By Danielle Segal, JTFN Program Manager

What is ritual? One definition says that ritual is “a series of actions or types of behavior regularly and invariably followed by someone”.[1] Wearing your favorite shirt to watch your NFL team and hoping they win: that’s a ritual. Systemically checking that you have turned off all the lights in your apartment before leaving for work in the morning: that’s a ritual. Lighting the candles on Shabbat… guess what? That’s also a ritual. Rituals can come in all shapes and sizes; from the mundane, to the outright bizarre; from secular to religious. Ritual plays a vital role in our Jewish tradition, whether we observe them to the letter, or whether we incorporate a modern day interpretation of these repeated actions. Rabbi Avi Katz Orlow suggests that there are key components to excellence in experiential Jewish education, with ritual being a key player: “Rituals help place the student in a context of Jewish time…done well, rituals help communicate the desired values and a sense of tradition”[2], Rabbi Orlow notes. However, he goes on to say that rituals don’t necessarily have to be religious in nature, but can serve as a “vessel[s] in which memories are cultivated and optimally transformed into habits to be utilized long beyond the educational context.” Within our Jewish teen philanthropy programs, we have a great opportunity to harness the power of memory and use this unconventional educational setting to transform our teens, inspire them to lead and create a ritual of giving. So how might we include the notion of ritual into our sessions?

Opening games
How you start can set the tone for the rest of your session. Playing a game might break the ice and help the teens get to know each other. It could also be thematically linked to the material that you are covering for the remainder of the day. Offering some consistency at the start of each session can allow the teens to feel more comfortable entering the space and starting their time off on the right foot.

Shabbat until Tuesday?!
Did you know that according to Jewish tradition, you can make Havdallah, the ritual for separating Shabbat from the rest of the week, all the way until Tuesday?[3] If your teen session occurs on the weekend after Shabbat, maybe you can consider incorporating this short ceremony. There are many symbols and rituals associated with Havdallah so that we can separate Shabbat from the work week, the holy from the mundane, the extraordinary from the ordinary. Perhaps this ritual can help your teens enter a different head-space, a way of lifting up their time on their teen philanthropy board and marking out this time together as “special” or “holy”.

Evaluation as ritual
Evaluation and feedback are valuable nuggets of information that help us improve and develop our programs. Some evaluations are in-depth and take time, sometimes over several weeks (or even years!), but there are also ways of receiving quick morsels of feedback each session. Why not ritualize the act of giving feedback! At each teen session, Sonia Marie Leikam, the Collaborative Giving Program Coordinator at the Oregon Jewish Community Foundation, conducts a Post-It Notes Feedback at the end of each session. Each teen writes a comment on both a pink and an orange Post-It note: pink for things they want to see improved or still have questions about, and orange for things they really enjoyed or want to learn more about. Before each teen leaves, they must hand in their notes. This ritualization of an evaluation process not only allows Sonia Marie, as a program leader, to receive immediate feedback, but it also serves as a regular, learned behavior for the teens – it turns the act of evaluation into a recognized programmatic ritual.

Jewish holidays during your sessions
There are Jewish holidays that traditionally we abstain from the normal working day, like Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur or Passover, for example. However, there are many wonderful festivals that we celebrate while continuing with our usual routine, such as Purim and Chanukah. If your teen session falls on one of these days, consider incorporating the associated Jewish rituals with your teens: light the Chanukah candles with your group and order latkes for a special snack on Chanukah, pass out mishloach manot (gift baskets with treats) to your group during Purim, or eat dinner with your teens outside during Sukkot. Bringing Jewish rituals into your program cycle forges a link between the valuable philanthropy work the teens are doing and the beauty of existing Jewish rituals.

Values and ritual
At the start of the year, many programs begin their curriculum by choosing Jewish values on which the teens mission statement is based. But after that time, what happens to these values? Is there a way to form a ritual around these Jewish values? Maybe each week, a different teen shares how they demonstrated that value in their life outside the program. Perhaps there is a small amount of time dedicated to those values each session. Returning to the foundation stones of the program in a ritualistic fashion can build a connection to those values, while also giving the teens the opportunity to live by and demonstrate those midot (attributes).

This blog is reposted with permission from the Jewish Teen Funders Network Blog