Tag: Teens

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.

We Sent Our Kid to Camp Anyway… And He Loved It (by Marcy Cameron)

Ethan at center with Camp Friends

Camp Newman Through a Mother’s Eyes: Before and After
By Marcy Cameron

Before Camp – June 6, 2013

He Didn’t Want to Go
Our 7th grade son, Ethan, did not want to go to sleep-away camp, but after years of hearing Rabbi Paul Kipnes praise the value of URJ Camp Newman, my husband Clark and I were determined to send him anyway. Ethan’s “comfort zone” is home. New adventures tend to create anxiety for him. Even though he prefers going to school, hanging with friends and attending day camp, we felt that going to Jewish overnight summer camp would be an experience he would benefit from.

So we signed him up, covertly, for the first session, knowing Rabbi Kipnes, his wife Michelle, their own children, and many other kids from Congregation Or Ami (Calabasas, CA) would be attending during the same session.

Ethan was NOT Happy about this Decision
Rabbi Paul met Ethan beforehand for a pep talk; Or Ami teacher and former Camp Rosh Eidah (unit head) Jonathan Rothstein-Fisch sent him an encouraging text message.

Ethan was still NOT happy! I started collecting necessary items, I signed up for BunkNotes, and I even sent a care package the day before he left. Finally Ethan became resigned to the fact that camp was happening. He did not participate in packing and was quite sullen on the drive to the airport.

To help ease some of Ethan’s anxiety, I decided to fly up to Oakland Airport with him to meet the camp bus. There were probably 30 kids on the flight (and a few parents). The camp’s adult chaperone was friendly and answered some questions Ethan had about the flight home. Thankfully, Ethan spent the flight chatting with congregant and friend Lisa Friedman – a seasoned Newman camper!

Amazingly Warm Welcome by Camp Staff
The camp staff greeted the group at Oakland airport and everything was very organized. As Ethan was called into a group to load the bus, it was time for me to say goodbye! Of course hugs and kisses were exchanged much earlier – in private; after all, he is a 13-year old boy! So I gave him a “thumbs up” and off he went. I left for a lunch date in the city and enjoyed big glass of wine!

A few hours later Rabbi Paul texted a photo of Ethan at camp. I’m sure the smile on Ethan’s face was coerced for the camera, but I have no doubt that sending him to Camp Newman was the right decision. 13 days of his life! I have no worries about how he his doing up there. I know that even if he is having the time of his life, he won’t want to admit it, but I will know anyway! After all, I am his #1 fan – I’m his mom!

After Camp – July 11, 2013

Ethan (on left) with Camp Friends

“The Food was Good”
I remember that the envelope from Ethan came on Day 11! Two pieces of paper from a small note pad I had sent in a care package. A few brief scribbles about the rain, a pool party, wearing white on Shabbat, and the Dan Nichols concert. Ethan said the food was good and he did the ropes course! I don’t think I have ever smiled wider!

Ethan does not speak effusively about anything – not even his first love, baseball. But when he came home from Camp Newman on Sunday, he didn’t stop talking. From the time we picked him up at the airport until he went to bed, he told us every detail about camp! He took close to 300 pictures. So we set the computer up to watch through the TV and Ethan narrated each and every photo!

Of course, Ethan is Ethan. When friends and family ask him about camp, he gets that coy smile on his face and tells them “it was good.”

Did Camp Change Him??? 
Well, he’s still Ethan. 14 years old, stubborn, and still picky about food, but he seems to have developed a quiet confidence. His older sister, Jessa, has noticed the newfound confidence at the day camp they both attend. Now, Ethan is trying new activities and is well liked by his counselors.

I’ve read so many parenting articles about letting your children be who they are and I had so many friends ask how I could send him to camp when he didn’t want to go. Well, I can now say with no hesitation…

Best Decision I Ever Made!
 Going to Camp Newman gave Ethan the opportunity to get out of his “comfort zone.” And he succeeded. He did it! That knowledge is now within him and cannot be denied.

