For people of all ages, finding meaningful ways to connect with others during the COVID-19 pandemic is challenging. For pre-teens and teenagers, who have been rocked by the pandemic and are missing traditional social environments, organizations like Moving Traditions are stepping up and ensuring this important void is filled.
“Our region’s pre-teens and teens feel a great deal of the anxiety that comes from the uncertainty of these times,” said Moving Traditions founder and CEO Deborah Meyer. “Our team has felt heartened and inspired that there is a great need for our work. We hope to really have an impact on Jewish youth here in Philadelphia and around the country.”
Moving Traditions, a national organization founded in the Philadelphia region in 2005, emboldens teens by fostering self-discovery, challenging sexism and inspiring a commitment to Jewish life and learning. The organization connects the issues pre-teens and teens care about most — such as body image, social and academic pressure, friendship, romance and sexuality — to enduring Jewish values, fosters positive peer-to-peer relationships through trained educators and mentors, and inspires participants to develop an ongoing connection to Jewish community.
While Moving Traditions programming is usually centered on in-person gatherings, virtual meetups and training sessions were becoming more common before the coronavirus appeared. To operate its programming, Moving Traditions partners with synagogues, schools and JCCs for its four core programs: B’nei Mitzvah, which helps parents and pre-teens navigate the issues around the bar/bat mitzvah experience; Rosh Hodesh, an educational program for teen girls; Shevet, for teen boys; and Tzelem for trans and non-binary youth.
Tzelem, which comes from the Torah that we are all created in God’s image, has always been an online program for youth all over the country to meet and connect with each other. Moving Traditions has been adapting what it learned from this program, and the Kol Koleinu (All our Voices) fellowship for teenage feminists, to move all its programming to an online format.
“Like all organizations, our initial reaction to the crisis was to make sure everyone was safe,” Meyer said. “But we also worked quickly to make sure all our partners had the tools and capabilities to take our programming online. In the past months, we have done webinars and one-to-one coaching to help translate the in-depth, intimate conversations that take place in our programs to the online experience. We know we must meet the needs of Jewish life no matter what is happening in the world.”
On top of getting everything online, Moving Traditions also had to ensure that it was still able to create deep and intimate trust, connections and relationships in just a virtual space. Like others, the organization is finding different kinds of functionality in Zoom, such as breakout rooms and interfacing apps and games that help kids both have fun and help them comfortably transition into serious conversations and interactions that get to meaningful connections.
For Eve Berger, Moving Traditions Philadelphia’s director, the best way to reach teens is to modify current programs to be able to answer questions and help teens through situations they are going through right now. “Many of our pre-teens and teens are struggling with the loss they are feeling from life changes,” she said. “They are losing graduations, bar or bat mitzvahs … it’s important for them to learn how to self-care and accept that they are scared or confused or angry. By connecting with kids who are going through the same thing they can learn to speak each other’s love language and find a healthy way to resolve their feelings.
Meyer added that encouraging kids to have fun is an essential element of building connection.
“This is such a hard time of prolonged stress, and it’s so not fun for our kids,” she said. “They are anxious. They do not have the perspective that we have. Whatever resilience we can call on, they need help to gain that resilience. “
Moving Traditions is also preparing itself for another major challenge down the road: the increasingly likely scenario that all summer camp programs will be canceled. Meyer and her team are already exploring ways to find virtual “bunk” experiences and adapt their trainings for counselors and camp staff to facilitate good experiences for their online campers. The next challenge after that? The possibility of having to “webify” all training and curriculum for next year, a challenge and an expense the organization was not expecting to incur.
Thanks to the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia’s decision to alter its grant structure, Moving Traditions will be able to use program grants for
operational expenses and can tackle any new obstacles that might arise.
“Thanks to the Jewish Federation, we’ll be able to keep our lights on and keep Zoom on,” Meyer said. “We are so grateful to them and our other funders who have encouraged us to repurpose our donations in any way we see fit in order to keep our work going.”
While the coronavirus has been a challenging crisis, Meyer remains hopeful that these difficult times will encourage the Jewish community to evolve.
“We are interested to see what innovations might come out of this terrible time. How do we reach more Jewish youths whose families do not belong to institutions? How can we be creative together and still get to a place of meaning and connection? I think at the end of this we may have more answers than questions.”
For local teens or parents or advocates who wish to learn more about Moving Traditions programming, or those who may be interested in setting up a teen support group, contact Berger at [email protected]