In the spring of 2022, Phoebe Cosgrove stood up in front of hundreds of her peers The Emery/Weiner School in Houston to give a speech. After an introduction by her Spanish and yoga teacher, Ashley Lauderdale, Cosgrove opened up about a tender topic—the impact that her brother’s disability had on her family life.
It turned out that the risk was not in what she might reveal about her brother, Jake—a popular former Emery/Weiner student, now at the University of Texas in Austin, who was born without a right eye—but in what she might reveal about herself. Her bravery—even pugilism—in protecting her brother from teasing had hidden the toll that her family’s medical odyssey had taken on her.
“All of us struggle, whether it’s noticeable or not,” said Cosgrove, 19, who is also now studying at UT Austin. In the age of Instagram and polished selfies, she added, the epidemic of “body anxiety, depression, and other mental illnesses” is airbrushed away. Talking openly and honestly about one’s issues, in a supportive community environment, is the antidote.
At the progressive Jewish day school Emery/Weiner, a program called Sippur aims to create space for these kinds of transformational conversations by combining Jewish values, faculty engagement, and the storytelling rigor of the popular series The Moth. Cosgrove is one of 18 students who delivered a sippur (story) during the 2021-2022 school year.
The brainchild of Rabbi Laura Sheinkopf, Director of Jewish Life at Emery/Weiner, Sippur is now in its fourth year. A voluntary program for high school seniors, Sippur is inspired in part by the impact of student speechmaking at many high schools. Those presentations, Sheinkopf said, can have a transformative effect on both the student and the larger school community. What was missing, she added, was a day school program “to make this framework for offering personal and true narratives distinctly Jewish.”
The impact of sharing 7- to 10-minute personal stories was immediate. “Students talked about divorce, and cancer, and losing siblings, and mental illness,“ said Sheinkopf. The second year coincided with the onset of COVID, but seeing the value for students, Sheinkopf opted to continue the program on Zoom. By 2022, with the general increase in teen isolation and anxiety, the program seemed indispensable, and not just for the students.
“Teachers have felt incredibly validated by their work with students. To stand up there and introduce them, having worked with them on these stories, ennobles their teaching like few others things do,” said Sheinkopf. “They feel this tremendous pride.”
Yvonne Cosgrove, Jake and Phoebe’s mother, notes that Sippur enriched their family life as well, in part by “making visible the things they were going through that we didn’t see, or appreciate before.” By bringing difficult conversations into the open—at home, and in the school community at large—“it makes it easier to accept what students are actually feeling, and to be more open to the difficulties they are going through.”
Some students use the storytelling process to gain courage or offer reflections that they might not otherwise feel safe making public. One student, who received a cancer diagnosis in high school, explained that the process of writing a story allowed her to disentangle her self from the disease. “Cancer is not the author of this sippur,” she said at the end of her speech. “I am.”
Another student presented a critique of how the school community dealt with the topic of race, causing what Yvonne Cosgrove described as “substantial and positive conversations about the issues he raised.”
Moving forward, The Emery/Weiner School hopes to forge deeper educational connections between “Jewish” and “story” in part by creating a formal curriculum. They also plan to train more faculty mentors to develop student speeches and find ways to share and discuss the students’ stories beyond their presentations, including publishing a booklet and creating a podcast.
For Phoebe Cosgrove, the presence of Jewish values in this process is already crystal clear. “The value of not engaging in lashon harah, or gossip, was something that clearly came out in my story,” she said, in reference to loose talk about her brother’s condition. At the same time, she realized that her brother’s preternatural acceptance of his condition evoked another Jewish value, that of b’tzelem elohim—the acknowledgment that we are all made in the image of God.
Sheinkopf believes that these and other Jewish values, like the respect that students and teachers should have for one another, can be effectively discussed and transmitted through story.
“We explain our laws through stories, explain prayers through stories, tell moral lessons through stories,” she said, adding that a key element of Jewish life is midrash, the ancient system of story-based commentaries “through which we fill in the blanks left open by the tradition.”
Sheinkopf teaches her students the privilege and responsibility of public storytelling: “Once you speak something out loud, it belongs to the community as much as to you.” When a storytelling process is done right, “a student can knit their personal story into the community itself, in a way that says, ‘You really matter.’”
After four years of managing Sippur, and decades as a rabbi and educator, Sheinkopf isn’t afraid to say that “storytelling is in fact the very heart of the Jewish experience.”
By Dan Schifrin, for The Covenant Foundation