Will he go next year??? Well, typical for Ethan, he won’t commit yet but I think there’s a good chance that he will want to go back. I’m starting a Camp Fund jar!!!

Looking Ahead – January 2, 2014

Yes, Ethan’s Returning to Camp
Ethan has made the decision on his own to return to Camp Newman. He had fun and looks forward to the experience again. What a joy. What a gift.

Thank you Camp Newman – your counselors, your Rosh Eidah, your directors – for helping my son Ethan have an away from home success. I cannot wait to see how he grows up next summer.

Thank you Rabbi Paul Kipnes and Rabbi Julia Weisz, for encouraging me to send Ethan, and for holding our hands – mine too – through the initial anxiety and challenge. Best Decision I Ever Made.

Parenting without a Manual OR 5 Pieces of Jewish Guidance (so you don’t kill ’em)

Joseph, the once-favored child of Jacob, rises up from slave and prisoner to become Pharaoh’s right hand. He assumes responsibility for a far-reaching 14-year business plan to ensure that after seven years of plenty, Egypt would be prepared to endure the seven years of famine. Once an egocentric young man who drew the enmity of his brothers, so much so that they almost killed him — literally — Joseph develops expertise necessary to successfully navigate complex managerial responsibilities. Ultimately, Egypt will thrive because of Joseph’s proficiency as a politically connected businessperson. Joseph was truly blessed.

Then more blessing comes Joseph’s way. Joseph and his Egyptian wife, Asenath, bring two sons into the world.

We imagine Joseph being overjoyed as children enter his life. We dream about the nachas (pride) he feels. And, like so many parents back then and now, he also probably felt overwhelmed. Although Joseph was very successful as a businessman, he had little helpful guidance on how to be a good parent.

His father, Jacob, was a poor role model; Torah speaks frankly about Jacob’s lackluster parenting skills. When Joseph brags to his brothers and parents that they will all bow down to him, Jacob is silent in the face of Joseph’s egotism. Does this lead to the subsequent plan to sell Joseph into slavery? Following the rape of Dinah, Jacob’s inability to respond — again he was silent — might have allowed for the brothers’ overkill against the people of Shechem.

Yes, Joseph is extremely underprepared for his new role as a parent. Yet, Proverbs expresses the long-term significance of our actions as parents: “Train up a child in the way she should go and even when she is old she will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6). Thankfully, later generations find guidance in later Jewish texts.

Talmudic Wisdom on Raising Children

In the Talmud, our Rabbis delineate five (or six) central obligations incumbent upon all parents:

A parent has the following obligations towards a child — brit, to circumcise him [others add: or enter her into the brit/covenant], pidyon ha-ben, to redeem him if he is a firstborn, to teach the child Torah, to find the child a spouse [others add: a partner], and to teach the child a craft or a trade. And there are some who say that a parent must also teach the child how to swim.  (Talmud, Kiddushin 29a)

Contemporary Jewish Wisdom on Parenting

Recently, parents gathered under the auspices of the Or Ami Center for Jewish Parenting to consider the role and responsibilities of parenthood. With children in nursery school through high school, these parents engaged the Kiddushin text to understand the wisdom of our ancient rabbis’ teachings.

Then, assuming the role of parenting coaches, they listed five essential responsibilities for parents today:

  1. Guiding, not befriending: Parents are guides, not friends or buddies. Eventually, our children will do what they choose, so parents are responsible to help guide our kids toward their own good decision-making. We do this by being loving, intentional, values-based and expansive as we guide our children.
  2. Remembering kids are kids: Children — teens especially — are hormonally driven, peer-pressured, biologically unfinished and emotionally evolving. Our children will face almost every challenge we can imagine and will be constantly seduced to try to follow their urges. We help set limits, because when parents treat their children as fully formed adults who can make their own decisions, we set them up for failure.
  3. Providing strength: Parents set expectations clearly and follow through on consequences because children need and most often (secretly) desire clarity and limits. Consequences should be clear, firm and situationally appropriate. Only then do parents provide the strength and excuse to keep kids from making decisions that are not in their best interests and/or are not what their higher selves really want to do.
  4. Truth-telling: Parents should always tell the truth to their children, because it ensures that they will know they can always trust us. Nonetheless, complete openness is not necessary as it is usually not age- and situationally appropriate. Sharing partial truth without lying, or not answering certain questions because they are private, is preferred to lying. (Think: Mom, did you ever smoke weed?)
  5. Upholding Jewish values: Judaism teaches age-appropriate moderation in most situations. Specific values guide parenting: b’tzelem Elohim (being created in the image of God) expresses the intrinsic value and worthiness of every person, emet (truth-telling), shmirat ha’guf (care of our body, mind and spirit), chesed (kindness), tzedek (do what is just or right), chaim (affirming life) and shalom (seeking wholeness).

So, like Joseph, manager extraordinaire, many of us become new dads and moms. Amid the joy and wonder, may we remember our parental responsibilities so that our children can grow into ethical, resilient, compassionate adults. Then we will truly be blessed.

Teens Take Over High Holy Day Services

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?

A Letter to My College Bound Son

To My Son,

So now you are going off to college, spreading your wings, moving forward into your future. I am excited and saddened for the experiences yet to come.

There is so much I want to tell you and to remind you about, including things I have said before. About what it means to be a man. Some of this is relevant today; some you should can file away for the future.

Watching You Grow Up
I have been watching you closely, realizing how quickly you are growing up. I cannot believe how fast the time has flown by since you last were my little boys, kids who I could toss around the pool or wrestle with without worrying that someone (me) might get hurt. Then you began to drive. Then you began to shave. Sooner than I will be ready, you will be on your own – living, learning, working, and loving.

I remember the day that Mom and I named each of you. You were so little, so cute, so vulnerable. We chose names which connected you to our family and our Jewish tradition. We picked names that reflected compassion, confidence, and strength. We aimed to teach each of you to be a mensch, a kindhearted, caring man. Yet ultimately we knew that you alone would determine the name by which you are known in the world.

Being a man is about character. Men, real men, know that manhood is not about size; it’s about quality. The quality of your character ultimately means more than the size of your portfolio. We Americans admire character – like the people who blow the whistle, and the FBI agent who pointed out deficiencies in the agency before 9/11. We admire people who risk life and liberty for a cause, like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Oskar Schindler, and the 9/11 firefighters. But character is also born in a thousand bit parts that never get written up. What you choose to do when the clerk gives you the incorrect change. Whether you give up your seat on the bus for an older person. How calmly you react to someone who is being rude. The best index to a person’s character is (a) how you treat people who can’t do you any good, and (b) how you treat people who can’t fight back.

Be a Gentleman
Judaism teaches that we all were born with a yetzer hatov, an inclination to do good. Insulate your soul for good by following that conscience. Because being a male may be a matter of birth, and being a man is a matter of age, but being a gentleman – a mensch, a good person – is a matter of choice. Strive always to be a gentleman.

Anthropologists suggest that because men cannot birth children, men strive instead to create things and conquer things – in business, in court, or with smart bombs and battleships. That drive in both men and woman is called the yetzer hara, the inclination toward chaos and egotism. The yetzer hara can easily overwhelm our yetzer hatov, the inclination to do good. Especially when we add testosterone into the mix.

How many times do we read about sport players who have temper tantrums on the court or who use steroids? Who can count the number of celebrities who break marriage vows with a string of affairs? In a culture that counsels us to be the best, the most powerful, wealthy, and hyper-sexed, we must empower our yetzer hatov, the inclination toward good, to set us straight. My sons, be honest, be thoughtful, and be monogamous. Treat women and other men as equals and never discriminate against people of a different background, religion, race, or orientation than your own.

About Being a Father
My son, one day I hope you will bless Mom and me with many grandchildren. Kids are wonderful and frustrating, inspiring and exhausting. From the moment they are conceived, children become your blessing. Both parents, whether married or not, have the lifelong responsibility of helping to raise them. So be an involved dad or granddad. There will be no deadbeat dads in our family. And if you don’t have children, be involved in the mentoring of others. We all have responsibility for the next generation.

