Youth engagement succeeds when teens have real life responsibility for their own Jewish learning. After years of adequate adult-led youth services we reached out to our teens. Their involvement as High Holy Day service leaders resulted in more spiritually engaging youth services and also the development of a cadre of teens capable of leading their younger peers in meaningful worship.
Picture this: a large group of teens – 7th to 12th grades – sitting around a campfire, singing songs, playing games, and grouping and regrouping in ever changing configurations of young people. Bucking trends in Jewish life – where so many teens drop out soon after B’nai Mitzvah – these teens showed up smiling. (Thanks to the URJ’s Campaign for Youth Engagement, we rethought our entire youth program.)
Rabbi Julie Weisz, the energetic visionary behind Congregation Or Ami’s Campaign for Youth Engagement, invited the teens to reflect upon what made their Triple T time so meaningful. The responses were heartwarming:
Making new friends
Being a madrich (counselor) at the 4th-6th grade retreat
Creating a movie short with my JEWTube track
Working with the younger atudents as a MIT (Madricha in training)
Leading sports days for the at risk kids in Future Coaches
Creating social action projects with VolunTEENS
Being part of LoMPTY
Going to regional NFTY SoCal events
Bonding with everyone here
It seems that our faculty and rabbis have hit upon what we believe is a formula for continued youth engagement:
Multiple pathways (we call them “tracks”) to participation.
Confirmation as the culmination for all tracks (including youth group)
And lots of listening, loving and patience.
Youth work is incredibly exciting, deeply rewarding, intensely frustrating, and ultimately so incredibly important. Just as teens are coming into themselves, we youth professionals get to love them, accept them unconditionally, and present Judaism to them as a healthy pathway to finding oneself. There are moments, so many moments, when the neural connections are fired up just right, and through their time in temple, they find the acceptance and love that they deeply crave.
Of course along the way they go through all the same struggles as everywhere else. And so they experience social anxiety, face cliquishness, lose elections, and feel slighted. Because it is all real life. Being a teen is frustrating and often painful. Being a teen’s parent is a lesson in powerlessness and oftentimes frustration as we sit on the sidelines unable to fix it all.
That’s why youth professionals often make a real difference. When we do it right – listen, love, eschew simple problem solving in favor of long-term growth and compassionate struggle – the synagogue becomes a safe place for young people to learn and grow.
As our teen songleader led us to close the evening with a sweet havdala ceremony, the teens enjoyed a group hug, evidencing with their physical closeness the reality that permeates their hearts. This diverse group of kids are finding a path forward – past B’nai Mitzvah and into young adulthood. The path is not always straight. The temple cannot shield them (or their parents) from heartache, but there is no question that the combined efforts of caring, engaging faculty and available, committed rabbis can provide a safe loving space for our teens.
Lo alecha ham’lacha ligmor – the work with teens is a continuous, never-ending process. But when approached with an open mind and an open heart, it is even the exhaustion is exhilarating.
|Cadet Eric Moraly (center) standing in full uniform|
I love it when our Congregation Or Ami young people take pride in and share their commitment to being Jewish.
See the young man in uniform standing in the center of the group of cadets? That is Eric Moraly, a member of Congregation Or Ami, who attends Army & Navy Academy in Carlsbad, CA. A cadet, Eric is currently a Private First Class.
His mother Dana Moraly knew that they were going to be handing out Christmas stockings to all of the cadets at the December holiday party, so she sent Eric gelt and dreidels to give to everyone.
As the party got going, they asked Eric to come up and explain what Chanukah was. According all repots, Eric very eloquently told the story of Chanukah to the 340 other cadets. A fair number of foreign students from Asia, Africa, and elsewhere attend the Army & Navy Academy. Many of them have never even met a Jew before. They especially appreciated learning about Judaism from him.
Eric became a Bar Mitzvah at Congregation Or Am and is an alum of URJ Camp Newman. A quiet young man, Eric has blossomed in the Army & Navy Academy and has aspirations to be a leader in that program. His parents are so proud that while Eric is being exposed to many different cultures, he is not turning his back on his own. He lets everyone know that he is Jewish and is in no way embarrassed to be different from this largely Christian environment that he is living in.
