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USCJ Review - Fall 2002


The Jewish Personal Trainer

by Loretta Tanenbaum

Editor’s Note: We are proud that the program described below was inspired by a call from the United
Synagogue for synagogues to serve as mentors to their congregants.)

"I really want to study, but shul classes are at times that I can't make."

"I don't want classes, but I sure would like someone to walk me through a Friday night from candles to the
Birkat Ha-Mazon."

"I feel like everyone knows more than I do, and at my age, I am embarrassed to ask basic questions."

"I am a recent Jew-by-choice, but I still have a lot to learn...”

Sound familiar? It did to Rabbi Roy Tanenbaum of Beth Tzedec congregation in Toronto, Canada. The shul
has a broad adult education program but was still not meeting everyone's needs. The challenge to come up
with new ways of delivering synagogue programming was presented by the STAR Foundation, Synagogue
Transformation and Renewal. Rabbi Tanenbaum met the challenge with the idea of the Jewish Personal
Trainer program. Funded by a STAR grant, this exciting new synagogue endeavor promises to change the face
of educational delivery.

The Jewish Personal Trainer program has been in operation since March 2001. It is based on the model of the
athletic personal trainer, a one-on-one relationship that has a mentor and a trainee. The mentor is a lay peer
who serves to guide and motivate but is not expected to know everything. The mentor may teach, guide,
research together with the trainee, point the trainee in the right direction, keep him/her motivated and excited.
A relationship is formed where the trainee is not embarrassed to ask questions, and if the mentor does not
know an answer, he has the back up of the synagogue library, tapes, the coordinator, and the rabbis.

Each mentor sits down with the coordinator and discusses how to make a plan tailored to the trainee's needs.
As with an athletic personal coach, this usually entails making a long-range goal and then breaking it down
into smaller short-range goals -- smaller "bites" that can be easily checked off as they are completed, helping
to give the feeling of accomplishment so necessary to keep a learner on track. The mentor receives a log to
keep track of the goals and the dates of meetings and to be able to check off short-range goals as they are
completed. In reality, short-range goals may change in midstream.

For example, a person’s long-range goal may be to be able to have a real “shabbosdik” Friday night,
something that does not happen now in his/her house. The short-range goals might be: "learn to sing Shalom
Aleichem," "learn the blessings for the children, and begin to say them," buy an answering machine for the
phone," etc. The setting of the goals is done between the mentor and trainee.

Or a trainee may want to feel completely comfortable in shul on Shabbat morning, but this person does not
know any Hebrew. The mentor in this case would be a "prayer guide," and indeed, there are several mentors
in Beth Tzedec matched in that capacity. A prayer guide sits with the trainee during services, on a regular
basis. The "being able to feel completely comfortable" as a long- range goal has to be broken into smaller
areas. Perhaps for a couple of weeks they concentrate on the Torah service, then spend a few weeks on
Musaf or on Shaharit. However it is done, the trainee no longer needs to feel foolish for not knowing the
"moves." This is one of the most successful areas of mentorship in Beth Tzedec.

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Every person who enters the JPT program, whether as mentor or as trainee, fills out a comprehensive check
list covering all areas of Jewish living, noting if he wants to learn in a particular area or if he can teach in that
area. Most matches are made from this check list. But sometimes the coordinator has to go “hunting” for a
match. JPT Want Ads appear regularly in the synagogue bulletin: “Wanted: Individual who can teach
Sephardic cooking.” “Wanted: Individual who can help someone learn to surf the Jewish net.” “Wanted:
Individual who can help learner navigate the Mahzor.” And so on. Want-Ads get responses, and so do appeals
at Sisterhood meetings when the need is specifically outlined.

The responses to this program have come from all age groups. It is a wonderful way to allow people entrance
into study, and it bestows a feeling of usefulness on those who serve as mentors. Mentors need to be
recognized, and within the shul one of the best ways to do that is through the honor of aliyot. When a mentor
is called up for whatever honor is conferred, it is mentioned from the pulpit that the person has been serving
as a mentor. The coordinator also sends letters on a regular basis to acknowledge and to thank the mentor for
being an important part of another person's Jewish journey. Mentors are encouraged to do their own leaming
as well and to become trainees themselves in other areas.

Testimonials to this experiment are many but can be summed up in the one sentence written by one of the
first trainees: "I feel like Jacob must have felt when his name was changed to Israel."

Loretta Tanenbaum is the coordinator of the Jewish Personal Trainer Program at Beth Tzedec Congregation
in Toronto, Canada.

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