Your children will carry on your influence long after you are gone. Fathers can model for their kids how to be mensches. So be a positive Jewish role model for your children. Let them see you at your best – with your friends, with your family, in the Jewish community and within your career. Help them with homework, play with them in the park, and listen non-judgmentally to their problems. As a parent, you will – necessarily – develop new skills. I got to learn how to hit 250 baseballs in a row and how to throw a Frisbee forehand, because these activities make you happy, and give us time together. Do the same for your own kids.

Be Honest in Your Work
Being a man is also about working. Many men get a lot of their self-esteem from their work. So seek out a career that you find meaningful. Jewish tradition takes seriously our behavior in our work. According to one tradition, when we die and arrive at the gates of heaven, the very first question we will be asked is Nasata v’natata b’emunah? Did you deal honestly in your business? This question is not just about buying and selling. It’s about integrity. Did you act with honesty in your business relationships? Did you treat your co-workers and subordinates with respect? The question presupposes that we all harbor within the ability to cheat, lie and steal and that our business ethics will be tested every day. So resist the temptation to take advantage of people. Be someone in whom others can put their trust. Own up to your mistakes.

Remember that time when we drove around for an hour looking for a restaurant? While men tend not to want to ask for directions, nevertheless seek help when you are confused, lost or in pain. And delve deeply beneath your anger to find the sadness hidden beneath. That will help you heal more quickly.

Remember that money is just a tool, not an end in itself. Money opens up opportunities but working around the clock will not quell the longings of your heart. Don’t fall into a lifestyle that makes you a slave to your work. Do spend time with your loved ones – including your siblings and especially your parents. Devote ample time to raise up your community and set aside plenty of money to give as tzedakah (charitable donations).

Its Guy-Love: Friendships to Sustain You
You known that my friendships have nourished me throughout my life. A fifteenth century Talmudic scholar, Menorat ha-Maor, counseled: “…Invite [your friend] to your joyous occasions; … never give away his secrets; help him when he is in trouble; … overlook his shortcomings and forgive him promptly; criticize him when he has done wrong; do not deceive him; … and attend to his [family] if he dies.” On the TV show Scrubs, JD and Turk had a name for such cherished friendships. They call it guy love. What’s guy love?

Do you remember that time five years ago when the water pipe burst, flooding our entire house? My friend Ron took the initiative to drive over to help us deal with the flood. My college roommate Jerome sent a check to ease the repair expenses. I never cashed that check, but both of their acts of compassion remind me that “guy love” involves stepping up and helping out.

Being Involved in Your Jewish Community
Being a man involves a relationship with your Jewish community. Next time you are in services, notice all the men and women who sit down, close their lips, and patiently wait for the service to end. Perhaps they don’t know the prayers, or don’t see their value, or don’t understand how to reconcile religion with science. If this is you, don’t just sit back. Speak up. Ask your rabbi to help you discover its meaning. Spirituality and religiosity are a lifelong journey that can nourish your soul when your heart is burdened, broken, or uplifted. And being a Jew means taking the risk that significant meaning may be hidden within our ancient rituals and modern teaching.

Sex and Love
Now, about sex. Although television and movies suggest otherwise, in reality, sex is about so much more than the mechanics of where you put what. (We already had that talk.) Sex can be great, but it should be within a mature, loving relationship. Sex is also about intimacy and love, commitment and responsibility. Trust me, making love is so much better. (I hope I didn’t just scar you for life…) Regarding sex, try being counter-cultural and focus first on finding love.

I may not know everything about love, but I do know this: that the love I share with your mother is the most fulfilling, complex, nuanced and wonderful thing I have ever experienced in my life. Love is not always easy, but it has always been worth it. I hope you are so blessed. Because mature love will bring you strength, contentment, and wholeness. Yes, there will be heartbreak – we all experience it along the way. Know that time will help heal most wounds; and that therapy, exercise and prayer can assist the process.

