After 10 years in Los Angeles, Philadelphia native Debbie Jaffe is returning home as Jewish education company Hebrew Helpers expands to the East Coast.
Jaffe, who is now the company’s East Coast director, spent the past decade as director of training and curriculum, overseeing Bar and Bat Mitzvah services, and training other mentors to provide students and their families across the world with customized learning programs. The company is expanding its operations to New York, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Boston and surrounding areas.
Jaffe spent her childhood as a member of Congregation Adath Jeshurun in Elkins Park. Her appreciation for the Jewish tradition began when, at 10 years old, she started reading Torah to her community. The congregation’s “Torah Club” allowed her to practice her skills and help teachers after she completed her Bat Mitzvah. At just 15 years old, she became a mentor to younger students.
An alumna of the Jewish Community High School of Gratz College, Hebrew University, Drisha Institute for Jewish Education, Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and Camp Ramah in the Poconos, Jaffe has been a Jewish educator for more than 20 years. When asked why bringing Hebrew Helpers to Philadelphia is important, Jaffe said, “We offer a service that many people don’t even know exists and make it easy for families to get comfortably involved with the Jewish world.”
Hebrew Helpers works with clients from all backgrounds interested in developing a deeper connection to Jewish culture, ritual, prayer and history. Mentors give students the personalized tools they need to navigate their Jewish identity and create meaningful learning experiences.
Jaffe, who has a master’s degree in acting from The New School and a bachelor’s degree in English literature and rhetoric from Binghamton University, “takes a creative approach to Jewish education that enables her to think outside of the box,” said Todd Shotz, the founder and executive director of Hebrew Helpers — also a Philadelphia native. “Everything we do is authentic and egalitarian; we believe in peer learning and encourage students to become our teachers.”
An inclusive company that provides tailored education to families whether or not they belong to a synagogue, Hebrew Helpers matches students with mentors who determine what they need based on their Jewish education and individual background. Many students simply don’t have the time to attend a structured Hebrew school outside of their home, Jaffe said.
“Today, kids who participate in a lot of activities require something different that is going to work for their family,” she said.
Although a significant amount of students mentored by Hebrew Helpers are involved in traditional synagogue services, Jaffe is excited to work with families that “do not fit into a mold.”
“People don’t realize that they can have a Bar or Bat Mitzvah outside of the synagogue without a rabbi; it’s fun to bring in modern music and poems that are important to my students’ families,” she said.
The company collaborates with families to select officiants, hire musicians and design custom prayer books.
Mentors like Jaffe guide families through the details of the service and assist them in tailoring its structure and content. Those mentors cultivate strong connections with the families they serve and use their background in Jewish history, Hebrew language, Torah study and Haftarah chanting to produce customized learning experiences that best fit the needs of individual students.
Hebrew Helpers believes, Shotz said, that teaching has become too systematic.
“Families are seeking more meaningful ways to explore Jewish education; they want something game changing,” he said.
Hebrew Helpers works with families that want private mentors to teach at home.
“We go where we’re needed,” Jaffe said. “We are a nationwide network of Jewish educators that helps people realize that Judaism can be enjoyable and relevant to their lives.”