Imagine a world where every Jewish child is filled with the joy and purpose that comes from the knowledge that we are each a unique creation. Imagine a world where Jewish children feel fortunate and blessed to be a privileged part of a nation which partners with the Creator of Heaven and earth. While dreaming big is always a virtue, accepting the hard fact that most children do not feel this way, in many instances, is the first step in rectifying the painful reality of the challenges we face as parents, educators, and leaders.

A few years ago, a rebbe in a strictly observant Orthodox boys’ school, was teaching the concept of ger katan, a child who is brought to convert, either due to adoption or as a child of a convert, born before their conversion. At the age of bar or bat mitzvah, the child is required to decide whether he or she chooses to be Jewish. A student raised his hand and asked, “Why would anyone choose to be Jewish?” Shocked by the question, the rebbe looked up and saw 19 other heads nodding in agreement with the boy’s question. The rebbe then, spontaneously, handed out a piece of paper and asked the class to answer the following question: “If you woke up tomorrow morning and had a choice, would you choose to be: 1. Jewish 2. Non-Jewish or 3. Undecided…….?” Eighteen out of the twenty students staked their claim that they would have chosen not to be Jewish, one was undecided, and only one chose to be a Jew!

While this story is but a single anecdote, it gives us pause to ponder how this could be. A class of students who grew up in religious families and were taught in our very own hinukh system for at least nine years questioned their most basic Jewish identity—as if their daily berakhah of shelo asani goy never registered itself in their consciousness. While our Jewish world seems to have succeeded in creating vibrant communities of Torah-observant families, in many instances we have apparently failed to transmit our core legacy. How do we transmit our legacy of joy, passion, commitment, and pride—one which will serve our students for their entire lives, rather than a Judaism of burden, encumbrance, strain, and struggle, which we fear will just accelerate the abandonment of their religion?

Our generation of young adults, in the best families and in the best yeshivas and girls’ schools, are familiar with many of the commandments and practices of yiddishkeit but are often missing the foundational tenets of our beautiful Torah. They know the what, when, where, and how of yiddishkeit but don’t necessarily know why they should want to be Jewish! The organic transmission of our rich heritage and love for yiddishkeit, which was reliable in previous generations, can no longer be depended upon. It must happen with thoughtful, deliberate, and conscious effort.

The three of us, each in our own professional and personal lives, have been troubled by the seeming lack of commitment and connection to yiddishkeit on the part of many women and girls who are the products of our system. While the above story took place in a boys’ school, we have each witnessed other anecdotes that express the same discontent and disillusionment on the part of women and girls. The three of us, with the encouragement of many Rabbinic leaders, banded together to form Amatz. As mothers, grandmothers, educators, and professionals, we resolved to create an organization that would, with God’s help, effect concrete and lasting change in our girls’ schools. Amatz, which means courage and is the acronym in Hebrew for Agudath Mechanchei Tzion, was created to infuse the existing educational system with relatable ways to instill fundamental beliefs and values. We recognize the dedication of our educators and seek to unite them worldwide with the common goal of stemming the tide of apathy, distraction, disillusionment, and indifference amongst their students.

Our program provides new approaches that shift the status quo to meet these new challenges and connect to today’s students. We believe in the greatness and goodness of every single Jew in this generation. We envision a generation of girls carrying a love for yiddishkeit which will permeate every aspect of their lives. Grounded in an authentic relationship with Hashem, their religious practice will be infused with meaning and depth. In turn, they will uplift their homes, families, and communities, ushering in a new generation of engaged Jews equipped to thrive in an evolving world.

A Four-Pronged Approach

Our strategy consists of a four-pronged approach:

  1. High Impact Leadership Principals Training Mission – Our signature trip to Eretz Yisrael, designed for introspection, brainstorming, and networking.
  2. Virtual Teacher Fellowship – A year-long virtual teacher training program that includes 30 hours of professional development centered on fundamental beliefs and practices.
  3. Principal and Teacher Retreats – Summer and winter, teachers and principals gather for a retreat to refine their skills, share best practices, recharge, and reconnect with their purpose.
  4. Nishmas Chaya Shaish Mitzvos Temidios Curriculum – A groundbreaking curriculum teaching the six mitzvot which are constant in our lives through the modality of project-based learning.

