A Formula for Engaging Jewish Teenagers

Working with teenagers is simply heartwarming. We experienced this yet again at our recent Havdala Under the Stars, Congregation Or Ami’s year-end gathering of our Triple T (Tracks for Temple Teens) youth program.

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:

Relationship building.
Leadership development.
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.

NFTY Convention: Where Prayer is Spine-Tingling, Bone-Shakingly Inspiring

Teens can be so surprisingly inspiring.

At home, we sometimes used to struggle to feed balanced meals to our 3 teenagers. Imagine trying to feed 1000 as these Jewish teens sat together to for Shabbat dinner. And that was only the beginning.

We are gathered at a hotel in Los Angeles for the NFTY Convention, perhaps the largest Jewish teen gathering around. NFTY, of which our kids are third generation members, has brought together teens from all over the US and Canada (and also, I heard, teens from Israel and a half dozen other countries) for five days of fun, socializing, Jewish learning, energetic music, teen issues, social justice activism, eating, talking, laughing, singing, dancing, praying …

Oh, the praying…

This is not your Grandfather’s Davening (worship)
Growing up in many a synagogue, most teens experience prayer as a formalized experience. Lots of responsive readings mixed in with serious music. Over time, our Ashkenazi ancestors, and their American Reformer descendants, articulated a formalized experience, with precise words and structure, and instructions of when to stand and sit, and just how to bow. Services at the NFTY convention were anything but that. I imagine some of our Jewish ancestors might be turning over in their graves if they watched these 1000 NFTYites pray.


Because our teens sang energetically, chanted meaningfully and swayed with joy and abandon. It was meaningful. It was exciting. And just so inspiring. It was more early chassidism then early reformer.

The early European chassidim transformed the Jewish prayer experience from the staid to the emotional. They taught their adherents to open themselves up by singing and dancing, to lift themselves beyond the “here and now” to the hopeful and the passionate.

Prayer can be spine-tingling, bone-shakingly uplifting
Yes, spread out all over the ballroom floor, our teens sat and sang a beautifully melodic prayer. But as the energy built up, the inspiration ramped up, and before we knew it, kids popped up onto their feet. Singing and swaying, dancing and clapping, they became the modern definition of hitlahavut, joyous enflamed passion.

Perhaps that best describes this indescribable experience. More than prose, this teen tefilah is poetry in its wholesomeness and all encompassing nature. It is chassidic hitlahavut, combined with Martin Buber’s I-Thou relationalism, mixed in with Debbie Friedman-inspired musicality.

I turned to Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Union for Reform Judaism, the parent body of our congregations, and the older sister to NFTY. Praising the scene we were witnessing, I shared my frustration at my inability to find the words to capture the wonderful spiritual transformation we were witnessing. He nodded knowingly, as he smiled appreciatively, clearly touched by the expansive displays of prayerfulness surrounding us. We clapped on.

God was in the House!
Most synagogues would celebrate if a dozen teenagers showed up at Shabbat services on a regular Friday night. How would it feel when 1000 attended? Awesome. Just awesome.

Rabbi Jacobs began his story drash asking, “Is NFTY in the house?” The thunderous response assured us all that they were.

Had the question been a bit different – Is God in the house? – I feel confident, the answer would have been the same.

Prayer that Wows
Thanks NFTY. Thanks URJ. Thanks Rabbi Dan Medwin of the CCAR for the Visual Tefilah. And the unnamed shlichay tzibur (prayer leaders). For a spiritual, musical, inspirational tefilah.

Yes, God was in the House!

Nurturing the Next Generation of Jewish Songleaders

Recently, Congregation Or Ami sponsored two teens – 10th graders Sophie Barnes and Josh Gellerman – to attend the NFTY NASHIR Songleading Weekend in Seattle, Washington. As Cantor Doug Cotler has made it a priority to nurture new Jewish songleaders, musicians, composers and singers, we were excited to send these musical teens for training. Both Josh and Sophie recently reflected on their experiences:

Sophie Barnes and Josh Gellerman Lead Jewish Songs

Sophie writes: In early January, I attended a NFTY NASHIR Song leading weekend with about 30 teenagers from all over the country and Canada. We learned all about being a song leader in a Jewish community and to lead services for the children in religious school. The convention was held at Temple Beth Am and was lead by many talented, professional song leaders. I have been singing my entire life and performing has always been a passion of mine, but I had never tried song leading before. I went into the weekend barely knowing anything about song leading and by the end I felt like a professional.