What’s Mature Love? 
In our youth, we often fall for people who live up to a certain definition of outward beauty. But over time, as we try to get over the inevitable hurdles of life, we see that over the long term the partnerships that remain strong are characterized by trust, a mutuality of values, and the recognition that marriage takes much effort and time. So enter into love relationships with your eyes wide open. First get to know and love yourself. Then consider seriously the person’s character and values, concern for others, family, friends, education, and short and long-term goals. Don’t let your craving for acceptance lead you to simply choose the first option available.

Know that whomever you bring home – female or male, Jew or not – we will open our hearts to your choice of partner. In today’s world, the odds are just barely in your favor that any marriage you have will work out. (Of course, if it doesn’t, know that some of the most blessed relationships are second marriages.) I sincerely hope your marriage works out, and if so, that will be in part because you put as much effort into your marriage as you do to your work or your sports. How? Date your beloved well after you are married. Get dressed up; go out. Romance each other. That will be a lifetime gift you give to your partner and yourself, and, because it will help your relationship remain healthy, it will be a gift to your children also.

My son, I am your #1 fan. I am here to guide you, to support you, to nurture you, and to celebrate you. I am grateful for you each and everyday! I love and cherish you dearly.



For Many Jewish Youth, Gay Marriage is a New Normal

I woke early one morning in June to hear the decisions of the United States Supreme Court on a pair of cases about marriage equality. Joy mixed with disappointment. I celebrated the return of marriage equality to the State of California and the effective end of the ill-named Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) through the extension of benefits to gay and lesbian married couples. At the same time, the Supremes dodged an opportunity to make Marriage Equality the law of the land. Still, there is hope as advocates work within the states to move equality forward.

Some people expressed frustration at the slow pace of full equality. I am not one of those people. I see that great strides have been made and more will come.


  1. Because at its root, marriage equality is grows out of our Jewish value of B’tzelem Elohim (in God’s image), and the inalterable Jewish value that all of us – including gay men and lesbian women – are created in that image, thus deserving to be valued and inherently demanding equality. AND
  2. Because of young people like Dani and her friends who are increasingly becoming the dominant voice in our land. 

The Youth Shall See Visions

Dani is an 11-year-old young person from our Congregation Or Ami (Calabasas, CA) who recently spent a month at the URJ Camp Newman summer camp.

Dani inherently gets this rightness and justice of marriage equality. The challenges raised by opponents seem irrelevant to her. Homosexuality and the resulting call for marriage equality are a new normal for her and her friends.

Dani’s mother Debby explained it this way:

Dear Family & Friends, 

I wanted to share with you the story of how Dani and her friends celebrated the Supreme Court’s decision about Prop. 8.

One of the role-playing games that girls play these days is a variation on the time-honored game we used to call “House.” Modern girls now call the game “Family.” Everyone is assigned a role: one is the mother, one is the father, and the others are various sisters, brothers, and inevitably babies. Occasionally there is a dog or cat or horse involved. The girls have never hesitated to take on male roles, and they will spend hours playing the game (which usually involves a lot of scolding of the children and heavy sighing by the frazzled and overwhelmed mother). 

Dani was away for 4 weeks at her beloved URJ Camp Newman when the announcement that the Supreme Court dismissed the Prop 8 appeal reached Dani and her beloved cabinmates. They responded by deciding that they should all get married. So the ten girls, ages 10 to 12, formed five “married” couples for the rest of their time at camp (though there was flexibility in who was married to whom from day to day).

That they so readily and seamlessly (and joyfully) adapted the game of Family to include same-sex couples truly brought home for me how far we have come as a society in overcoming ignorance, intolerance, and fear when it comes to accepting, embracing, and role-playing different kinds of loving couples.

Dani and her cabinmates’ game does not mean that equality has been achieved yet, but how this one group of girls responded provides us a glimpse into how today’s children will act when they are tomorrow’s adults. 