The Six Constant Mitzvot

The study of the Shaish Mitzvos Temidios (the six constant mitzvot) has transformed our lives personally, and we are convinced that, if taught correctly, it can change others as well. This study, unfamiliar to many, which is based upon Rambam, Sefer HaHinukh, and the writings of R. Moshe Chaim Luzzato, delineates the importance of familiarizing oneself with the six target mitzvot which involve thought—the four positive commands of Emunah (faith), Ahavat Hashem (love of God), Yirat Hashem (being in awe of God), Yihud Hashem (accepting the singularity and unity of God), and the two prohibitions of attributing power to any source other than God and straying after the desires of one’s heart and eyes.

We developed this curriculum specifically because of its unique approach to yiddishkeit. Learned properly and in-depth, it provides a context for how the students bring Hakadosh Borukh Hu into their daily occurrences and challenges. These ideas need to be taught with intentionality, not absorbed by cultural immersion, and integrated into students’ lives. From the mundane to the monumental, from the routine to the remarkable, living and practicing the six constant mitzvot provides a holistic framework and a moral compass to enhance everything they have learned thus far.

A Sample

To give a flavor of the curriculum, we present an overview of one of the lessons. One of the six constant mitzvot is what Rambam defines as “to know that there is a God.” While this is often referred to as the mitzvah of emunah, faith, the term Rambam uses is “to know,” leida.  What does it mean to know there is a God? In what way is “knowledge” that there is a God different from “belief” that there is a God? In our teaching of this mitzvah, we discuss what he calls “The Three H’s,” to differentiate between what we know in our Heads, feel in our Hearts, and do with our Hands. How do we build knowledge of God? How can we upgrade and deepen the quality of our belief in Hashem? What does it mean to have emotional trust in Hashem?

The central focus of the lessons helps students to distinguish between emunah (intellectual belief in God), bitahon (emotional trust in God), and hishtadlut (the responsibility of humans to do their best side-by-side with their belief and trust in God). In the process, students explore the differences between true belief, blind faith, and rote beliefs absorbed based on conventional, societal norms. Utilizing the modality of project-based learning allows the students to learn deep concepts using teaching strategies such as gallery walks, world cafes, sorting protocols, boxing protocols, four corners protocols, and read and annotate sessions.

At the beginning of each session, students fill out “entrance slips” answering why we are obligated to independently verify and upgrade our own belief in Hashem, and at the close of each lesson they submit at least one “need to know” question. The curriculum provides milestones, target questions, teaching strategies, recommended time allotments, and assessments for each milestone that is learned. For example, students are challenged to explain ideas such as: “How do I develop a trusting relationship with Hashem?” “How do I maintain the proper balance between trusting in Hashem and putting in an appropriate amount of effort?” Through a series of teaching strategies, they work through how to develop this trusting relationship with Hashem through tefillah. They create affirmations and are given a student reflection journal. Finally, they spend time understanding how this mitzvah enhances their lives.

In an age where the driving question is, ”What’s in it for me?” our students learn that a life of spirituality is infinitely more valuable than the base materialism they are faced with daily. It is our hope that the students will see that clarity and confidence in our beliefs have enabled us to withstand the tests of time and will allow us to be a “light unto the nations” where we will be the ultimate “influencers.”

There are currently five schools that are piloting this curriculum. Based on our semi-annual student surveys, the results have shown that the students are highly engaged in the lessons and the teachers are enthusiastic with the changes they are seeing in them. The students are provided with a context in which to ask foundational questions without being afraid, because they are the ones who help find the answers! The lessons are thought-provoking and are relatable to a teenager’s life. Moreover, the teachers have received training to appropriately answer questions and guide students.

We expect our doctors to be experts in medicine and our accountants to be experts in taxes and finance. It is our fervent wish that our educators can be held to the same standard by providing them with the training and networking to do so, and with Hashem’s help, will be change agents for the future generations of klal yisrael.

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Tzippy Reifer is Principal of Elyon Seminary, a published author, international speaker, and popular girls’ educator in several New York seminaries and high schools. She is a founder of Amatz.

Leba Schwebel is a dedicated community activist. She is a writer, columnist, and inspirational speaker. She founded the “Intentional Yiddishkeit” chaburos to help women strengthen their emunah, reaffirm their identity as observant Jewish women, and deal with the challenges that they face in today’s ever-changing world. She is a founder of Amatz.

Michele Weiss earned an MBA from John Carroll University, and currently serves as CFO of the Hebrew Academy of Cleveland. She is also the Vice Mayor for the city of University Height and an adjunct professor at Cleveland State University. Michele holds board positions on YACHAD and the Community Relations Committee at the Jewish Federation of Cleveland. Michelle is a founder of Amatz.

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