Josh writes: I flew to Seattle for the Nashir Songleaders Retreat, and after being picked up at the airport, I was driven to Temple Beth Am. Once I arrived, I went to the youth lounge and basically just hung out and jammed with about thirty other kids who were there for the program. The trip turned out to be a lot more Jewish than I had originally thought that it would be. Every day, we all gathered for services. One thing that I noticed and really liked about Beth Am is that – much like Congregation Or Ami – every service is more like a concert. While of course we still prayed with spoken words, the congregants seemed to really connect with the spirituality through music.

Josh: Both of the nights that we were in Seattle, we stayed with very nice families who attended Beth Am. It was very generous of them to let us into their homes, as they were very accommodating and pleasant.

Sophie: Over the weekend we learned multiple Jewish songs and many techniques on how to be a song leader. We also participated in a bunch of workshops that taught everything you could possibly need to know about song leading.

Josh: The next morning we had interactive services for two hours where we all sang and prayed with the cantor. The whole time that I was there, I was constantly learning new things.

Sophie: We helped lead Shabbat services, taught and lead a song to our peers, and then worked up to finally getting to lead the kids in the Temple Beth Am religious school.

Josh: After services, we split up into our home group to do a “teach,” where we demonstrated how we led songs. I played Cantor Doug Cotler’s, “Listen.” We then went to workshops where we learned better ways to song-lead. A notable addition to the staff was made when Alan Goodis joined the leadership crew. I suggest you check out some of his music.

Sophie: The fact that we were able to learn so much in one weekend was truly amazing. I absolutely loved leading the kids and it was something I will never forget. I came home from the weekend with a whole new outlook on song leading, and I also returned from the weekend with tons of new friends. I reconnected with old friends and made many new ones. When we weren’t practicing our song leading, we were in a circle jamming on our guitars and singing. It was so eye opening to see that there were so many Jewish teens that have the same exact interests as me. I got so much out of the weekend and it helped me realize how much I love being a part of the Jewish community. It was an overall amazing experience and I am so glad I was able to be a part of it.

Josh: All in all I am really glad that I went. I learned a lot of new things about songleading and service leading that I will bring back home with me, not only a song-leader but also as a musician. A bonus from the trip was finding an immediate connection to a greater Jewish youth community. I made new friends from not only our own San Fernando Valley, but from Canada as well.

Josh and Sophie: Thanks again, Congregation Or Ami, for recommending us and sponsoring us for this weekend. It was great! We look forward to doing songleading for the congregation and religious school.

Bruce Springsteen, Dan Nichols and Electrifying Music

Music is like that. Electrifying, exhilarating, intoxicating. Music can transport us to higher planes of existence. I notice it whenever we go to a concert. Or go dancing. When just sitting in the sanctuary listening to Cantor Cotler when he is in the groove.

Connecting Teens Thru Music
If you want your kids to connect Jewishly, bring them to a Jewish Rock Concert. Watch them interact with their peers, even those they don’t know, as the music transforms them and transports them.

Watch Dan Nichols singing Redemption.]

A Mosh Pit in the Sanctuary
So we invite you to connect or reconnect your kid to Judaism and Or Ami in a uniquely energetic way. Bring them (yes, you should attend but like me will sit toward the back and sides, while the kids are in a mosh pit in the center of the sanctuary). The concert is appropriate for all ages, but every 6th-12th grader should be at or Ami for that 1+ hour experience. Adults should come too.

Tickets are only $10.00 ahead of time (reserve yours online here) or $15.00 at the door. Seats will sell out, so reserve yours now. Reserve your tickets here.

Music speaks louder than words. Make sure your kids and their friends are at Or Ami for this Jewish Rock Concert.