Pride in being Jewish

Ye… Yele… Yeled,” Oliver looked up at me with pride in his eyes. He knew he had read the word perfectly. He began to smile, satisfied with his own accomplishment. I too began to smile. Overwhelmed with gratification, I realized it was this feeling that drags me out of bed before 9 a.m. on Sunday mornings. This is about pride in being Jewish.

Oliver, his sister, Daphne, and I participate in the Jewish Youth Encounter Program. “The program was designed to instill in our students a love of and pride in being Jewish,” described Debby Rapps, program director.

Founded in 1986 by Carl and Sylvia Freyer, the program is open to all children in the third through seventh grades, from public or private schools and affiliated or unaffiliated homes. The “big siblings” as the tutors are called — mostly juniors and seniors attending local yeshiva high schools — are specifically matched to best fit the needs of each child in the program.

Sunday mornings all “siblings” meet in Torah Academy of Bergen County in Teaneck, N.J. The “little siblings,” the elementary and middle school students in the program, are paired with their “big siblings” for Hebrew learning.

This provides the opportunity for close relationships and special attention, which is so critical in the teaching of a language. Being students ourselves, it is easy for us to relate to the younger siblings. The high school students utilize strategies such as singing and game playing in order to keep the learning interesting.

The “little siblings” attend two additional classes taught by dynamic, experienced teachers. These classes include a class in Jewish holidays, customs, and traditions. While the lower grades have a class in Bible, the older students have a class in the history of modern Israel and a class in Jewish lifestyles.

The program, however, extends far beyond Sunday morning tutorials. Through the weekly phone calls and constant instant messaging, the students and tutors simulate real sibling-like relationships. There are two Shabbatons during the year so the students “experience first hand the beauty, spirituality, and togetherness of Shabbat,” said Rapps.

“The children get to experience the benefits of spending quality time with those around them without outside distractions.” In addition to these weekends, there are monthly family programs, bi-monthly extra-curricular activities, and a large Purim holiday carnival run completely by the big siblings.

Interrupting my thoughts, Oliver began sounding out the next word. Meanwhile, Daphne anxiously awaited her turn. It is this excitement that I interpret to be JYEP’s true success.

The session ended and I walked the kids to the car to meet their father. They were already discussing Daphne’s upcoming soccer game. I could not help but think about my impending physics exam. We would all get on with our busy schedules, but during those 50 minutes that morning, a fourth-grade boy had read the word yeled.

This post is a part of supplement written for – and by – high school students.