Teens find sanctuary around the Fire Circle

Kids munch on pizza, conjure up posh English accents, gossip about high school and gush about sports.

It’s a typical hormonally driven teen scene of rapid talk and frenetic energy for the 50 students who gather on Tuesday evenings for Midrasha (Hebrew high school) at Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael.

Until classes begin at 7 p.m., that is.

That’s one when group — dubbed the Fire Circle — hikes up behind the synagogue to a sloped patch of hard ground covered in leaves underneath a canopy of tree branches.

Day Schildkret and one of the teens, Mollie, at the Fire Circle

There, the 15 teens plop down in a circle on yoga mats and carpet squares around a fire pit. Nearby sits a pile of wood and kindling that some of them had helped gather about 90 minutes earlier.

Then the fire is lit.

“We are doing what our ancestors did,” Day Schildkret explained in an interview. The 34-year-old has been leading the Fire Circle for six years. “It connects us to our ancestors, sitting around the fire and sharing stories. The fire is the wisdom that our ancestors have been passing to us. We are the torchbearers. We are the ancestors of tomorrow.”

Part self-enlightenment, part self-empowerment, part self-expression and part Jewish education, the Fire Circle is a powerful class that keeps students coming back year after year — even after they’ve graduated from high school.

Much of the credit goes to Schildkret, who also directs the Tri Valley/Tri-Cities Midrasha in Pleasanton and teaches classes at Midrasha in Berkeley.

“The dude is on fire,” said Rabbi Michael Lezak, associate rabbi at Rodef Sholom. “His feet are firmly planted in Jewish tradition. He’s created a scared space connected to the Jewish calendar and Jewish holidays. There is always a Jewish context. Kids have come out [about their sexuality] at Fire Circle. It draws kids who aren’t necessarily connected to Midrasha. It’s a real sanctuary.”

Schildkret said the Fire Circle, which runs throughout  the school year, has three core principles. The first is based on the Shema. “When anyone speaks, people say, ‘Shamati’ (Hebrew for ‘I have heard’),” he says. “If you feel you have really said what you wanted to say then you say, ‘Dibarti, I have spoken.’ ”

The second principle, Schildkret said, is that the fire is the teacher and he is just a facilitator who nudges the kids along.

“They learn how to build and tend a fire, which is symbolic of [the care they need for] their own lives,” he said.

And the third principle is the idea of gifting, Schildkret said. “We ask, ‘What is my unique gift to the world?’ It’s an opportunity to claim a sense of empowerment. But this [entire process] could not happen in the classroom,” added Schildkret, who is a sculptor, a former director on Broadway and an educator who just launched his own one-on-one mentoring business, Humbled and Thriving.

On this night in mid-October, Schildkret introduces the Torah portion in which Abraham answers God’s call and leaves his homeland to journey to the Land of Canaan. Schildkret speaks of journeys and courage, showing a real bird’s nest he once found on the forest floor — as he often tries to use things found in nature to connect the teens to ancient Jewish rituals and lessons. He also shows pictures of his grandparents who migrated to America from Russia with little money and unable to speak English.

“They left their nest and came to another safe space,” Schildkret says to the teens. “Tonight you must leave something behind. It takes real courage to stand at the edge of the nest and leap.” And then everyone in the group talks a bit about discarding a behavior or a personality trait.

“I am ready to leave the nest because people judge me for being a nerd,” says a 13-year-old participant. “But I am proud of that. I’m not going to care what people say.” Reassuring utterances of “Shamati” echo around the circle.

Later, Schildkret asks the teens to share what makes them soar. One student talks of plans to take a year off after high school “to explore the world, intellectually and physically, for a break from the life I’ve led up to now.”

When the topic turns to what the kids are grateful for, a 15-year-old explains a difficult year in which she left her mother’s home, had to work to support herself and didn’t know where she would be sleeping from night to night. She says she is thankful for the Fire Circle and a stable home with her father after a year of “wandering.”

This is the Fire Circle at its best, said Rabbi Lezak, a safe place that allows teenagers at a critical juncture in their lives to express themselves. Schildkret calls it “magical.”

“Fire Circle is the one place,” said a 14-year-old participant, “where your thoughts don’t sound stupid when you say them.”