Melissa Buckner grew up with a strong connection and commitment to her Jewish identity and credits her mother for instilling within her a commitment to Jewish life and learning that was unique, considering Melissa’s mom grew up as a Chinese Methodist from Central America. Her mother converted to Judaism in the late 60s, which was unusual at the time, but she went “all in” to create a Jewish life for the family. Melissa attended Hebrew Youth Academy, Jewish Camps, and was very connected to her Judaism as a young child, identifying as “Conservadox.“
In time, Melissa was attracted to the Tikkun Olam/social justice aspects of Judaism. She was always committed to helping the underserved and disenfranchised and puts that into practice currently by helping others in her personal and professional life as an attorney. It is important for Melissa to pay it forward and try to provide opportunities for others, which is why she has served the Miami community in various leadership roles such as: School Board Chair of Beth David Congregation/Gordon School and Temple Beth Am Day School, PJ Library Chair, and CAJE/GMJF Day School Committee Chair for three years. She now serves as Co-Chair for CAJE’s Teen Department.
In these leadership roles, Melissa has focused on strengthening and expanding opportunities for children. She is most passionate about providing educational support to parents and children to help bring awareness for the next generation’s connection to their Jewish identity. She sees the impact that parents can have on their children. Not only does Melissa credit her mother’s commitment to Judaism for strengthening her own, but also her three teenage childrens’. Melissa embodies the Jewish values of L’dor V’dor and feels a commitment to helping parents support their children Jewishly.
What about Jewish education/the Teen Department motivated you to take this position of leadership?
I feel that we have some of the best professionals I have ever met and I am excited to be supporting them in this space. I also think that the transition from Post Bar/Bat Mitzvah to college can be challenging in terms of engagement. I recognized this with my own children. It was through GMJF and CAJE that I found opportunities for my children to get involved in JServe and Diller Teen Fellows. These opportunities provided a space for my teens to remain engaged with Jewish life. My oldest, who is an alum of Diller, is better prepared for college because of the experiences she had in the program.
I think it is so important to have experiential learning programs like Diller Teen Fellows, March of the Living, Youth Groups, Summer Camps, etc. These programs provide teens a chance to engage with Judaism throughout their life and at a critical point in their development. These experiences help to ensure that Judaism does not become intermittent.
Because of the drop off after Bar/Bat Mitzvah, some people in the Jewish community last engaged with Jewish life when they were thirteen. They do not often re-engage until they are building a Jewish home and having children of their own. To keep the Jewish community thriving, it is important to provide innovative and immersive programs for teens during these transitional and transformative years.
What do you hope to achieve in your time as chair?
Now in the time of COVID 19, the focus should be on keeping teens engaged and supporting them, even though it may be harder to do. An additional focus for short term goals is to ensure proper funding, partners, and strategic planning to help CAJE’s Teen Department thrive for the next couple of years. Long term goals include bringing teens into new programs, dialogues, and experiential learning that can create more connections for them with the Jewish community.
Most importantly, my agenda is to support the professionals and provide sounding board advice. We have a very diverse Miami community and I feel it is important to look at the needs of the whole community and prioritize accordingly.
What 1-2 things would you like our readers to know about Jewish education/CAJE’s Teen Department?
I tell my own teens that you can be a soccer player now, but you might not be a professional player in 15 years; however, you will always be Jewish. I feel that it is so important to keep the concept of life-long learning going. Judaism is a continuum and teaching that to teens is critical.
Teens are at that point in their lives where their brains are re-wiring. If we can engage them with the idea that they are still learning and provide the spaces for them to engage in learning with each other, they can build upon our Jewish continuity.
Through CAJE’s Kavanah Coaching program professionals are trained to guide teens along their journey using a Jewish lens. I am hopeful that this will help to create and instill that connection to Judaism for our community teens.