At Congregation Or Ami, we take pride that Eric takes pride in being Jewish. And we are thrilled to hear about how our young people are going out into the world and bringing their Jewish values with them.
Do you have a story about how your children have embraced their Judaism? Do tell!
In the midst of inspiring and emotionally charged Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe from Rosh Hashana through Yom Kippur), an utterly unexpected yet totally welcome reality set in as our Congregation Or Ami teens all but took over our High Holy Day services.
For years synagogues and Jewish denominations have been seeking models of successful teen engagement. Ever since the Union for Reform Judaism challenged communities to prioritize teen engagement, the clergy and lay leadership teams at Congregation Or Ami (Calabasas, CA) have been experimenting with teen engagement strategies. We seemed to have stumbled into a successful strategy: invite them in, set clear goals, and get out of the way. Recently, we have applied that strategy to the most sacred of synagogue rituals: the High Holy Days.
Teens Sing and Inspire
It began a few years back when our Cantor Doug Cotler invited four teens to sing Sim Shalom at Yom Kippur morning services. Their sweet voices lit up the sanctuary; worshippers literally leaned forward in their seats to take it all in. Since that service, Cantor Cotler has continued inviting a handful of teens each year to sing, and added in others who share poignant poetry which speaks to the service’s theme. We set high expectations: The teens have only two rehearsals – a week before the service and the day of. Participants are sent sheet music and an MP3 of the song and are expected to practice at home. Each has risen up to the task; their sacred performances have been stellar.
Simultaneously we turned to teens to webcast our services and to serve as Visual Accompanist for our Visual T’filah. With minimal rehearsal and preparation, each technology leader performed very well and has since been tasked with training their successors.
Creating a Cadre of Levites, a Teen Musical Liturgy Team
Last year, Cantor Cotler and Or Ami’s Rabbi Julia Weisz schemed to create youth High Holy Day service leaders. Recruiting a newish guitar player, a pre-teen violinist, and a talented teen singer, they taught the trio the basic prayers and songs. Their initial task was to accompany Rabbi Julia as she led services for three youth services: Pre-K through 2nd grade, 3rd-5th grade, and 6th-8th grade.
|Teens Rehearsing for Youth Services
Not pictured: Olivia Sharon and Annie Reznick
Deputizing Teens to Plan and Lead the Entire Youth Services
This year, prior to taking maternity leave, Rabbi Weisz engaged another group of teens and deputized them as service leaders. This group of 5 teens – each actively involved in either the Union for Reform Judaism’s NFTY youth movement, URJ Camp Newman or both – created a schedule for the three youth programs, developed age-appropriate activities and services, and coordinated with the adult leaders of the youth programs. The teens ran their work by me for input and advice. They coordinated with the teen music leaders.
On the morning of the High Holy Day services, I wished them good luck and then headed off to lead adult services. Youth participants and their parents kvelled like never before, calling these “the coolest services and activities ever.” The secret to our success: being clear about goals and expectations, checking in and supervising, and then getting out of the way.
Are We Crazy? Inviting the Teens to Lead the Neilah Concluding Service
Two days before Yom Kippur, someone approached me suggesting we let the teens lead the Neila service. (Talk about waiting until the last minute!) The idea had such merit. What better way to trumpet our commitment to youth engagement than to have teens lead the congregation through the final moments of the High Holy Days.
With Facebook and texting we quickly gathered teen volunteers; moments later, service parts were distributed along with dress code and bimah sitting instructions. Excited and prepared, the teens led with a real sense of sacred responsibility.
One of our veteran members, a woman in her late 80’s wrote that seeing the teens lead services for the community provided her with assurance that the congregation was healthy, forward looking and stable. Another noted that our integration of the teens into all parts of congregational life was the primary reason that they remain members of Or Ami.
So What Did We Learn about Youth Engagement?
- Clear goal and high expectations present teens with a clear path toward success.
- Personal invitations to teens – especially from clergy – propels them toward active involvement.
- More than being a novelty, full teen participation in even the most sacred of moments of congregational life inspires others to continue involvement and support.
- Rather than leading to the congregation running amuck, deep teen integration and participation in all aspects of synagogue life can invigorate and energize a community.
Where Might We Go from Here?
Imagine the positive response that might ensue if we…
- Invited teens to deliver a collaborative sermon on one of the Holy Days.
- Asked the youth group LoMPTY to lead an interactive multigenerational study program during the time between the Morning and Yizkor services on Yom Kippur.
- Paired teens with older members of the congregation and tasked them with researching and brainstorming engaging, creative innovations – in music, prose, prose and multimedia – to enhance our High Holy Day experience.
- Other suggestions???
At Congregation Or Ami, We Look Forward to Exploring These and Other Avenues
How have you succeeded in integrating teens into the most sacred and central places of congregational life?
|That’s me at the front of the boat|
You could say that the texture of my life was molded during six summers I spent at the URJ Kutz Camp: NFTY Leadership Experience. Those summers – two as a Program Participant, two as a Resident Advisor/Program Director, and two as Head RA – set my life on a course that would weave together an intense love of Judaism, a versatility with creative and innovative programming, and a deeper appreciation of who I am. So much of what I do today as a rabbi draws on the nurturing and nourishment I received at Kutz.
I went to Kutz because my youth region NEFTY (now NFTY-Northeast) and my temple rabbis presented Kutz as the ultimate teen leadership experience. Kutz, I was told, was an incubator for future leaders of the adult Jewish community. So That summer I headed off to Warwick, NY.
At Kutz I Found a Second Home
There I made Jewish connections that defined me. There I experienced a whole bunch of really intense relationships. There I honed a set of informal educational programming skills that propelled me into rabbinical school, through a Masters in Jewish Education at HUC-JIR’s Rhea Hirsch School of Education, and ultimately into my current synagogue. In fact, Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, CA derives much of its ta’am (flavor) and focus from the welcoming warmth and innovative Judaism that I experienced at Kutz.
Kutz Expanded my Horizons
At Kutz I met the giants of Reform Judaism. We studied Jewish prayer with HUC-JIR’s Dr. Larry Hoffman, Talmud with orthodox Rabbi professor Michael Chernick, Jewish philosophy with Dr. Eugene Borowitz and the Biblical Five Megillot with UAHC leader Rabbi Bernie Zlotowitz. UAHC president Alexander Schindler spoke an inspired us, UAHC VP Danny Syme warned us about the dangers of cults and other Reform Movement dignitaries shared with us issues at the heart of what it means to be a Reform Jew.
At Kutz, we heard from Abbie Nathan, the renegade Voice of Israel radio personality, we connected to Israel through shlichim David and Miri Varon, and we were regaled with musical compositions by a Russian immigrant/former refusenick who conducted the Moscow orchestra.
Kutz Refined Jewish Leadership Skills
Smitty (Rabbi Allan Smith, UAHC Youth Division Director ) guided my development as a youth worker, PJR (Paul J. Reichenbach, now URJ director of Camping and Israel Programs ) nurtured my programming abilities, and Rabbi Ramie Arian (then NFTY Director) led me to develop the beginnings of a philosophy of youth engagement. With dear friend Elaine Zecher, we created a programming partnership that continued into our rabbinates and our work in the CCAR.
Empowered through Song
At Kutz, music spoke louder than words as we sang together under the musical leadership of Merri Arian and Jewish composer and HUC-JIR professor Benji Schiller. Successive, talented song leaders taught us the latest Jewish and Israeli tunes. I learned so many Jewish values through song, texts from Pirkei Avot, Talmud, liturgy, and Tanakh that to this day animate my moral core.
Inspired by Rabbis
At Kutz I met and connected with energetic, creative, youth-focused rabbis and rabbinic students who led me on journeys into aspects of Judaism I might not have encountered until years later. Rooted in Jewish texts and social justice values, they instilled within me a conviction that Judaism speaks to every issue – religious, social, sexual, public policy, economic and more. There I first encountered the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism which years later would provide me with a life focusing internship. And more, at Kutz I learned that one day I wanted to inspire teens just like they inspired me.
Faced Teen Issues
At Kutz, guided by Social Worker Ira Schwietzer (Ducky), we face a whole array of teen issues. We wrestled with the intersection between sex and love, the need to break a friend’s confidentiality if she is contemplating suicide, and the importance of dating and marrying Jews. We talked about peer pressure, body image and relationships with parents.
Found Abiding Love
Oh, and at Kutz, my life was forever enhanced when I met my wife Michelle November, then Director of the UAHC College Department. A year later, connecting at a Youth Division conference, we agreed to go on a second date (the date which sealed our relationship).
Kutz Molded Me
Yes, the URJ Kutz Camp: NFTY Leadership Experience molded me into the Jewish leader I have become. It prepared me in many ways for this role. It pointed me toward issues in the Jewish and secular worlds that still consume my interest and time.
I have not been to Kutz for over a decade; my camping attention is focused on URJ Camp Newman where I am Dean of Faculty, and where our three kids have gained similar values and experiences.
But I will always cherish Kutz as an important center for Jewish leadership development and as the place that made me… Me.
How did Kutz Camp help mold you into the person you are today?
Do you want to know the worst kept synagogue secret? It is not about politics at the pulpit or the fact that most Jews do not regularly attend Shabbat services. No, the worst kept synagogue secret is that almost 90% of the young people who become Bar or Bat Mitzvah in our synagogues are absent from our programs by the time they graduate high school.
Elsewhere I have written about Congregation Or Ami’s recent attempts to rethink the whole enterprise of youth engagement. We have kvelled about early indications that our efforts are raising our community’s youth engagement by 20% (and we await results from this year’s re-registration to be able to gauge the real effects).
Thanks to the leadership of Or Ami President Helayne Sharon and Board member Cheryl Lederman, and their partnership with Rabbi Julia Weisz and our Triple T Task Force, we have counted successive achievement. The Future Coaches, A.T.M., and Madrichim tracks meld with the Triple T and 4th-6th grade retreats interwoven with LoMPTY, NFTY regional events, and Jewish summer camping to create seamless synergy [insert links about these programs from blog]. Yet that dastardly data point – 90% drop off – still haunts us.
Group-Thinking Youth Engagement
Perhaps that’s really why I flew up to Berkeley, CA. The Reform Movement’s Campaign for Youth Engagement team – including URJ VP Rabbi Jonah Pesner and CYE Head Rabbi Bradley Solmsen – invited us to participate in a thought-process to test the viability and advisability of new and renewed ideas about youth engagement. It might have been Or Ami’s quick and effective embrace of the URJ’s Campaign for Youth Engagement that led to an invitation.
Fortunately the strategic thinking consultancy offered multiple ROI (returns on investment) for Or Ami: the opportunity to share reflections with the movement’s leading thinkers might help them design the future of youth engagement as well as trend spotting prospects for Or Ami for our never-ending quest to reinvent ourselves and our outreach to Jewish youth.
So there we sat: a Jewish camp director, a NFTY North American director, a URJ district Rabbi, a Jewish camping foundation leader, a very articulate NFTY regional president, leaders of the Reform CYE, a synagogue rabbi, and the principals from two strategic thinking centers. The principals shared their research on current Reform Youth engagement and the ideas that bubbled up. We group-processed the ideas, searching out strengths and weaknesses of each idea, and the opportunities each presents and the threats each poses to the current situation.
ROI: My Takeaways from Time Away from the Synagogue
I came away with a number of insights:
- That our youth engagement needs to be about more than events and classes;
- That relationship building and Jewish “evangelical” outreach are the current challenges;
- That seamless synergy between projects, programs, efforts, and outreach is the name of the game (breaking down silos);
- That we do not know a lot about the youth who are involved in our programs, but we know even less (drastically little) about the youth who are not in our programs (and that such information could be critical to designing meaningful outreach to them); and
- That prioritizing youth engagement requires placing our youth in decision-making positions on the boards in the “adult movement arms.”
The strategic thinking process of the URJ may or may not embrace these ideas. Too many factors play into the process. Still, the discussions were rich and the energy was infectious. And I return to Congregation Or Ami energized to explore next steps in our efforts to chip away at that 90% post-B’nai Mitzvah unaffiliated rate.
Which Leads Me to Ask
What would you suggest are the ideas and ideals which should animate our synagogue’s campaign for youth engagement?
How do we save the Jewish people?
With more Jewish day schools or more creative religious education? With greater outreach to interfaith families? By transforming the B’nai Mitzvah process? Or by focusing on Jews in their 20’s and 30’s?
Yes, yes, yes and yes. Much has been written about each endeavor, and undoubtedly we will discover that each offers a significant, if partial response to the challenges our Jewish people face.
We Found the Solution on a Sports Field
Recently, however, as I watched a group of teens lead a group of at risk kids through a day of sports, I realized that at Congregation Or Ami, we may have discovered yet another piece of the “Save the Jewish Future” puzzle. We found it on the sports field, of all places.
Called Future Coaches, this teen engagement program is part of a constellation of teen activities known at the temple as Triple T: Tracks for Temple Teens. Inspired by the Union for Reform Judaism’s Campaign for Youth Engagement, Future Coaches begins with a simple premise: that many boys (girls too) find meaning and purpose in sports and that we, the Jewish community, need to capitalize on that reality. (Read about the summer 6-Points Sports Academy.)
A few times a month Future Coaches participants – most are boys between 7th and 10th grades – gather in our sanctuary to learn from four congregant dads, who between them have over fifty-six years of coaching experience. These dads – Brian Buckley, Frank Catone, David De Castro, and Paul Gross – plan each session, with Jewish content input from the rabbis.
Future Coaches Analyze then Organize
Each session includes a review of what makes an excellent sports player or a talented coach. Sometimes they analyze YouTube sports videos; other times they learn leadership skills from a professional leadership coach.
Each session also focuses around a Jewish value, which is illuminated in the YouTube video or in the skill workshops. They have explored kavod (respect), emet (truthfulness), shmiat ha-ozen (attentiveness and good listening), shmirat haguf (caring for the body), among other values. These Jewish values become touchstones as the Future Coaches explore and practice coaching techniques.
Coaching and Connecting with At-Risk Kids
Three times a year, the future coaches break into working teams to plan the upcoming sports day. Teams include scheduling, team building and event planning. The dads reserve a local sports field and arrange for a local caterer to provide a buffet of breakfast foods, sandwiches, snacks and drinks for game day.
We are partnering with New Directions for Youth (NDY), an organization which helps at-risk youth gain confidence, improve academic achievement, and develop appropriate social skills. For a few years now, Or Ami has taken groups of NDY children on Back to School shopping sprees, fishing trips, and fun outings.
No sooner do the NDY kids arrive than our Or Ami future coaches – clad in special “coach” t-shirts – get to work. They usher the NDY kids over for breakfast and then divide them into teams for the first round of games. I watched a laughter-filled water balloon fight, followed by 3-on-3 basketball, a mud-sliding game of capture the flag, and flag football. Arts and crafts projects filled the down time. Our Or Ami future coaches alternated between playing, coaching and refereeing.
Each New Directions for Youth participant went home with a sports medal, an age-appropriate reading book (also donated), a full stomach, and memories of a great day.
My Epiphany about the Jewish Future
The epiphany came while I was schmoozing and taking iPhone pictures with the dads and the teens. Of the 19 Or Ami students in attendance that day, all but five of them would have disappeared from temple life had this program not been available. None of them wanted to continue in a class situation. Most academic or religious topics would have bored them.
That’s the brilliance of Future Coaches. Accepting that for many students, and most boys, sports is the priority of their teenage years, Future Coaches meets them where they are and then stealthily engages them into learning about Jewish values and participating in Tikkun Olam. Sure, it is not Talmud or Comparative Religion. But for these 19 young men and women, it is just what anchors them to Jewish communal life.
So Go Ahead
Ask the Future Coaches teens what they accomplished on game day. They might respond that they had a great day at the park. They might say they befriended a bunch of kids over sports. But we know better.
In the midst of the sports and the food, our teens displayed leadership, served as role models for at risk kids, and lived out wholesome Jewish values. All within the context of their synagogue. For 15 of the 19, Future Coaches saved them for Jewish life.
Not bad for a sunny day in the park.
The teenage girl puts her arm around the fourth grader. They both smile. The younger child feels warmth, love and a sense of “I matter” from her protector, a cool positive Jewish role model. The teen feels a sense of purpose, of meaning and a sense of “I matter” from a child who looks up to her as a positive Jewish role model.
For which child’s benefit did Congregation Or Ami organize this 3 day retreat at Malibu’s Camp Hess Kramer? Ostensibly, for the younger child as this weekend was designated a 4th-6th grade retreat. Yet anyone who has witnessed the powerful effects of empowering teens to be counselors (actually CITs, counselors in training) recognizes quickly that upon assuming some responsibility for the safety and emotional health of younger charges the teens are themselves transformed. One might argue that the teens benefit the most from these retreats.
Why did Or Ami bring more than 20 teens to a younger kids’ retreat? To transform them into leaders, to engage them as positive Jewish Role Models. It worked so well!
A Call for Youth Engagement
When our national organization, the Union for Reform Judaism issued a clarion call for communities to reengage our youth, Or Ami listened and responded. “Find new pathways for them to build relationships with each other and with the clergy,” we were told; it will transform everyone, we were promised. This would change the meaning of synagogue to them, helping stem the erosion of post-B’nai Mitzvah families from the synagogue.
Triple T: Tracks for Temple Teens
So Or Ami’s clergy-lay team listened to the interests of the teens themselves and their parents, and we committed to the new notion that any path that leads a child from Bar/Bat Mitzvah student into Jewish connection is as equally valuable as a class taught by the rabbis. So at Or Ami some teens become Future Coaches, learning about the art of sports coaching and the Jewish values that inform that process, and then they plan and run sports clinics for at risk youth. And other teens become VolunTEENS, learning about Jewish social justice and organizing skills, and then creating social justice projects for themselves and others to fix the world. Some teens visit Jewish cultural places with Jewish Culture Chug while others engage each other socially and Jewishly in LoMPTY, a teenager-led NFTY temple youth group. Every path (or Triple T or Track for Temple Teens, as we call them) is valued as a roadmap toward Jewish commitment, connection and knowledge; each path transforms the participant in subtle and significant ways. Each delivers and reaffirms Jewish values along the way.
Madrichim: Synagogue-based Counselors
And then there are our Madrichim, teens who work with our younger students in our Kesher, Mishpacha and our Hebrew tutoring programs. They spend time with each rabbi, with a master teacher and with leadership mavens. Then they lead prayer services, run holiday programs and help children master reading Hebrew letters. They organize games during breaks, and perform in Torah-based skits during family programs. And all the while, they serve as positive Jewish role models, showing their younger charges that being Jewish, knowing Judaism and being connected to synagogue is cool and meaningful.
Teen Madrichim at the Retreat
So why take more than 20 teens to a 4th-6th grade retreat? Because the teens discover within themselves qualities of selflessness, patience, compassion and teamwork. Because each moment they spend focused on the care and feeding of younger children is a moment that creates responsible leadership for the next generation.
And because as the teens lead the educational programs – on this weekend, about the qualities of a Jewish hero (see Color Games, Hero Worship and Counter-Cultural Learning)- they begin embody the values and become the heroes themselves.
We are so blessed to have dedicated young people who want to be leaders and counselors. They made the retreat so meaningful for so many. Thank you all!