This past year over 5,900 of Teach for America (TFA) fellows were placed in 48 regions across 35 states and the District of Columbia to begin a two-year commitment to provide low-income students an excellent education. While there is both praise and criticism surrounding this program, the accepted fellows, mostly recent college graduates, are truly stellar individuals. Fellows come from top-notch academic institutions, are leaders in their respective communities, and seek to make a meaningful difference in the lives of others.
However, being a fellow is not easy. Fellows move to new cities away from the comforts of home and college life. They are quickly immersed into the work force with limited classroom experience. And the intensity of the workload can be demoralizing.
Various sources indicate that about 10% of TFA fellows self-identify as “Jewish.” This means that a significant number of Jews in their early twenties enter Jewish communities across the country every year. In Memphis alone, over 200 individuals begin their TFA experience every year, and typically between 15 and 20 of them are Jewish.
When these fellows are confronted with professional hardship, connection to and support from a Jewish community could provide the sense of home and familiarity needed for
a Jewish TFA fellow’s success and a local community’s growth. Yet, more often than not, Jewish fellows do not reach out to local Jewish institutions or synagogues for reassurance, aid or community. In parallel, these local synagogues and Jewish institutions fail to realize the exceptional talent entering their community yearly.
In order to address this situation, Temple Israel in Memphis, in partnership with Teach for America in Memphis, created a Jewish interest group open to any fellow. Mostly attended by Jews, we developed a three-prong approach to support TFA fellows in their service, connect them to the Jewish community, and engage them with the synagogue.
While TFA does a significant amount of training and professional development, many fellows struggle to adapt to their new position. Classroom management, balancing time, and creating lesson plans can be overwhelming. At Temple Israel, we identified a well-respected school administrator in our congregation to be a liaison for the fellows. After introducing the fellows to the educator at a sponsored wel
come dinner, she became a much needed personal resource for them to ask teacher-specific questions, to link them with more experienced teachers in the city, and to help their overall development.
Additionally, since a percentage of the fellows will move away from teaching following their TFA commitment, we network them with congregants currently working in their specific field of interest. The goal is to encourage the fellows to consider Memphis as a permanent home well beyond their TFA contract.
Being in an unfamiliar location, working long hours, and not knowing many individuals in the city can make finding a doctor, an auto mechanic, or a quality salon indeed daunting. So, Temple Israel created a team of individuals that fellows could call to immediately find answers to these kinds of questions. In one instance, a fellow coming down with an infection was reluctant to take the time off to see a doctor, so he called his designated community support person, who arranged for the fellow to see the doctor in the doctor’s home that evening.
Realizing the importance of this network, we set out to do more. Prior to the start of the school year, the Jewish interest group was invited to a welcome dinner at a local restaurant with a community member and me to make introductions and to offer the fellows our help. In order for fellows continue to build connections with the community, share our “Southern hospitality,” and give the fellows time to unwind away from the office, we set up monthly Shabbat dinners rotating between homes of temple congregants and the clergy. The community members have become valuable resources for the fellows as they navigate the city and go through employment struggles. Additionally, the congregants can be instrumental in helping the fellows find long-term employment opportunities in Memphis post-fellowship.
When moving to a new city, it’s hard to imagine that the place can ever become a “home.” It’s not until one feels secures navigating the city and confident with friendship networks that the new locale feels comfortable. Typically, transplants are left on their own to reach out to communities and to individuals. While Temple Israel cannot guarantee friendships, it is crucial to provide space where friendships can take shape.
Upon arrival to Memphis, Jewish TFA fellows are given a complimentary Temple Israel and JCC membership for the duration of their two-year fellowship. During the summer, we arranged with local Jewish 20s and 30s two events complete with free food and drink – a VIP area at an outdoor concert and a suite for a Memphis baseball game – to acclimate the fellows with Memphis residents and encourage friendships outside of the TFA bubble.
Furthermore, I contacted each of the fellows and offered to meet them for coffee or lunch. Learning more about them and their hopes beyond the classroom, I sought to help them better network in the community whether through sports leagues, social action projects, or teaching religious school. Finally, I selected a group of TFA fellows and local “twenty-somethings” to create unique Jewish experiences for their age group. Providing micro grants between $50-$250, ideas such as Friday night Shabbat dinners, Bible and Bike Rides, and social action projects came to fruition.
Beyond the classroom, TFA Fellows can make an extraordinary impact on any community. Their determination, eagerness, and sacrifice to make a difference are valuable assets to any city. When synagogues and local Jewish organizations recognize this and subsequently offer them the professional, communal and social support needed to thrive, the fellows can become more inspired and connected with Jewish life.
As Pirkei Avot 5:23 challenges, “According to the effort is the reward” – both for the fellow and our community.
Since becoming a rabbi at Temple Israel in Memphis in 2008, Rabbi Adam Grossman has constantly sought to break old paradigms with cutting-edge ways to engage Jews of all ages with Judaism. He has co-founded the nationally recognized TI Fellowship, designed the URJ Belin Award winner, “Community Six Pack,” developed an HGTV-esque “How-to” Jewish video series, and been selected to the 2013 Clal’s Rabbis Without Borders cohort.