Engaging Teens Catalyzes Community Development

Czech teens - JDCBy Mariann Ziss

Working with teens to get them actively involved in different Jewish community development forums can, at times, be challenging.

I experienced that here in Prague when attempting to engage local teens in youth movement and madrich (youth counselor) training. The young people here were not enormously enthusiastic enough about these programs to fully commit to them. And, of course, the pressures of participation in these activities also competed with their preexisting commitments in terms of schedule, workload, and income.

Those of us who have been active in informal Jewish education for the last twenty years know that there is no difference between becoming a madrich and investing in self-development. After all, we developed our leadership, public speaking, and group-work skills in these forums.

And we also know that being a madrich is an ideal way to help teens transform into Jewish adults. But just as it wasn’t completely obvious how important this was for my generation, it may not be totally obvious for teenagers today.

To showcase the critical importance of teenagers becoming actively engaged in youth movement and madrich activities, we first needed to recognize the needs of individual teens, their community, and build on them to create appropriate programs. In turn, the teens involved in these programs proactively took the lead while we supported them in developing their skills in an open way.

Following that simple formula, we established practical leadership training sessions giving participants the tools they needed to create a session or lead a group.

We then followed up on the skills they learned with coaching. We zeroed in on the skills the teens were seeking and from there, we evaluated what was missing. To further learn about those needs, we established and then regularly tweaked our feedback platform.

This constant and mutual evaluation created a transparent environment where advancement and growth were the focus. Coaching and self-development were therefore not side effects of our seminars, but an integral part of it from the very beginning.

Another aspect of our seminars was immersion. Two years ago, our teen group began to collaborate with the local Limmud to provide childcare services at Limmud sessions. While there, our teens were able to listen to diverse lecturers at Limmud programs and integrate among other participants.

This method of broadening their horizons turned out to be a highly motivating factor that was very much appreciated by the teens, especially as lectures were always organized around a relevant concept, never randomly chosen. The teens also received useful take-aways to support them as educators in the future. They were inspired by the professionals they interacted with from different fields – people they would have never met otherwise – and they had the opportunity to hear and absorb Jewish educational content they never knew about.

These experiences reinforced the foundation of our seminars and trainings: social responsibility, self-development, and broadening horizons.

Social responsibility focuses on life within the community; self-development encompasses Jewish knowledge and identity; and broadening horizons opens the youths’ minds to new Jewish topics and traditions.

These important elements, when combined with the talents of the young people and the ever-changing set of needs we tailor the program to, has ensured that our seminars have become the flagship for Jewish youth training in the Czech Republic.

And its impact doesn’t end with the teens: children partake in our activities, as do older young adults and others who contribute to the program from their field of expertise. In the future, we hope to take this one step further and create shadowing and mentoring programs for our participants.

Szarvas-jdcFive years ago, we didn’t even have a youth movement here. The only program remotely related was Szarvas, the international Jewish summer camp operated in rural Hungary by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, in which fourteen of our local youth participated.

For these fourteen kids, we had only two madrichs. Fast forward to today, and we have twenty-two madrichs and send eighty children to camp each summer. In addition, we run four different activities throughout the year and fifty children attend our local summer camp. The madrichs are increasingly active in the local Jewish School where they are working to create programs around the Jewish holidays, which is a unique collaborative effort.

What is clear is that engaging Jewish teens is a process with reciprocal benefits: while we, the community, help teens become engaged Jewish adults, the teens drive the further development of our communities for the future.

And none of it would be possible without the power of partnership. Our trainings and seminars are the product of wide support from within the community and with our longtime partners. Support from the Federation of Czech Jewish Communities is matched with the skills of our youth programmers, alumni of our programs, and important contributions of staff expertise from the Lauder Schools in Prague and the JDC.

Today, with our help, a new generation of Jewish leaders is blossoming in Prague and our Jewish teens are turning personal and community dreams into reality.

Mariann Ziss, a psychotherapist and consultant, built and mentored the Jewish community teen training program in Prague.