Tag: Triple T

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.

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.

Saving the Jewish People… on a Sports Field

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.

What Teens Say: Reflections on the Triple T teen Retreat

53 teenagers – 7th through 11th grades – gathering together for our Triple T (“Tracks for Temple Teens”) teen Retreat. Over dinner, I asked them a few questions, and gave them my laptop to record their answers.

First Question: What have been the best parts of the retreat so far?

  • Arielle Tylim and Alyssa Kaplan 10th Grade and Ben Buckley 7th Grade: The best part of the Triple T retreat was spending time with our cabins and making new friends. 
  • Rachel Harris 8th Grade: I have loved getting to know everyone better. Before the retreat I knew everyone’s faces but I never really talked to them. I have enjoyed meeting new friends. 
  • Carly Klinenberg 10th Grade: The best part of the retreat was being with all my old friends and making new ones. 
  • Abigail Barnes 8th Grade: I have enjoyed meeting new people and services. 
  • Zoey Pittler 8th Grade: I loved reconnecting with friends that I haven’t seen in a while. I also loved all of the people in my cabin. 
  • Ben Davidorf 7th Grade: One of my favorite parts of the retreat was singing in the services. I loved all the new Jewish songs that I learned like “hay-yah-ho.” 
  • Jacob Buckley 10th Grade and Steven Suffin 7th Grade: We loved every part of camp! We would happily come back!  
  • Aaron Moxness 10th Grade: I thought the retreat was amazing, and can’t wait for next year!! I especially liked playing guitar in the song sessions. 
  • Steven Simen 10th Grade: Um…. this retreat has been awesome, well organized and well planned. The best thing was the water balloon launch. 

  • Caryl Kaplan, retreat nurse/mom:
    The best part of the retreat has been the people I have met both campers and staff!!

Second Question: How was the retreat different from what you expected?

By and large, the number one answer was that they expected to be overwhelmed with praying and rituals. In fact, all but one student responded saying that the retreat was balanced, friend-filled and exciting.

  • Steven Simen 10th Grade: I can’t say anything bad about this, because it has been very good. 
  • Abigail Barnes 8th Grade: I expected the retreat to be really boring but it has been very fun. I have had so much fun hanging out with my friends. 
  • Zoey Pittler 8th Grade: The retreat was almost like I was at Camp Newman, but for just a weekend.

    Aaron Moxness 10th Grade: It was everything I expected. 

  • Rachel Harris 8th Grade: … there have been so many fun-filled activities. 
  • Arielle Tylim and Alyssa Kaplan 10th grade and Ben Buckley 7th Grade: … we had a lot of fun and enjoyed making friends with the younger kids. 
  • Caryl Kaplan, retreat nurse/mom: Watching their interactions as a “fly on the wall” was a heart warming experience. The world could use many more Or Ami young people. 
  • Rabbi Paul Kipnes, 15th Grade: I forgot how kids of all different ages bond together in a camp setting, so that differences disappear and then become one community.

Thanks to Rabbi Julia Weisz, Mishpacha Coordinator Rachel Kaplan Marks, LoMPTY youth advisor Stefanie Philips, and the amazing staff.

To catch a glimpse of how much fun a teen retreat can be, check out our pictures on Facebook. Look at Congregation Or Ami and at Paul Kipnes.