Ma’ayanot-Project Ezrah Genius Bar Takes Off

June Mandeville-Kamins, a psychotherapist, wanted to learn how to create slides for presentations and write articles related to her practice.

Chana Schwarz (not her real name), a stay-at-home mother of four children from Passaic, was thinking of returning to work but has fallen behind in technology. “I’m a computer dinosaur,” she said.

Cheryl Rosenberg, a freelance writer and college essay tutor from Teaneck, was searching for a better way to share documents with her students.

These were just a few of the 28 women who signed up for the Genius Bar, a “reverse mentorship” program jointly sponsored by Project Ezrah and Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls. During the program, which took place on three Wednesdays in March, women eager to learn technology skills were paired with Ma’ayanot student mentors who worked one-on-one to help the women achieve their goals.

“We wanted to help women learn enough so they would feel confident and empowered to continue learning on their own,” said Rachel Book, Director of Diversity Recruiting at a major financial services company and a volunteer at Project Ezrah for career-related initiatives. “Today everyone needs to be more tech savvy and be on social media. Women who are not confident in these areas find it challenging to qualify for many jobs. They want to feel like they know it all before putting themselves out there.”

Initially, Book reached out to Ma’ayanot to match students and women for reverse mentorship in technology, said Mrs. Shira Donath, a teacher of AP Psychology and Jewish Law who organizes the school’s Encounter internship program for seniors. When Donath mentioned the idea to Mrs. Orly Nadler, Director of Educational Technology and Innovation, the concept blossomed into a formal club and the Genius Bar was born.

“The Genius Bar reaches both ends of Project Ezrah’s scope–working with people in our community seeking opportunity in all type of careers, within all levels of experience–entry level to more experienced,” says Jeff Mendelson, Director of Career Initiatives at Project Ezrah.

“The overarching goal is to help these women attain technology skills needed to reenter the workforce,” said Nadler. “The side goal for us at Ma’ayanot was to put our students in a position of leadership where it prompted them to feel more resourceful and confident in their own skills.”

Twenty-five student “geniuses” volunteered for the program. They first attended a training seminar in which Book talked to the girls about communicating on a personal level with their partners. Nadler also explained that it was okay not to know every detail of what they were teaching. “We told the students that even in the tech office we don’t always know the answers. Often we have to play around and figure things out.”

Women who signed up for the Genius Bar, which was free of charge, had several menu options to choose from: Google apps, Microsoft Office, photo editing, graphics, iMovie, and social media.”A lot of the women coming in were saying that they were computer illiterate,” said Mr. Benny Reiner, an IT engineer in Ma’ayanot’s technology department. “Getting on a machine and sitting side-by-side with someone who could help them made them overcome their fear and say ‘I can do it!’”

Even students had to overcome a reluctance to try something new–and gained from the experience. “When a woman asked a question I didn’t know, I said ‘Let’s play around and see what happens.’ I was learning to navigate,” said Kayla Zlotnick, a freshman.

Another benefit was the intergenerational bonds that formed between participants. “The women formed relationships with the girls that were very strong,” noted Donath.

“My genius is a genius!” commented Mrs. Rosenberg, the essay tutor who worked with freshman Avital Novogrodsky on creating Google docs for all three weeks. “Avital is so personable, knowledgeable, and very caring.”

“The girls taught me so much in such a short time. They are the biggest gift,” added Schwarz. “It’s empowering to know basic skills.”

The feelings were mutual. “It was amazing to be able to help people,” said Tilly Chamberlain, a freshman, who shared her knowledge of Google docs. “As I went on, I felt more confident.”

Sara Tehilla Cohen, also a freshman, said she enjoyed the role reversal. “It was different to be a teacher. I got a different perspective. My students were eager to learn.”

“Now I have to go practice,” remarked Mandeville-Kamins, who gained confidence from the experience.

One woman asked if Ma’ayanot was a college. “I said, ‘actually, you’re working with a ninth grader!’” said Nadler.

The question on everyone’s mind: Will the Genius Bar continue? “Now that we’ve piloted the program, we will seriously consider how we can make a longer run in the fall,” said Nadler. “A lot of women expressed a desire to continue.” All in all, the Genius Bar was a win-win!