June 20, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

JEMA Tutors Build Alliance to Mentor the Next Generation

It’s easy to see the difficulties schools and students have faced over the past six months due to the pandemic. It takes a motivated, unique individual to actually jump in and do something to help. Dr. Norma Brecker-Blum—an organizational psychologist and former teacher—jumped in and founded the Jewish Educational Mentoring Alliance (JEMA), a free, volunteer tutoring program that taps volunteers from the community to give struggling students extra support.

Concerned for the future of Jewish education, Dr. Brecker-Blum took note of how students struggled with virtual learning this past spring and still deal with quarantines and intermittent Zoom classes, disrupting their schooling. Parents are stretched thin, many dealing with financial hardships from the economic downturn. The worry, according to Dr. Brecker-Blum, is that “[yeshivot are] losing kids for financial reasons. There are concerns about virtual education, kids getting lost…or kids needing reinforcement and additional help.”

With JEMA, Dr. Brecker-Blum envisioned utilizing the enormous talent and education that exists in the Bergen County community and encourages retirees, former teachers, grandparents, college students—anyone who finds themselves with some extra time on their hands—to set aside as little as a half hour a week to help make a difference. This program is a natural fit for many active older adults who have found their usual activities and pursuits curtailed due to pandemic restrictions.

Dr. Brecker-Blum, who lives in Paramus, brought the idea to Yavneh Academy, where she is an alumni parent. Yavneh Head of School Rabbi Jonathan Knapp embraced the idea, appreciating that JEMA’s premise has something for everyone: Students brush up on important skills and reap the benefits of one-on-one attention; busy parents have another adult on hand to help their child; Volunteers feel satisfaction doing something useful and rewarding. “Every student can use a little bit of a boost… Another adult can provide that in a different way than a parent can. It doesn’t cost anything; it’s just another way the community is trying to help itself internally,” said Rabbi Knapp.

Tutors can choose their preferred student age, subject and hours and have an incredible support network in the Yavneh Academy staff. Yavneh’s Chief Academic Officer and Director of Special Services Dr. Sarah Feit is leading this partnership effort and facilitating the crucial communication between all parties, helping to train tutors and checking in with Brecker-Blum on students’ progress, even into the evening hours.

Rabbi Knapp stressed, “This is meant to help kids who need some more direction. This is not meant to replace professional reading, education specialists or intensive intervention.”

The school currently has five tutors working remotely with students across a variety of subjects but would love to expand and get more people involved, including broadening the program to other schools. Dr. Brecker-Blum shared, “This is a call for volunteers. Tutors don’t need to be experts. They can choose their subject matter, their hours, their comfort level and preferred ages. This program is trying to make it as easy as possible and work with their schedule preferences… It doesn’t have to be a big time commitment.” Volunteers can do as little as review homework, or read with a child, and just having that one-on-one attention from an adult can make a big difference.

So far the feedback has been very positive, reported Dr. Brecker-Blum: “There are numerous situations where students need remediation and support… In all situations we are having success… Our tutors are working hard with the support of the wonderful Yavneh teachers, staff and Dr. Sarah Feit to ensure that the students gain the skills, support and knowledge they need to achieve their educational, academic and emotional growth.”

Yavneh received this email from a parent of a student working with a tutor (name edited for privacy): “Thank you all for all the help!! Shawn is excited about the calls and we just wanted to say thank you so much, we really appreciate this! Chag sameach from us all!”

A tutor received this email: “I had a meeting with Student X’s parents this morning and they were so appreciative of the wonderful connection you have made with him. He looks forward to your time together…and waits all week for it. Student X feels he is learning so much from you, and most of all, you make him feel so good about himself.”

Volunteers shared their experiences working with JEMA:

Ariel Blum: “JEMA is truly an incredible and one of a kind experience. The opportunity to engage with a student…provides an incredible feeling not just for the student, but for me as a tutor… Having to communicate a…lesson in Hebrew is a challenge I enjoy and…provides a deep sense of accomplishment for me.”

Jason Burger: “I’m happy to play a very small part in helping students…Very proud to be a part of JEMA, and I very much admire Norma and Jonathan for spearheading this effort!”

Rabbi Sam Frankel (former long-time Yavneh teacher): “It is such a pleasure for me to come back to Yavneh and…help a young person…by working one-on-one with him on his studies… I would encourage other people who have the time to make a difference in a child’s life.”

Chani Perlman: “Everyone is so professional and you feel that you are connected to other people who…are vested in making a positive difference in a child’s life. As a JEMA tutor, you are not working alone—you are part of a team!”

Dr. Brecker-Blum would love for JEMA to continue after the pandemic is over. She reasoned, “The world has changed. Why not? This helps someone feel they’re enhancing someone’s education, the student is getting extra help and there’s oversight. It’s a win-win.”

To volunteer, contact Dr. Brecker-Blum at [email protected] or Yavneh Academy at [email protected].

By Michal Rosenberg

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