The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted virtually every aspect of our lives, including the way in which synagogues and Jewish communal organizations deliver programs and services.

But Rabbi Dena Shaffer, executive director of 4Front, the teen initiative of The Associated: Jewish Federation of Baltimore, points to one silver lining.

“We’ve used this time to pivot and adapt our program model to better meet the needs of our audience,” she says.

Some changes in 4Front’s programming are in response to the “ever-evolving reality of the pandemic,” says Rabbi Shaffer. Other changes reflect growing awareness about social justice issues such as racial inequality, as well as programming designed to give teens a broader perspective on how they can lead their communities.

Rabbi Shaffer recently spoke with Jmore about what teens and their parents can expect for the 2020-2021 academic year.

Jmore: Can you give us some background on 4Front?

Rabbi Shaffer: 4Front launched in 2016. We’re housed at the Owings Mills Jewish Community Center and supported by The Associated, the Meyerhoff Charitable Family Funds and the Jim Joseph Foundation. We’re a one-stop shop, a hub for Jewish teens. We’re run by me and our director of innovation, Diana Solomon.

4Front’s two signature programs are Baltimore Diller Teen Fellows and Peer Leadership Fellows. These programs have always been year-long programs, and they will remain full-year programs.

What is Diller?

Diller is a leadership program for 11th graders that’s part of Diller International. Teens gain leadership skills while they explore their Jewish identities.

They also make connections with teens from Baltimore’s partner city, Ashkelon. The kids meet monthly, participate in weekend retreats, a 10-day seminar with Ashkelon teens in Baltimore and a three-week summer seminar in Israel.

This year, we’re hoping to keep the program as close to normal as possible, but we’ll be following guidelines set by Diller International.

They are cautiously optimistic. Applications for Diller are open now.

What’s Peer Leadership Fellows?

Peer Leadership Fellows trains teens in grades 10 and 11 to be ‘communal connectors.’ It runs from December 2020 to January 2021, and starts with a six-week leadership training program. Fellows receive training on social network mapping, community organizing and peer-to-peer engagement following a Hillel campus curriculum.

How will 4Front change this year?

We have always been committed to social justice. But with the unrest in our communities and the role young people are playing as change agents, we’re really doubling down to enable them to explore more [social justice] topics and to help them to realize their capabilities.

Historically, we ran a program that followed the school calendar. We’d meet once a month exploring the same social justice topic for a year. With the reality of COVID-19 as well as feedback from our teens, the idea of dedicating a whole year to one topic seems less attractive. Teens want to work faster. They’re looking for synergies and connections.

While our two signature programs, Diller Teen Fellows and Peer Leadership Fellows, will still be full year programs, we are shifting others to pop-up events and multi-week programs. The new model allows us to give teens a more robust Jewish experience.

An example?

Students Taking Action for Change will now be broken into multiple pop-up programs and intensives that happen throughout the school year. Teens can sign up for as many as they want. The first six-week intensive will focus solely on the upcoming elections. We’ll be looking at the [presidential] election from all perspectives, helping teens to respect different viewpoints and inspiring them with Jewish values. We’ll focus on the youth vote, stage a debate, host a watch party on election night and debrief about the results.

Our social innovation fellowship will be condensed to 12 weeks from December to March. We can really push the pace and give teens a sense of what entrepreneurial life is all about. As a precursor, we’ll do a one-day design sprint — a hackathon with teens all across the U.S. on issues related to the pandemic that directly affect teens. They’ll work in small groups to create a profitmaking solution.

Another change is related to COVID-19. We’re prioritizing health and mental health to support parents and teens by adding a wellness component — especially in the peer fellowship program. We’re teaching teens to be more empathic listeners and great friends to help navigate the difficulties their peers may be facing.

How did 4Front handle programming in the spring when COVID-19 first hit?

Last year, our signature programs wrapped up online. The teens were used to in-person contact, so it was hard. One benefit was that we could connect no matter where we lived and we could promote and plug into the great things other [communities] are doing.

What’s the plan for social distancing in the fall?

With the ever-changing reality [of COVID-19] and the regulations constantly changing, the new model allows us to move more nimbly. We can bounce back and forth between virtual and in-person programming.

We are hoping we’ll be able to do an in-person start. We’re situated at the JCC, so we’ve been watching Summer at the J [the JCCs 2020 summer camps program] to learn best practices. We are planning some in-person gatherings this summer, such as a swim night and outdoor gatherings that are open to all teens.

We want people to know we’re really excited about the [adapted] programs. We’ve turned this into an opportunity.

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