PHOTO: Tivnu participants, including Emma Nathanson (foreground), build a solar panel for one of Portland’s three emergency tent villages created to give the houseless a safe place to be during the pandemic.
BY DEBORAH MOON
Before COVID many of the 23 teens who arrived in Portland this fall to live, work and learn with Tivnu had never thought a gap year would be a viable option for them.
Tivnu: Building Justice founder Steve Eisenbach-Budner launched the first domestic Jewish gap year program in 2014. This year Tivnu had to expand to two households to accommodate its largest cohort yet. Participants engage in nine months of hands-on Jewish social justice including internships and at least one day a week on construction projects to aid the houseless.
“I thought a gap year was out of the question for me – high school to college seemed the natural progression,” says Emma Nathanson, who deferred her enrollment at Williams College to come to Portland for a Jewish gap year. “As soon as COVID hit, it was permission for me to take a gap year. And finding Tivnu was like a golden ticket.”
Brandi Landis, who deferred her enrollment at Binghamton University in New York, agrees. “I always thought it was straight to college. Then COVID hit and I started looking into gap years.”
“I am happy I did,” says Brandi less than two months into the year. “I believe every person should take a gap year. For 12 years I focused on education … now I can focus on myself and have some independence.”
When COVID hit, Sophia Nachmanoff decided she wanted to wait to have her college experience at Wellesley College. Before COVID, “I didn’t think I had a good enough reason to take one.” After COVID hit, “I wanted to do community service. There is so much work to do in the world,” she says.
Avery Krantz-Fire had already applied to Tivnu before the pandemic shut down the country in mid-March. Next year he will attend Lewis & Clark College, but this year he wanted to “try to make a difference in the world and learn to live away from home.”
“This year in particular, the group is highly intellectual and committed and activist minded,” says Resident Advisor Caryn Shebowich, now in her third year with Tivnu. “This group is committed to making systemic change.”
Ethan Blake, the RA for the second household, says that the teens all seem very grateful for social relationships that many of their peers are missing this year. “The social energy is comparable to a first-year college dorm, though much more intimate and oriented around Tivnu’s social justice programming, internships, construction and Jewish learning rather than academic classes,” says Ethan. “Living together between two houses within 10 minutes walking distance, deep bonds have formed really quickly.”
When the teens arrived from across the country Aug. 30 and Sept. 1, they quarantined in their houses with no more than two people in a room for the first two weeks. Now the two households are one big “bubble” or “germ pod.”
“It feels insane to safely be in a group,” says Sophia of Tivnu’s germ pod.
“For my friends doing college (virtual or on campus), the ability to engage with new people or new opportunities is so limited,” says Emma. “I have a huge group – basically a new family. … We have become such a tightknit community; I can see these being lifelong friendships.”
“Tivnu is judgment free, says Brandi, who is gay. “I came out on Oct. 11, National Coming Out Day,” adding she couldn’t have done it without the support of Tivnu. “They make me feel super normal and loved.”
Tivnu Program Director Adinah Miller says everyone is flourishing despite the COVID precautions and the poor air quality that descended on Portland from the wildfires, which made quarantine difficult and canceled the cohort’s first camping trip. “They are learning and enjoying each other and digging into hands-on work in construction and internships.”
Tivnu participants spend one to three days a week working on construction projects.
“We are involved in particularly exciting projects this year,” says Tivnu Construction Trainer Erik Brakstad. At the top of the list are projects for Portland’s three emergency tent villages created to give the houseless a safe place to be during the pandemic. Some of the projects are at the Cascadia Clusters construction site located at the Mittleman Jewish Community Center and others are at the villages.
“We are working with Cascadia Clusters to build 110 tent platforms, as well as a gatehouse at each camp,” says Erik. “Tivnu participants are able to work with camp residents, but within the context of our COVID protocols (socially distanced, masked and outside).”
“In the beginning, construction seemed like a stretch,” says Emma. Now she enjoys working with the houseless to build tent platforms and install solar panels on the tent village gatehouses two days a week. “It is very empowering to be able to use a chop saw,” she says. Her twice weekly internship (remote) with Street Roots is also a boost to the homeless community. Street Roots is a local nonprofit that publishes a weekly alternative newspaper sold by people experiencing homelessness and poverty to earn an income.
Construction definitely was not what drew Sophia to Tivnu. Active in theater while growing up, she was so bad with set construction that “I was blackballed from using power tools.”
“I thought I would be so bad at it, I would be embarrassed,” she says. But she discovered that having someone really teach her how to use the tools “was really affirming. … I’m not awful at all, and I kind of love it.”
Construction also gave Avery pause. “I’m not the most physically capable person,” he says. “But I have been pleasantly surprised.”
Brandi, who has done a lot of projects with her dad, is spending three days a week building and says, “I love it.”
Real world experience when it’s hard to be out in the world has been a big draw this year, says Steve. He says this year’s cohort is gaining all the usual benefits of a gap year. Working with houseless communities, they learn the homeless are real people and not just statistics. They learn “adulting skills” such as how to run a household, deal with conflict and work with a boss. He adds numerous studies show “colleges love kids who do gap years.”
Tivnu is already accepting applications for next year.
“Students were not feeling like online college was right for them,” says Tivnu Engagement Coordinator Sara Starr, who does recruitment. “We were able to safely provide them with living, learning and doing social justice work together in community. … Next year we plan to continue that no matter what state the world is in.”
For information on next year’s Tivnu gap year, call Tivnu at 503-232-1864, email Sara at email@example.com or visit the website tivnu.org.