The Sky’s the Limit: Blossom Cohon Reaches Jewish Teens through Aerial Arts
Cohon on aerial silks at sunset on the playa at Burning Man. Courtesy of Blossom Cohon.
By Tonyia Cone
While Jewish education and aerial arts do not usually come to mind at the same time, Blossom Cohon has connected with teens for the last four years by combining the two.
Cohon remembers hating Hebrew school and Sunday school while growing up in Seattle, Washington.
“I thought it was super uncool. I just didn’t really like religion that much. I thought some things were interesting but I didn't like it,” she said.
While taking religion classes in college, she realized “you really understand people better if you can understand religion," and minored in the subject. After graduation, Cohon went to Israel, where she lived on a kibbutz for seven months while learning some Hebrew and trying to decide whether to go to graduate school for psychology or religion, or rabbinic school.
“I realized I didn't want to do this just through the Jewish lens; I wanted to do this from a more objective perspective and to study other things too,” said Cohon, who earned a master's degree from Brandeis University in near eastern and Judaic studies, with a focus on women's and gender studies.
While in Boston, she delved into festival culture and aerial arts.
“At my first lesson, they asked if I'd done it before and said I should probably join a circus,” she said.
Cohon returned to Seattle after graduating, where she worked part-time as a Hebrew and Judaic studies teacher at Temple Beth Am, was a nanny, trained in aerial arts and acroyoga, and went to music festivals.
After two years, Cohon moved to Austin with her ex-fiancee, who wanted to move to Texas to live closer to her family. Cohon began working part-time at Temple Beth Shalom, where she was first hired as a Hebrew school and Sunday school teacher, and then as the congregation’s youth engagement director.
“The first event of the season was Labor Day weekend at Greene Family Camp. I went from Burning Man the previous two years on Labor Day to being at GFC with the kids. That was a really funny transition,” Cohon said.
By the end of her first year, Temple Beth Shalom expanded her work into a full-time gig. For four years, Cohon was responsible for youth group programming, which include groups for fourth and fifth graders, sixth and seventh graders, and eighth through twelfth graders. Her responsibilities also included chaperoning overnights at the Temple, running after-school events, supporting religious school staff members, and regional events, including going to Greene Family Camp with the kids she worked with.
Meanwhile, Cohon’s aerial art training was put on the back burner, but she was able to incorporate her experiences into her Temple Beth Shalom work with teenagers. She explained that she found personal strength and grace practices, like aerial arts or acroyoga, to be a profoundly useful tool.
“Acroyoga I loved as a teaching tool because it’s all about boundaries and knowing before you start anything, you're going to have a conversation with your new partner about where you're both at right now and what your abilities are. That's going to lay the foundation for avoiding physical injury in this process,” she said. “If we only all started with conversations about where we're at and boundaries, that would be amazing. Instead we usually oversell ourselves and then often times people get hurt.”
Cohon added that some of the many lessons that can be learned through the practice are body awareness, positive touch, and communicating what feels okay or needs to be repositioned, and when it is time to stop.
“It’s such a simple practice in a partner acrobatic situation, but if your strength is running out or something's uncomfortable for you, you have to stay down—and you have to do it three seconds before it’s actually an emergency,” she said. “So much of the time in life, I think we just kind of grin and bear it, and think, ‘I can tough it out,’ and it's so counterproductive. Instead you could say, ‘I'm three seconds from my limit. I need to safely get to the ground now.’”
Teaching these skills had an amazing effect on teens who previously appeared to Cohon to sometimes feel foreign and almost pained in their bodies.
“All of a sudden you see teens with speech impediments who don't really want to talk to people now taking on a leadership teaching role and showing everyone how to do something safely. It's amazing,” she said. “I think it’d help so many aspects of our culture if we trained people to be a little bit more aware of their body and other people's bodies and how to ask for things related to touch and how to state and maintain their boundaries.”
Not only things like circus arts, ecstatic dance, base and fire spinning be useful teaching tools, they can attract kids to youth groups because they look cool.
“We're not utilizing that. Instead we're trying to sell them on how cool it is to be culturally fulfilled,” she said.
Cohon explained that her education and ability to deliver things like a class for adults on historical biblical analysis—gives her the credibility needed to work in the Jewish community, and to the platform to make the changes she wants.
Meanwhile, her life experiences resonate with the teens she works with.
“Showing up and being like, ‘Hey guess what, I didn't like it either and I know you don't want to be here, but my goal is to try to level with you and make it worth your time. I want to make you not hate it here,’ it's just kind of being real and open with them. A lot of the kids pick up on the fact that I'm very open and willing to be vulnerable. They can ask me stuff,” she explained.
Because of this openness, Temple Beth Shalom allowed Cohon to design several classes, including a sex ed class that she still teaches.
“I appreciate that Beth Shalom did that. I think it speaks to their desire to fulfill a need, and have certain dialogues even if not everyone is comfortable having them,” she said.
The opt-in class presents all types of sex and sexual orientation as equal; features a Planned Parenthood speaker and a psychologist who works with sex offenders who discusses true consent, legal consent and boundaries; and analyzes why Jewish texts written so long ago address different topics and how they are relevant today.
Cohon left Temple Beth Shalom’s youth engagement director position in July but is continuing her engagement in Austin’s Jewish community as a board member for Keshet Austin, a social organization for LGBTQ Jews, their allies and families, and at Temple Beth Shalom as a Hebrew teacher and religious school teacher.
“I feel like it's a gift to be someone who teens want to talk to,” Cohon said. “I'm so glad they recognize I’m there to talk to them and I don’t mind if they say weird stuff. I almost feel like Burning Man should be a prerequisite for working with teenagers. You're probably not going to tell me about anything I haven't seen.” ■