”

All Moving Traditions trainings include an immersive experience with a diverse peer group followed by a reflection four to five months later. This gives educators the chance to experiment with the pedagogy and share back with the group their experiences. “We know our model asks group leaders—and teens—to take risks,” said Brenner. “We hear over and over that after a few months, teens see the group as a safe space and the educator as someone they can trust.”

Brenner never underestimates the power of humor, especially in work with teens. “You know you are loved by a teenager when they ridicule you,” he said. “The training we provide to the group leaders prepares them to recognize that as a kind of badge of honor.”

Written by Suzanne Kling Langman