By Rabbi Paul Kipnes and Rabbi Julia Weisz
Wouldn’t your heart soar too, if children left the High Holy Day children’s services kvelling? And their parents had to pry them away from hugging the teen leaders, who had showered them with love and learning? And the older teens, who had mentored younger teens, felt energized as they passed on the responsibility of Jewish educational leadership to their younger peers?
That’s just what happens when our Madrichim Leadership Institute’s Leadership Groups assume responsibility for the High Holy Day youth services. Building upon lessons gleaned from the Union for Reform Judaism’s Campaign for Youth Engagement, the Rhea Hirsch School of Jewish Education at HUC-JIR, and the Foundation for Jewish Camp’s mentoring programs, we embark on an intentional design process to nurture multifaceted, teen-led Holy Day youth services.
The results are amazing. They reaffirm that when we mentor youth toward genuine responsibility, they inevitably surpass expectations.
Rabbi Julia Weisz enlists the entire Congregation Or Ami staff to create a transformational, multigenerational youth engagement and holy day enhancement program. She amplifies our existing Madrichim Leadership Institute and our Tot Shabbat Leadership Crew, and engages the talents of our Cantor Doug Cotler, to enhance our synagogue’s worship.
Leadership Groups: Identifying Leaders and Future Leaders
Every May, the clergy identifies young people, especially teens, who have particular talents to share:
- Creative programmers
- Students expressing interest in Jewish programming and/or teaching Judaism
- NFTY Youth leaders and URJ Camp alumni with memories of engaging educational programming
- Guitar players
- Singers with leadership skills
- Instrumentalists who can play well with minimal rehearsals
- Pre-teens who show potential as future leaders.
These students become the core of five primary High Holy Day Leadership Groups:
- Art Programming Group – integrates arts into Holy Day experiential learning
- Madrichei Shira (Songleaders) – lead tefilah (prayer) for youth
services, and accompany the cantor during family services
- Parasha/Story Group – teaches creatively about the Torah portion and/or related value-based stories
- Para-Rabbinic Group, (Jewish educational programmers) – creates meaningful, fun activities that teach, inspire and expand the themes of the holy days
- Klay Kodesh (musicians, literally “instruments of holiness) – lead music and singing during family services
The Planning Process
In early summer, Rabbi Weisz meets with each Leadership Group to set out the vision, goals, and timeline. She then assigns senior Madrichim to be group captains for planning. To enter the temple during this period is exhilarating. It reflects the intersection of Talmud Torah (Jewish study) and l’dor vador (generational leadership). These teens lead their peers through a planning process that requires them to set objectives, research themes and ideas, write lesson plans, and create timelines for completion.
The Leadership Groups know, for example, that they will run 2 different experiences (for older children and for younger children) for 30 minutes each. They understand that the age groupings are at unique learning levels requiring slightly different lesson plans. They discover that leadership is about involving others, not speaking at or singing to them. They learn that the “success” of their work will be evaluated on their ability to engage the attention, minds and bodies of the children they lead.
Rabbi Weisz reviews all lesson plans, offering insightful mentoring through a combination of constructive critique and heartfelt coaching. We view this process as central to our main goal: developing the next generation of Jewish leaders. Cantor Cotler prepares the musical Leadership Groups with music charts and .mp3s, and differentiates the unique role of liturgical leader from that of a guitar hero. We review dress code, discuss behavioral expectations, schedule post-service reviews, and build excitement.
Once the High Holy Days arrive, our teen leaders become managers and motivators of their peers in the Madrichim program, guiding them in their roles of running the children’s groups, and ensuring that all of the programs are fun, educational, and engaging for the children.
Of course we hire adults to be ultimately responsible for the health and safety of the youngest children, to deal with group motivation and management, and to deal with parent concerns. But the teens and their younger pre-teen apprentices do the leading and teaching.
5 Take Aways about Leadership Groups
Walk into the youth services and you will see children involved in arts and crafts projects that are fun and deeply meaningful. Watching them on their feet, singing and worshipping, will warm you. The younger children are at rapt attention because the older teens are their role models, their older “friends.” The teens themselves feel like they are transmitting the essence of Judaism to the next generation. Which they are.
Five take away lessons emerge from these experiences:
- Clear Expectations: Give teens real responsibility and clear expectations, and they will surpass the expectations.
- Multilevel Mentoring: Mentoring of younger teen leaders by older teen leaders enhances success as the oldest teens feel the responsibility to prepare their younger charges to eventually take over for them.
- Positive Jewish Role Models: Young Jewish children crave role models and teens thrive when they are guided to be those role models.
- Pursuing Deeper Content: When clergy become facilitators of learning by mentoring the teens to lead, we deepen content and ensure greater engagement.
- Kvelling to Adults: We can train the community (in adult services, in e-newsletters, on social media, and at board meetings) to value the work of the teens, lifting them up to be emulated.
Congregation Or Ami’s High Holy Days are overrun with teens who feel engaged and responsible. We are achieving what many forward-thinking Jewish institutions are pursuing. Like them, we are learning that a commitment to youth engagement demands a concurrent commitment to providing authentic responsibility, consequential leadership training, and time intensive mentoring. Having attached significant human and financial resources to this process, our High Holy Days shine ever more brightly.