High-tech program puts area teens in touchwith themselves &mdash and Israel

Amanda Wolf did something unusual in her confirmation class: She made a short film about herself. Through narration, photographs and music, the Orinda teen tells, in only a few minutes, how she had to abandon her promising gymnastics career at age 16 because the arthritis she has experienced since childhood became just too painful.

The film Daniel Neben of Walnut Creek made — actually, it’s called a digital story — tells of what he calls “the great depression” in his life, which descended upon him when he was a young boy.

“I felt my life took a turn for the worse when my brother was born,” he says.

Wolf and Neben are two of about a dozen teens who participated in the pilot project of Partners in Peace, begun by local Jewish educator Marla Kolman and her colleague Joanne Garfield.

“We wanted to connect to kids everywhere, and none of the vehicles in play felt fulfilling enough,” said Kolman, who taught religious school for many years at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, which agreed to pilot the project.

“We wanted kids to find new ways to relate to each other, and the way to do that is to give them the tools and train them.”

A social worker by training, Kolman felt motivated to do something more for Israel after the start of the intifada in 2000. The 34-year-old Alameda resident had spent a year in Israel in her early 20s. Combining her interests in teaching, leadership training and Israel, she and Garfield, who has since moved to the East Coast, brainstormed until Partners in Peace was born.

“We knew we wanted this element of connecting Jewish kids to Israel, but not exclusively,” said Kolman, the former director of the New Leaders Project of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council.

Kolman pitched the program to Temple Isaiah, and the synagogue’s education director, Debbie Enelow, was immediately enthusiastic.

“We have a strong teen leadership program, but one piece that we didn’t have was how to train peacemakers,” said Enelow. “How do you talk to people with opposing points of view? How can you mediate something so you can listen to each other even if you disagree?”

The confirmation class was given a choice to either take the traditional class with the rabbi or enroll in Partners in Peace, a two-year commitment.

What especially grabbed Enelow was the program’s “respectful listening to other narratives, which seems lacking in our adult world. To make changes, it’s gotta come from our children and teens.”

She also thought the digital storytelling — which can be viewed on a laptop computer — was a unique approach.

Kolman, who heard about digital storytelling from her brother-in-law, realized early that it was a perfect medium for techno-savvy teenagers.

“Teens use technology every day, and the Internet is bringing the world together in unprecedented ways,” said Kolman. “Its potential is limitless.”

This year, the course focused on the teens creating their own digital stories. The hope next year is for them to share those stories with their peers in Israel, and eventually, the world. The organizers set out their vision on their Web site, www.partnersinpeace.net.

Kolman recently returned from Israel, where she made connections with an after-school program with which she can partner. She also led a workshop on digital storytelling at July’s Parliament of World’s Religions, an interfaith religious gathering of some 8,000 people held in Barcelona.

The exchange ideally would include Israeli Arabs in the program as well, said Kolman.

“Our message is based in the Sh’ma,” she said. “Pay attention, listen, be present. Our message is that we’re all connected.”

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."