Paula Weiss ©2016
My introduction to the world of storytelling came by way of an invitation from Gert Johnson to attend a meeting of a group she had founded in 1993, nine years before; the Interfaith Story Circle. My daughter Adah, then 11, encouraged me to accept Gert’s invitation and we went to the very next story circle which happened to be focused on “Coming to Judaism through Stories.” We’re Jewish and at that time Adah was beginning to prepare for her bat mitzvah.
Adah and Interfaith Storytelling
At the story circle, Adah was inspired to tell a couple of stories she’d learned at Hebrew school. The response she got was so enthusiastic, it was like electricity for her. She’d found a calling! She joined subsequent meetings of the group, ended up telling at their yearly performances, and later said that getting involved in interfaith storytelling and learning to tell Jewish stories connected her to her religion in a way that probably wouldn’t have happened otherwise.
Adah has always liked feeling unique but it didn’t take long before she began wishing that other young people would get involved, too. When we heard about the NSN Brimstone award, she contributed to the proposal some of us wrote for an interfaith youth storytelling program. An action-packed few months later, in January 2006, Children at the Well (C@W) was launched! Adah was among the twelve kids who made up the first C@W group, and she- like many other participants- remained in the group until her graduation from high school. Thanks to the strength of the program, the great kids who have been attracted to it, and the wonderful story coaches we’ve managed to hire, it’s been THAT fun!
Adah is only one of the seventy eight extraordinary kids who’ve been part of C@W so far, but naturally, she’s the one whose story I know best. She kindly consented to let me tell it to illustrate this history of our group. Adah not only ended up telling a story as part of her bat mitzvah, she engaged in storytelling and was involved in interfaith work with students as an undergrad at Oberlin. In the two-year fellowship she held after college, she combined the two and used storytelling in her interfaith work for the office of Religious and Spiritual Life at Vassar College. Interfaith storytelling has opened new worlds for her and given her confidence, purpose and a method of connecting people. It’s also drawn her closer to her roots, as evidenced by her casual and academic pursuits of knowledge of Klezmer music and Yiddish language and culture. She begins a Master’s program in Jewish studies at Indiana University this fall.
The Interfaith Story Circle and Children at the Well
Although C@W grew from the Interfaith Story Circle, it’s a different sort of program. The Interfaith Story Circle is a “come when you can” arrangement that offers an open invitation to monthly 2-hour story circles held at a variety of houses of worship and other places. It’s attended by adults for the most part. There is no membership or dues, and the budget is minuscule. Most who come are not professional storytellers, but some are. Personal stories as well as traditional and religious stories are shared; most but not all stories are from the tellers’ own experience or traditions. The emphasis is on sharing stories, not at all on critiquing. An annual performance (Winter Lights) is usually held in January, and there is an annual “Tent of Abraham” circle, featuring lead tellers from the Abrahamic traditions. The Interfaith Story Circle has in recent years expanded its focus to include stories of racial injustice and healing, and is interested in holding a circle on stories of economic injustice, as well.
Children at the Well, on the other hand, provides diverse groups of teenagers with professional training in storytelling, starting with weekly 2 ½ hour group coaching sessions over a 4 month period and culminating in year-round appearances and performances large and small. Each teller chooses (or creates) his/her own story that they feel is connected to their own tradition. Development of voice, empathy and leadership are all essential goals of the program. An appreciative approach to story coaching is used. Below is a guide to choosing stories that we use with the group; we thought it could be of use to those who’d like to venture into interfaith storytelling.
C@W is also an inter-generational program that has successfully gathered together young people and their families and neighbors of different backgrounds in our community and beyond, and developed shared understandings through stories.
The Power of Interfaith Storytelling
You might wonder how interfaith storytelling got its start in our area. As Gert can describe it best, I asked if she’d let me use the following passage she wrote recently:
In the early 1990s I did graduate work in narrative theology, validated the use of story for moral and religious education in my master’s thesis and began to use it in my high school classroom. This experience “turned” my teaching. It taught me that story was a compelling and powerful bridge between teacher and student and among young people who were very different from one another. It left me curious to know if story could break down barriers and build community among adults of different religious and moral traditions. The answer was yes, it could. Over the past 23 years, those of us in Interfaith Story Circle(IFSC) and Children at the Well Youth Storytellers(C@W), have experienced the inspirational, moral and healing power of story between people of diverse religions (e.g. Hindus, Jews, Christians, Muslims), ethical traditions and cultures. Even today, with all the turmoil in our world, we continue to have confidence/take comfort in the power of story-sharing to bring about friendship, peace and understanding.
The Children at the Well Starter Kit
With ten years’ Children at the Well experience under our belts, we’ve written a book to encourage and help others to start their own youth storytelling programs, based on the C@W model. If you’d like to help us get this project off the ground, please check out our Kickstarter campaign https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/childrenatthewell/one-path-to-world-peace-youth-storytelling which we launched to publish the book. Adah and the rest of us would be very grateful if you’d share the link online and let others know what we’re about.
Oh, and we’re calling the project the Children at the Well Starter Kit. We’re pleased to see that our friends at LANES are organizing their own Starter Kit to help new storytellers enter the profession. What a wonderful moment for celebrating and spreading the joys of storytelling!
Paula Weiss is co-creator and Director of Children at the Well Youth Storytellers for Peace & Understanding. She came to the world of storytelling through the interest of her daughter Adah, who was 11 at the time.
Paula holds a BA from the University of Virginia in Comparative Religion, and an MS and CAS in Reading from SUNY at Albany. She has worked as a switchboard operator, as a teacher, as a research assistant, and in academic editing. In her current position she uses every one of the skills she developed in those occupations and in the course of her studies.
Paula and her husband Joe Hetko are now the proud parents of two young adults and live in Boght Corners, New York.
This blog series is a part of the LANES Connections Project. This task seeks to celebrate connections to other organizations, professions, and milieus to which we are joined through story. If you are joined through story with another organization, profession, setting, style or milieu, we would love for you to share your experiences with us in a blog.