Ti-ke-a aims to inspire teens with civil rights era justice

Sharon Papo is busy studying this summer about the South — particularly, Jewish involvement in the civil rights movement.

Papo, a Ti-ke-a fellow of the Bureau of Jewish Education, is busy developing a program for Congregation Beth David's Hebrew High that will encourage teens to engage in their own social justice program after they study what Jews did to help African Americans in their struggle for civil rights.

Though she applied to the 18-month Ti-ke-a Fellowship with a project in mind, she said that over the course of time, the scope has changed.

"I knew I wanted to do something with social justice and Judaism, and it got bigger when I realized how much money was involved," said Papo. "Then we added a trip component."

The Ti-ke-a Fellowship awards a group of Jewish educators a $15,000 stipend to design a program of their choosing for Jewish youth.

"We focus on youth development and how to make Jewish learning fun and exciting for youth," said Papo.

In the fall, the students will study the civil rights movement and Jewish participation in it, but they will also talk about Jewish identity in the North and South and Jewish identity as a whole.

"We will also look at Jewish identity today, as well as that time. Jewish people were struggling with anti-Semitism on different levels," said Papo, and "what does it mean to stick your neck out and put your life out there?"

The intended message, she said, "was for other people to see how we're all connected and see how our struggles are all connected."

Papo has not studied the South before herself, but she is brushing up now on her history and will bring in guest speakers.

On the trip, which is planned for winter break, students will visit historical sites in Atlanta, Ga., and Birmingham and Selma, Ala. They will spend Shabbat with Jewish youth from Atlanta.

And when they return, they will get engaged in a social justice project of their own choosing.

"I really want them to come up with a social justice project that they feel ownership about," said Papo. "I'll suggest some things, but I want them to come up with the idea. If they decide to do something with Israel, I won't stop them but I hope it's local."

Papo said that many high schools are now requiring their students to do community service, but she hopes her students will do so within a Jewish context.

"Volunteer rates among youth are so high, they're getting involved in the community," Papo said. "But I hope to give them a language and connection, so when they're doing something, we're planting seeds that whatever social justice work they're doing, they'll have a Jewish connection to it."

Papo is going to recruit for students at teen hangouts and other non-traditional places, as she hopes to reach Jewish teens who have no connection to anything Jewish.

"We're hoping that this is a new fresh idea that will attract them," she said.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."