Hebrew High: Creating meaningful experiences for teens

Photo: Educator Leah Zigmond oversees the students putting the Jewish calendar in order.

Rabbi Aviva Funke just finished her first year as principal for Hebrew High of Greater Phoenix (HH), and she can’t for the program to start up again in August. “What’s exciting is that we are a 50-year-old program and Myra Schindler, who runs the Bureau of Jewish Education, is amazing,” says Aviva. “I am excited about the innovation that I have created, that I am creating and looking to create.” She is an alum of Hebrew High herself.

When HH started, it was the only place where all the synagogues sent their teens. Now, many offer their own teen programming, but Aviva would like to see it return to a place where all Jewish teens, from Orthodox to Secular, come and feel welcome.

“I want parents to know that it’s a meaningful Jewish experience, not just a youth group,” she says. “This is the place where we talk about real-life matters – social pressure, peer pressure, gender and identity, morality and ethics.”

Rabbi Aviva Funke

HH meets every Tuesday night during the school year at the Ina Levine Jewish Community Campus. They also offer an additional program for students enrolled in HH called Hebrew for Credit that meets on Thursday nights. Hebrew for Credit offers classes to meet all the hours they need to fulfill a high school credit in a foreign language. Hebrew High is also fully accredited.

“We are going to be revamping our Hebrew program for this fall, and we have some fun things up our sleeves,” says Aviva. “Foreign language is very difficult, especially if you’re not regularly using it. So we are looking to reimagine what it’s like to learn Hebrew.”

Hebrew High is also reestablishing a partnership with the Martin Pear JCC in Scottsdale. Aviva and Amanda Watsky, The J’s director of youth services, have been meeting almost weekly to work together on two grants to create programming for all Jewish teens in the Valley.

“My agenda at Hebrew High is to create meaningful content for our teens. How do we make Torah relevant in a tangible and applicable way?” says Aviva. “That means taking the current issues that they are dealing with and putting them in the context of Torah wrapped in some fun event. The J and I have two special events we are planning, and I think that this renewed partnership is a sign that we are serious about creating meaningful content for our teens.”

HH also offers monthly service learning opportunities where teens can volunteer with different organizations throughout the community. The teens say that volunteering in the community gives their life more purpose.

They have also partnered with Jewish National Fund, where teens can travel to Israel and perform volunteer work across the country. HH also has a summer program called Care-A-Van, where teens can volunteer their time somewhere in the United States that needs extra help.

Aviva is a musician and writes prayer-filled devotional music, and she would like to bring more arts and culture into the program. She hopes that one of the grants will allow HH to purchase drums and instruments so that she can lead monthly drum circles. Aviva appreciates that she can be creative in her role as principal.

She is planning a Teen Wellness Summit in January where teens can learn to take their health into their hands and work with professionals in the community that can teach meditation, sound healing, yoga and breathwork – teaching them what it means to have wellness in our lives in a Jewish context and beyond a Jewish context.

Aviva is excited to create a foundation where teens can feel that they are in control and empowered to develop programming that is meaningful to them.

“I don’t think that anyone gives them a chance to see their visions come to life,” she says. “I have a board who is so supportive. If we can come together and continue meaningful dialogue, I’m hoping that these teens can fix some of the issues that we face today and that they are facing for the next generation.

“How do we empower our teens to be leaders and to have a voice? I think the number one answer I can give is to provide them a space to have one.”

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