by Maxine Fischbein
(AJNews) – Calgary Beth Tzedec congregants can look forward to some exciting developments on the youth front with the recent hiring of Jonah Potasznik as the Synagogue’s part-time Youth Engagement Director and Ritual Assistant.
“It is all about building relationships,” says Potasznik, who is excited about the prospect of linking Synagogue youth with each other and with the congregation of Calgary’s largest shul through immersive Jewish experiences.
“Bringing Jewish text and wisdom alive in the lives of young people brings me great joy. I enjoy bringing everyone into that process.”
Potasznik is equally devoted to creating comfortable prayer experiences for youth – and for congregants in general – through a combination of activities that combine traditional modes of prayer with new techniques that help individuals to slow down, using their bodies and minds in new ways to move themselves into a more spiritual prayer space.
The ultimate goal, says Potasznik, is for participants to take their experiences with them into their lives, rather than leaving them behind in the Synagogue.
Originally from the Washington, DC area, Potasznik most recently served as Judaics teacher to students in the 5th and 6th Grades at the Hebrew Foundation School in Dollard-des-Ormeaux, QC.
While earning his Master’s Degree in Jewish Education at the Hebrew College Shoolman Graduate School of Education in Newton, MA, Potasznik studied for three years in the Beit Hamidrash at the Pardes Institute in Jerusalem.
“A big part of the Pardes experience is the assumption that our ancient texts have something to say to people living in modern times,” says Potasznik who adds that while it might seem counterintuitive, this received wisdom “has a lot to say about how to live well in 2020.”
Potasznik is clearly excited by the dynamic process of engaging with multiple interpretations of Jewish texts and seeing what else he and the youth he leads can come up with.
As the High Holidays approach, Potasznik’s top priority is planning engaging, family-friendly youth services that will be held each afternoon during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Families who preregister to attend services onsite will be able to meet Potasznik in person; those who choose to stay home can enjoy a virtual, live-streamed encounter with both Potasznik and Cantor Russell Jayne, who will co-lead the youth services.
Jonah Potasznik comes to Beth Tzedec with outstanding experience in formal and informal Jewish education having served as Regional Director of BBYO in the Greater Washington, DC area and as Judaic Educator for BBYO Summer Programs in Bethany, West Virginia. He also has all-important experience in the most immersive of all Jewish youth experiences – summer camp – having served as Director of Jewish Life and Learning at Surprise Lake Camp in Cold Spring, NY.
In addition to his part-time role at Beth Tzedec, Potasznik will be working right next door at The Calgary Jewish Academy where he will be teaching tefillah (prayer) to Grade 4 students and chagim (Jewish holidays) to students in a variety of grades. Potasznik has some innovative ideas he can’t wait to share with students including a technology and Torah mashup that will combine text study with robotics and programming to enliven his students’ journey through the early stories of the Torah in Bereishit (Genesis).
The community can thank Jonah Potasznik’s wife, Dr. Angy Cohen, for the talented couple’s move to Calgary. Cohen, who is originally from Madrid, moved to Israel in 2013 and made Aliyah the following year. She has recently taken up the position of Post Doctoral Associate in Israeli Studies in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Calgary.
During 2019-2020, Cohen was the Post-Doctoral Fellow at Concordia University’s Azrieli Institute of Israeli Studies in Montreal. Her field of expertise is the Mizrachi experience in Israel and this year she will be working on issues of Mizrachi feminism.
Angy Cohen looks forward to sharing her knowledge and expertise with Beth Tzedec congregants and in the community at large, Potasznik says.
“Judaism is baked into the day-to-day. For us it’s not just about the programming, but about the relationships that evolve from being a real part of the community,” said Potasznik.
“We are thrilled to make good on a promise to our congregation by welcoming Jonah,” said Beth Tzedec President David Inhaber who has moved youth and young families to the top of the priority list at Calgary’s only Conservative Synagogue.
Potasznik will also act in the capacity of Ritual Assistant, supporting the work of Cantor Russell Jayne, the Spiritual Leader at Beth Tzedec, who is currently studying toward Smicha (Rabbinical ordination).
“I’m very excited to welcome Jonah,” said Cantor Jayne. “It will be wonderful to work with someone who has such a strong love for education and youth and to have Jonah and Angy become a part of the congregational family.”
“Jonah will help the synagogue to develop a strong youth program beginning with the High Holidays youth services and then helping to enrich our B’nai Mitzvah and Shul School Programs. The goal is to find exciting new ways to get our youth involved in every aspect of Shul life,” Cantor Jayne said.
While Cantor Jayne added that this process will not happen overnight, he is confident that Potasznik’s strong background in education and youth programming will pave the way to putting youth and young families front and centre at Beth Tzedec.
For more information about the High Holidays and youth programming at Beth Tzedec, please contact Jonah Potasznik at email@example.com or 403-255-8688, Ext. 6.
Maxine Fischbein is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter.