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When Youth Engagement Works: Teens Lead Younger Students

Teens at HHDYouth engagement is all the rage in synagogues across America. The Union for Reform Judaism’s Campaign for Youth Engagement enters its fourth year; the Jim Joseph Foundation recently approved another round of funding to support youth engagement and education.

During these years, we learned that the passive education of Jewish teens, where teachers deliver the learning, is slowly collapsing. Synagogues are discovering that teens, like their millennial older siblings, want to be involved in brainstorming, shaping and delivering their own Jewish experiences. After a generation decline wherein more than 85% of their teens leave synagogues within the five years after B’nai Mitzvah, synagogues that “get it” are retooling. Embracing the best lessons from community organizing, targeted marketing, structured mentoring, and deep Jewish thinking, synagogues are partnering with their teens to transform the synagogue at its most fundamental levels.

Taking Risks Leads to Success

The clergy and lay leadership team at Congregation Or Ami (Calabasas, California), under the guidance of a visionary young Rabbi Julia Weisz, has taken far-reaching steps along this path. Following months of 1-to-1 conversations with teens and parlor meetings with parents, we threw out our previous teen program, developing together a multi-pronged Tracks for Temple Teens (“Triple T”), offering multiple tracks to the same goal: teen engagement and Jewish learning. The successes are many.

An unexpected but highly significant outcome was the transformation of the way we prepare and lead High Holy Day youth services. After years of adult-led youth services that were adequate, but less engaging than we might have preferred, Rabbi Weisz reached out to our teens. Their involvement 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.

Teens Create High Holy Day Youth Services

Olivia Sharon at ServicesSenior madricha, teen Olivia Sharon, our youth group LoMPTY’s Religious and Cultural Vice President, explains:

For three years I have enjoyed planning and leading Congregation Or Ami’s High Holy Day services for students in kindergarten through 8th grade. I was honored when my rabbi approached me with the invitation; it was my chance to be a leader.

Our teen High Holy Day leadership group began planning over the summer. We reflected on our mindsets when we were the ages that we would be engaging. Considering  just a few short years passed since we were in these  services ourselves, this was not too difficult. We bounced ideas off each other, developed service orders, and crafted lesson plans using models we were taught in NFTY and as madrichim. We aimed to create Jewish worship experiences filled with both meaning and fun. We presented our ideas to Rabbi Julia Weisz, who guided us to deepen some parts, shorten others, and focus on our intended enduring understandings.

Simultaneously, our song leaders were mentored by Cantor Doug Cotler, who taught them the liturgy and nusach (tunes). Together, the HHD leadership teams rehearsed multiple times.

Before leading the first service, I was nervous. The responsibility of leading a High Holy Day service weighed heavily. So with my co-leaders, I kept focused on our higher purpose: ensuring that the students understood the significance of each holy day, while also enjoying themselves. They spoke, sang, reflected and prayed. I felt proud when our students eagerly began sharing their opinions and actively participating.

I became more and more confident with each service, becoming surer of myself when thinking on my feet, leading the room, and bonding with the students. It was a truly unique spiritual experience to provide others with an opportunity to learn to love Judaism as much as I do. Seeing the students with smiles on their faces during services only deepened my connection to our Jewish religion. I now stand among our students, knowing I have found my place leading and teaching others.

Because I will be going to college next year, my rabbis tasked me with the responsibility to mentor the next group of teen leaders. We brainstormed and planned together; critiqued and practiced. Watching them become more confident as the services went on, I felt they will do a fabulous job in the future. I take pride knowing that one day the students we led services for will be the teen leaders who follow in our footsteps to lead for others. I am excited  that  I have made my mark and inspired Jewish youth to be practicing Jews, active in our temple.

Four Take-Aways for Youth Engagement

Youth engagement is hands-on and time consuming. It requires patient mentors to listen carefully to the teens and help guide them toward success. Our High Holy Day experience, with teenagers leading youth services supported by their rabbis and cantor and by adult master teachers, illuminated four main take-aways:

  1. Real Responsibility: Give teens real responsibility for their Jewish life and they consistently rise up to meet the challenge.
  2. Clergy as Guides: As rabbis, youth advisors and master teachers guide teens to become transmitters of Jewish knowledge for their peers and younger children, the teens take ownership of their Jewish learning, and the Jewish ideas and values more deeply embed themselves within the teens.
  3. Intergenerational Teaching: When older teens teach younger teens, they consider Jewish wisdom passed l’dor vador (from generation to generation) more relevant and important since they are shouldering the responsibility of mastering the concepts and material.
  4. Intergenerational Learning: When younger students view older teens as knowledgeable role models, they more closely pay attention to lessons, engage more deeply, and imagine when they themselves will become the teachers of Judaism.

The challenge of youth engagement requires constant, flexible focus so that adult leaders can meet teens where they are and guide them into Jewish learning and living. At Congregation Or Ami, we have discovered and keep investing in the time consuming, but significantly rewarding process of preparing teens for real life responsibility. This, more than almost anything else, offers them a clear, successful path toward engaging Jewishly.


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