By Ariel Pinsky
An often-cited saying claims that it takes a village to raise a child. Bobby Harris, the founder of J-Jolt, agrees with that proverb so much that he created a way of empowering young teens to build a personal circle of mentors that will support them throughout adolescence.
The Jewish Journey of a Lifetime pilot program, part of the Union for Reform Judaism’s Campaign for Youth Engagement, is designed to bring more meaning into the b’nai mitzvah process while deepening the relationship between young teens and their congregations.
Harris said the five-step program will promote “a real, authentic, intergenerational bond, which is what the intent of the bar and bat mitzvah really is — an initiation into the older culture and how to be an adult in that community.”
Harris, who has served as the director of URJ’s Camp Coleman since 1992, said he adapted J-Jolt from an earlier idea of friends Jacob Schreiber and Edna Levy, a couple who formed a “council of elders” to be a part of the bar mitzvah celebrations of their children.
He also drew inspiration from the “village of camp” during his summers at Coleman by observing how adults with passions similar to those of the campers for things like music and cooking influenced them to open up, share feelings and solve problems.
“I’ve just watched how people other than the parents can have this incredible impact on youth development, and so I said, ‘Well, why not really organize that and make that happen for more and more kids?’ ” Harris said.
The program combines webinars and guidebooks to train mentors along with the b’nai mitzvah and their families. A participating teen is then free to customize the journey around the five basic steps: preparing for J-Jolt; choosing four to six adult mentors; formally inviting the mentors into the process; crafting a personalized J-Jolt ceremony for parents and mentors; and sharing one’s story afterward.
While the first three steps are done in conjunction with the congregation, the last two can be done at home or at synagogue and can change based on the individual.
The goals of the program are the same for all: to commit to Judaism through adulthood and to maintain lasting and authentic relationships with older members of the community.
These relationships can be thought of as “intergenerational relationships for kids in order to help widen the circle of the family,” said parenting expert Ron Taffel, a psychologist and friend of Harris’ who did a webinar for J-Jolt in January on connecting with today’s teens.
Asked for his advice on how to be an effective mentor, Taffel said, “Well, there’s an old expression: show up — really engage, try to provide some kind of guidance and teaching, but in a context of fun. I think the most important thing is to be able to spot and to get a sense of the strength or the best in a child, and that requires a kind of vision to see a child clearly.”
One mentor, Fox 5 sports anchor and former Camp Coleman counselor Justin Felder, hopes to integrate his interests in sports into the mentoring process. He also sees J-Jolt as an easy way to translate URJ summer camps and youth groups such as NFTY to the real world.
“I think it would be great to recapture that feeling from being a camp counselor of being able to be there for someone who needs you,” Felder said. “I hope I can be a positive influence on someone, whatever’s needed and whatever that means to them. If that means just being someone to do fun things with — go bowling, see a movie, hit Six Flags — that’s great. But if I can be someone who a mentee feels they can talk to about problems they face in life, in school, that’s even better.”
Harris started putting together the program in 2013, and it is still in what he called its “incubation stage,” meaning that not enough families have participated to measure the impact on the community.
About 15 congregations have gotten involved and are at varying stages in developing the program.
One of those congregations is Temple Kol Emeth, which is preparing to launch the program this year.
“Our initial responsibility is just to make people aware of the program and connect them to the resources,” said Kol Emeth’s education director, Rebecca Tullman. She said several families have expressed interest in the program.
Tullman sees J-Jolt as an opportunity to develop a cadre of potential mentors within the temple who can connect with teens based on similar interests or passions. She also sees “potential for creating new connections within our congregation between people that may not have known each other otherwise.”
Harris hopes that J-Jolt will spread to more communities until it becomes a standard part of the bar mitzvah process.
Ultimately, he said, “what I would like to see happen is in congregations, when families talk about their upcoming bar and bat mitzvahs, in addition to saying, ‘Hey, what’s your mitzvah project?’ they are going to say, ‘Hey, did you pick your mentors yet? Who are you gonna pick?’ ”