The question from the Catholic high school student to the Jewish students could have been from any Student to Student presentation in the two decades since the program’s inception.
“How do you go about choosing which branch of Judaism you belong to?” asked the student at Rosati-Kain High School, an all-girls school in St. Louis. “Is it something you are born into, or when you are older, can you choose for yourself?
The big difference at two presentations earlier this month, as with most things these days, was that the students were socially distanced. Some Catholic school students were in the classroom. Others were at home on Zoom. And the Jewish students were all answering questions from home or empty classrooms at their schools.
Jewish Community Relations Council of St. Louis, which operates the program aimed at reducing stereotypes and prejudice among high school students, had to adjust Student to Student because of the pandemic. Adding to that challenge, the organization was in the midst of expanding the program nationally, which meant that the longtime director left the position to oversee the new programs in other cities.
So a new director, Lauren Abraham, suddenly had to adapt an established program for the very different circumstances.
“It was a fast adjustment,” said Abraham, who moved here from San Antonio, where she served as education and engagement coordinator at the Jewish Federation chapter. “I was really just trying to bring the students into the classroom, and we obviously couldn’t do some of our creative, kitschy ideas of writing the kids’ names in Hebrew on the board, making the Jewish wedding come alive by putting up a chuppah, so we tried to be as creative as possible.”
In spite of the new challenges, Fawn Chapel, the former director now working as a consultant, said the expansion was going well, with seven other cities now doing sessions with students over Zoom and plans for expanding into three more cities.
Locally, Theresa Everson, a theology teacher, has brought Jewish students through the JCRC program into her Rosati-Kain classroom for 14 years. She said she does so because the “experience of learning from a textbook is one thing, right? But then to have people speak about the lived experience is so much richer.”
“And then the idea of actually beginning to practice dialogue with others that might feel awkward and strange — can I ask that question? — that’s another important level of benefit to this kind of program,” said Everson.
But now the show-and-tell portion of the usual program was happening via a 30-minute video, which showed what a presentation would have looked like had the students been able to physically visit.
To try and make the presentations as efficient and effective as possible, Abraham also started asking students to submit their questions in advance so that they could tailor the presentation to the students’ interests.
“Some of the things that we are learning during these presentations (in the pandemic) are things that we can keep for the future,” Abraham said.
The Rosati-Kain presentations also included virtual tours with clergy and staff at United Hebrew and Congregation B’nai Amoona, where Abraham’s husband, Jeffrey, began serving as a rabbi this year.
During the presentation, which occurred in the week before Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Carnie Rose of B’nai Amoona blew the shofar for the students.
“The sounds of the shofar are supposed to be the plaintive wail of our people, endeavoring to find expiation and forgiveness from God, and so we sound the shofar during the High Holiday season,” Rose explained from the synagogue sanctuary.
After the virtual tours, the Rosati-Kain students began asking questions.
To the query about how Jewish students became connected with a particular movement, Naava Simckes, a senior at Clayton High School, explained that most of her extended family is Orthodox but that her parents choose to be part of the Conservative movement.
“I grew up more religious though, and now that I am getting older, I am getting more choice on what traditions and customs I would like to follow and which branch I want to align with. It’s not that big of a process to just change which branch you are part of…In the future I will probably become more religious,” she said.
Another student at Rosati-Kain asked the Jewish students who had visited Israel about their favorite places in the country.
“My favorite place in Israel is probably Masada, which is a mountain that has an ancient synagogue,” said David Smith, a student at Parkway Central. “I just thought it was super cool to climb up the mountain. You are super high up and you can see the beautiful country all around you and you just feel very connected religiously,”
Lily Casey, a senior at Rosati-Kain, said she thought the presentation “went really smoothly and we still got a lot out of it. There are so many extra things for classes (like guest speakers and field trips) that we aren’t able to do because of (COVID-19) restrictions, so it really nice to get something like this.”
Abraham said the number of schools and students participating in the program has remained about the same as previous years in spite of the new system. And now that she and the students have become more adept at delivering presentations virtually, they are also looking to expand the program to Liberty High School in Lake St. Louis and possibly schools in Illinois that the organization had previously thought were too far for students to travel.
Still, she said, “I think the biggest downside is the eye-to-eye, face-to-face, in-person connections. We can still teach the same materials. Judaism has not changed with the pandemic. We are still abiding by the same kashrut laws. We are still keeping the same holiday schedule. We are still telling our favorite places in Israel to visit and who we believe Jesus is. The educational aspects of our curriculum have not changed, and that’s something that will always be the same with Student to Student.”