Statistically, it is quite possible that one of those 10 girls may already know or later discover that she herself is a lesbian. Imagine her having this silly yet loving pre-teen memory to hold dear as she chooses how to make her own way into a world that may not always embrace her sexual orientation as warmly and naturally as her cabinmates did in the Summer of 2013.

To those of us who seek full equality for gay and lesbian individuals and couples, Dani’s game playing is so moving.

Two friends of Dani’s mom reacted even more passionately:

Said one,

I am fighting back tears as I type this. My heart is too full to say much, but please know I find this a beautiful sentiment to a subject that is so hard for a lot to stomach. The fight is constant and continues, of course, but knowing this is the future is very empowering.

Said the other,

I remember playing “house” (and yes, that’s definitely what we called it then) with the cute as a button little blonde across the street, and I ALWAYS had to be the boy. It never dawned on us that we could both be the girl and live happily ever after…

Debby allowed me to publish this story after she asked Dani what she thought about sharing this on your blog. Dani does not have a problem with it.

To quote Debby, 

I think the thing that feels so remarkable about Dani’s story and about the kids my daughter is friends with is that they do not view being gay as a big deal or particularly interesting or special – or negative. Obviously, there are still plenty of kids in the country who do NOT feel this way, but the momentum feels to me to be moving in the direction of: why should I care (or have any say in approving) who someone else loves?

Right, why should I care about or have any say in approving who one marries?! Relationships between two mature, consensual, supportive adults, who see in each other B’tzelem Elohim  deserve equality.

May that equality, blessed by our communities, soon become the law of our whole country.

URJ Kutz Camp Set Me On My Jewish Path

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?

Facing the Worst Kept Synagogue Secret

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?

Using the ATM to Bring Teens into Temple

The entire American Jewish world, it seems, is focused on how to engage or reengage the younger generations of Jews. Foundations are funding, denominations are discussing, and Federations and synagogues are searching for the latest and greatest strategies to engaging these lost generations. Our own Union for Reform Judaism kicked off its Campaign for Youth Engagement, on the theory that unless we engage young people in their early years, we surely will lose them in their later high school years and beyond.

While the solution to this contemporary challenge necessarily needs to be multi-pronged and multi-focal, at Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, CA we have stumbled upon some success in the most unlikely of places: at the A.T.M.

Paying Jewish Kids to Play?
For most of us, A.T.M. refers to the computerized kiosk which dispenses cash. Young people are drawn to them second only to their parent’s credit card. At Congregation Or Ami, our teens do seek out A.T.M., not for money, but instead to make deposits (of their talent) to the temple.

At Or Ami, A.T.M. stands for “Art, Theater, Music,” a teen engagement program that is part of our constellation of teen activities known at the temple as Triple T: Tracks for Temple Teens. Inspired by the URJ’s Campaign for Youth Engagement and by similar programs at URJ Camp Newman’s Hagigah Festival, A.T.M. begins with a simple premise: that many young people find expression and relief from stress through arts and music, and we, the Jewish community, need to capitalize on that reality. (Read about our Future Coaches track: Saving the Jewish People… On the Sports Field.)

Creating Their Own Production Company
A few times a month, a diverse group of 7th-11th graders meet with a talented Jewish musician, and sometimes also with a young actress. Following a semester’s study of trends in Jewish arts, theater and music, our teens explored a variety of Jewish topics, settling on the issue of Jewish identity as their focus. Through class discussions and values clarification exercizes, they delved into the multitude of experiences which influence Jewish identity development. Then the teens labored to create their own musical theater production.

As a group the teens wrote and edited a script, and utilized multimedia – music, singing, rap, video and more – to articulate the story of a teen developing her Jewish identity. Background sets were painted, props collected, stage hands selected, and costumes created. Their regularly scheduled A.T.M. sessions were supplemented with extra rehearsals during their free time.

A Festival of Jewish Arts
Rabbi Julia Weisz beautifully wove the A.T.M. musical theater production into a teen-led Shabbat service, forming Or Ami’s first Festival of Jewish Arts. Teens from all the Triple T tracks, joined parents and temple leadership, for this multimedia service.

