The Memphis NAACCHHS conference used the history of Memphis and its Jewish community as a laboratory to explore dynamic ways to engage teens in exploring their own identity and acting on important issues in the contemporary world. “Memphis is the most Jewish city I’ve ever lived in and I’ve lived in Tel Aviv” said Penina Hoffnung, a NAACCHHS board member whose institution, Beth Sholom Synagogue, hosted the event. “Some terrible, tragic things have happened in this city, but it rises up and works to overcome that past—that’s exactly what we want to convey to teens about their own Jewish heritage.” The participants toured the Civil Rights Museum having first had an introduction to the Jewish context from a member of the Jewish Historical Society of Memphis and the Mid-South. The presenter grew up in a racially segregated Memphis and shared the Jewish experience during the civil rights era. NAACCHHS members also visited Memphis’ famed Beale Street. This included learning about the historic preservation at the Blues Foundation. “The history of Memphis is rich and unique,” explained Shari Weinberger, NAACCHHS’ director, “and creating dynamic learning experience based on local history—that’s something that can be replicated no matter where you live.”
With help from local storyteller and historical documentarian Lynnie Mirvis, the participants learned the biographies of some the Memphis Jewish community’s upstanders during the 1960s. In other sessions, participants shared ways they were connecting teens to older generations via joint inter-generational learning programs as part of the NAACCHHS cooperative arrangement with the Better Together project.
Facilitators from “Facing History and Ourselves” offered samples of how to utilize first person histories from eras like the Holocaust and the Civil Rights movement to direct and deepen teens’ personal identity, values and motivations. They suggested various ways to engage teens with true-life stories from their own heritage and community. Robyn Faintich from the Good People Fund offered guidance on ways to actualize values that bubble up from these inquiries.
“The 2013 Pew Portrait of American Jews noted that most American Jews identify most strongly with the Jewish historical past. That same study showed that living an ethical life was how they identified as Jewish,” said Phyllis Blinik-Thomas, NAACCHHS president and director of the Mercaz program of Cincinnati, OH. “Our conference explored ways to connect teens to that history and turn that connection into acting proactively and Jewishly on issues most important to them. “
NAACCHHS itself has adjusted its conferences so that its members learn through engagement with local history. “We used to have our conference at Brandeis, AJU, Pearlstone,” noted Shari Weinberger, NAACCHHS director, “but we never connected with the places where we were meeting. Now we are moving to a model where NAACCHHS members host the conference. Where we are meeting becomes an integral factor.”
“That’s where the whole idea of the Memphis conference started, “agreed Hoffnung. “We held our conference last year in Providence, RI. And the organizing committee chose the theme of religious freedom which was intrinsic to the founding of Rhode Island. We explored what ‘religious freedom’ means today to teens. We visited the capitol, read the state charter, and met with an inspirational young Jewish legislator. All that informed our time together enormously. When the time came to pick the next location, I offered Memphis. The thematic connection its history and social action was a natural.”
Already member schools are implementing some of what they discussed at the conference. Many report fine tuning their social action programming to be less of a one shot program, to something that is more deeply connected and generated by the teens’ own values and priorities. All in ways that make the connection with local social action organizations deeper and more ongoing—a relationship rather than a sound bite. One community is adding a class about local history. There are invaluable resources in our communities. As Dorothy said, when looking to engage teens in Jewish living, “there’s no place like home.”