The service began with a video presentation in which one student (who happens to be on the autism spectrum) interviewed other students about their experience in A.T.M. Throughout the service, teens from other Triple T tracks led prayers after introducing them with kavannot (inspirational creative writings) on the theme “What prayer means to me.” We were particularly inspired as one teen, whose father is fighting cancer, shared his interpretation of the Mi Shebeirach prayer for healing and then led us in the healing prayer. The musical theater production, a modern drash if you will, was engaging and inspirational.

The Kvelling Began As the Curtain Came Down
Our teens, their parents, and our entire temple community kvelled continuously that night and in the nights that followed, as each tried to capture the essence of the Jewish experience that embraced their teenage children. The comments from three parents are indicative of what we are hearing:

Parent Lesli Kraut: I was very inspired by the Festival of Jewish Arts Shabbat Service. Remembering back to when I was a teenager, my parents forced me to be involved in a local youth group chapter. I didn’t want to go and definitely did not feel like I belonged. Our teens, including my own son Andrew, want to be at Temple. They are engaged, excited and most of all comfortable with their Judaism. It is so wonderful watching them interact with each other and knowing that they share a special bond and a sense that they definitely belong. Thank you, Congregation Or Ami!

Parent Mike Moxness: When my son Aaron presented his interpretation of the Mi Sheberach and led the prayer, I couldn’t stop the tears from falling. I have been living with advanced cancer for the past year and I have always taken great solace in this part of the service. It exemplifies the caring community of Or Ami and I truly believe that all the prayers offered up on my behalf have helped me survive. Having Aaron sing those words brought up strong feelings of gratefulness for all the support we have received. I am especially grateful for the home our kids have found in Or Ami’s youth programs. It provides a place of comfort in this turbulent world. All teenagers face many challenges, and letting them express their thoughts without judgement is incredibly important. It is difficult for most kids to talk about painful experiences, however, giving my son the podium for a few minutes in front of a supportive community helped the healing continue.

Parent Addy Chulef-Mindel: I want to let you know that after the Festival of Jewish Arts Shabbat Service, my daughter Jessie said, “I feel that Or Ami is my second family…” We are thrilled that we joined Or Ami, and Jessie looks forward to continuing to make new friends and doing Tikkun Olam (acts which fix the world). Having the feeling of community, and the opportunity to help and give back is where Jessie finds meaning–and that’s what Congregation Or Ami is all about.

So Go Ahead
Ask the A.T.M. teens what they accomplished at the Festival of Jewish Arts. They might say that they put on a musical play. They might respond that they made great friends and had a lot of fun. But we know better.

In the midst of the scripts and the sets and the rehearsals, our teens utilized their artistic and musical talents to grapple with what it means to be Jewish. All within the context of a Jewish night for teens. Although we did not pay them to participate, they each came away with something even more valuable:  A deeper understanding of their Jewish identity.

NFTY Convention: Where Complete Acceptance Trumps “Mean Girls”

The most amazing things happen when we bring together 1000 teens for five days for the convention of the North American Federation of Temple Youth, one of the largest gatherings of Jewish teens anywhere. It is the way that these teens open up about the pressures, worries, fear and self-doubt that bubble just beneath the surface of their smiling faces.

So the NFTY convention organizers, and their Union for Reform Judaism partners, interspersed – between the fun, food, inspiring prayer, motivating speakers, meaningful social justice activism, and Jewish learning – a series of serious workshops which allowed the teens to bear their souls within the supportive security of a loving groups of teens, and the guidance of nurturing, trained adult youth workers.

Talking Truth about Leaving Home
“Take two post-it notes, and write on them your top two concerns, anxieties or agitations about leaving home and family as you go off to college. Stick them on the wall. Now without talking, read through all the answers and as a group collect together similar responses until we have a small number of categories.”

These instructions guided 34 Jewish teenagers, who chose to grapple with the myriad of issues surrounding “Leaving Home and Family … on the path to college.” With openness and honesty, they wrote about, and later talked about, their concerns:

  • What do I do to maintain my good relationship with my younger sibling?
  • Finding balance in communication with parents – How often is too often? How much should we talk/text/skype?
  • Money, money, no free money
  • How do I ensure I’m making the most of my parents’ investment in me?
  • Moving toward increased independence
  • Who will take care of me when I get sick?

Then in triads, each shared his/her concerns as the others listened nonjudgmentally and brainstormed supportively.

Convening the Conversation, Then Getting out of the Way
Between us, my wife Michelle November and I have plenty of experience working with youth. The former director of the North American College Department for the then Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 16-year synagogue Program Director, and active Camp Swig/Newman alumna, Michelle now works intensively with teens and their parents as the Associate Director of Admission for Los Angeles’ New Community Jewish High School (in West Hills, CA). A former Jewish summer camp director, NFTY regional advisor (CRaFTY), and chair of the Camp Newman rabbinical camp committee, I serve as rabbi of Congregation Or Ami (in Calabasas, CA), whose leadership heard and responded to the call of the URJ’s visionary Campaign for Youth Engagement. Together we have two college kids and a third in high school.

Michelle and I have made it our life’s work to support and guide Jewish young adults through the highs and lows of their exciting existence. Still, for the conversation, like so many other talks with teens, our task at convemtiom was to gently guide, slide in the Jewish and the compassionate, but mostly to get out of the way.

Crowdsourcing Confidence and Kindness
Sitting on the floor, back in one circle, the students took turns revealing what they feared. Then crowdsourcing took over as the group offered ideas from their collective experiences:

  • Connect regularly; a short text on the way to class assures your parents that you are alright (and can keep overly involved parents connent but at bay).
  • Remember that when you go off, things at home change. When you come back, don’t expect everything to just go back to how it was.
  • Skype with younger siblings; text them asking questions about what they are doing.
  • As the intensity picks up in the months before you leave, be quick to be apologetic after the inevitable outbursts that occur at home.
  • Rabbis, youth advisors, Hillel directors and teachers are still and always there for an unbiased supportive, non-judgmental conversation.
  • Go out with siblings within the first 24 hours back at home; individual time to reconnect is crucial.
  • Reach out to the relatives and family friends in your new city; connect with classmates of your parents friends; you never know who might become a good friend or major support.

The workshop concluded with a group hug /slash/ prayer circle in which we asked the Holy One for courage, patience, and perspective as we walked these uncharted path to our future. We sought strength and sechel (smarts) to remember that we are precious now, and we will be equally precious later as we traverse the paths. And we offered thanks for the loving support of a Jewish community that cares.

Why NFTY and Jewish Camping Really Matter
Michelle and I spend significant time, energy and money placing our own and our synagogue’s young people into NFTY events and Jewish summer camps. We evangelize about the incomparable benefits of sending or pushing teens in this direction. Why?  Because NFTY and Jewish summer camps are the antithesis and antidote to the “Mean Girls” syndrome.

Where else, outside of home, do teens find unconditional love and complete acceptance? Where else do Jewish teens receive positive messages about who they are and nurturing guidance of Jewishly motivated adults? Most importantly, where else in their pressure cooker, anxiety-filled existence do they have a place where they can share their innermost thoughts and worries, and we adults know that they will find support, openness and loving direction to put them on a path toward healing and inner peace?

This is why NFTY and Jewish summer camps matter. This is why parents – and grandparents, rabbis, cantors, educators and temple leadership – should be inviting, cajoling, begging, bribing, pushing and financing their teens to attend NFTY events and Jewish summer camps.

What Happens in Vegas…
They say that what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. We say that what happens in NFTY stays within our teens long after they graduate into college and beyond. In a world where the pressures and anxieties of young adulthood easily overwhelm, NFTY and Jewish camping help adults hedge our bets for our kids’ future.

So get your kids into NFTY and Jewish camping. Support your synagogue efforts to expand and fund their youth engagement activities. The future we secure will be our own.

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!