He Said / She Said: Engaging Synagogue Youth

Part of why our youth aren’t engaged in our congregations is directly traceable to the lack of parent engagement in our congregations. And that, I believe, is the fault of synagogues.

Staying Involved, a Youth Perspective
by Scott Rubenstein

My past experiences have made me understand why the Reform Movement’s Campaign for Youth Engagement is important, as a passionate Reform Jewish teen, this is also my campaign. I cannot imagine my life without NFTY and Judaism, and I want more Jewish teens to feel this way.

I am a member of one of the largest congregations in the Phoenix area, Temple Chai. Growing up, I attended religious school with approximately 60 other students in my class, but today I am one of only eight in my confirmation class, with only five kids from my class active in our temple youth group. No matter how enjoyable educators strived to make religious school, everyone counted down until their Bar/Bat Mitzvah when they would be done with religious school forever. Many parents felt the same way, knowing a financial burden would be lifted after their children’s B’nai Mitzvah.

While I never disliked religious school, I wanted to drop out after my Bar Mitzvah too. However, my mom was an active member of the religious school committee and adamant about me being involved in Jewish life all through high school by continuing my Jewish education through religious school and Jewish youth organizations.

I am reminded of the week after my Bar Mitzvah when I walked into religious school and was immediately asked by a classmate, “What are you doing here? Didn’t you just have your Bar Mitzvah?” I replied with something I didn’t really believe at the time, a trusty remark from my mom about how Jewish education doesn’t end with Bar Mitzvah

On February 11, 2011, my negative attitude for Judaism changed forever, when my mother sent me to an 8th Grade Taste of NFTY-Southwest Regional event hosted by my temple. On that Friday afternoon, I was sitting at my temple with 8th graders from around town I had known my whole life, when suddenly these vans pulled up and out came what seemed like a mirror image. These were a group of 8th graders from New Mexico and Texas who had also known each other their whole lives. Suddenly we were all together, being asked to intermingle and make new friends.

What did we all have in common? We were Jewish.

That was it for me: I understood why my mom had forced me to stay involved and why it was worth it to continue my Jewish journey post Bar Mitzvah. That weekend, I made many new friends (who are still among my closest) and I was bitten by the NFTY bug. I was hooked and there was no going back after that. I jumped right in and my mom no longer had to force me to these Jewish activities because I had totally bought into it. I am now an enthusiastic student of both the Hebrew High of Greater Phoenix and Temple Chai Confirmation classes; I am my Temple Youth Group’s Religious and Cultural Vice President, and the incoming RCVP of NFTY-SW; a member of the B’nai Tzedek Youth Philanthropy Board of the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Phoenix; a non-voting member of the JCF’s Grants Committee; a proud alum of the URJ Kutz Camp, and a member of Kutz Council 2013. One life-changing weekend helped me totally immerse myself in Jewish Life.

I want that kid who was surprised to see me at religious school after my Bar Mitzvah to have the same epiphany I had. I want him to be able to say that, thanks to Judaism, he has friends in 34 states like I do. I want him and everyone in my religious school class to be engaged and connected to their Judaism and Jewish life. I want him and everyone in my religious school class to know that after B’nai Mitzvah is when Judaism actually does become fun, and that they are missing out on the best part of it.

I understand that after 13 years of Judaism being a nuisance, they couldn’t wait to stop. They clearly don’t have mothers who know better. That is why the Campaign for Youth Engagement is so crucial right now and that is why the B’nai Mitzvah needs to be revolutionized. This pattern of kids growing up hating Judaism and effectively leaving the party right as it is getting started needs to end. So does the pattern of the parents not considering Judaism to be a priority, both financially and otherwise.

I credit my commitment to Judaism to my mother. Her insistence that I stay involved helped open my eyes to the wonders Judaism has to offer to life. If there were more parents around like my mother, youth organizations like NFTY would be much larger and Judaism would carry even stronger into the future.

Judaism is something to which my generation and future generations need to be committed. That is why the Campaign for Youth Engagement is MY campaign.

Scott Rubenstein is NFTY Southwest Religious and Cultural Vice President (2013-2014).


Staying Involved, the Synagogue Youth Director’s Perspective
by Ellen Zieselman

I created that “Taste of NFTY-SW” 8th grade weekend that impacted Scott so deeply hoping to foster exactly that kind of interest for the 8th graders of Temple Beth Shalom in Santa Fe, NM. Our youth group region consists of six congregations in the Phoenix metro area, and six congregations essentially on their own in other cities (Tucson, AZ; Las Vegas, NV; Albuquerque, NM; Las Cruces, NM; El Paso, TX; and Santa Fe). Most of my students are the lone Jews in their grades at school, on their sports teams or other extra-curricular activities. The 8th grade weekend has served the two main functions I hoped it would: it has helped keep my 7th grade class together as 8th graders and it has provided a clear and solid view of what the youth group offers for high school students. I love the 8th grade weekend event.

But I am actually more interested in Scott’s other point: the part about engaged parents who expect their children to participate Jewishly beyond their Bar/Bat Mitzvah. Let’s face it, that’s what it took for Scott to even register for the 8th grade event: his mother’s engagement. Part of why our youth aren’t engaged in our congregations is directly traceable to the lack of parent engagement in our congregations. And that, I believe, is the fault of synagogues. We may be fighting synagogue failures that happened decades ago in cities far, far away; but we must do a better job of engaging the parents in the life of the congregation if we want them to instill the congregation’s value in the lives of their children.

We fail parents by not addressing their own RSTSD (Religious School Traumatic Stress Disorder); many of us suffer from it. Maybe, like me, they had really mean teachers in elementary school. Perhaps their Religious School was boring, or their classmates unwelcoming. The list of “how my religious school failed me” is a very long one, and most parents who enroll their children in our fabulous religious schools have no idea if they are, actually, fabulous.

It seems the we (as synagogues) have two big hurdles to overcome: 1) we must do a better job letting our younger kids know the value of staying engaged through high school and 2) we must engage their parents in the process. We’ve worked hard at Temple Beth Shalom to get our kids to stay involved through high school to a very positive result. Here are some of the things I think we’re doing right:

We spend the entire B’nai Mitzvah year building community among our students and their families. We spend a day driving around in a van with the students (on a “Magical Mystery Tour”) and our curriculum in 7th grade on Sundays is learner-directed (which means the kids come up with the topics they want to know about, and I teach them those topics and weave in all the other things I think they should know). We also have Family Torah Study sessions, where each student leads a discussion about his/her Bar/Bat Mitzvah Torah Portion for the rest of the class and their parents. Our 7th and 8th grade families also provide the Friday night onegs for each other’s Bar/Bat Mitzvah weekends. Essentially, we create a Chavurah of our B’nei Mitzvah class families.

We continue this connection through middle and high school with three upper school family study nights a year during. These begin with a pot luck supper and include a study session with parents and teens studying together. Our teenagers lead morning services for the children of the congregation (and many of their parents) on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. This addresses a few issues: 1) the teenagers come to Temple on High Holiday Mornings and pray and read Torah 2) the younger kids in the congregation see a concrete place for themselves as teens in the congregation 3) the parents of the youngest kids also see there is a significant role for their children to play in the life of the congregation as young adults and 4) parents who are uncertain about their own place within Judaism and the synagogue gain entry to the ritual life of the congregation in a very accessible manner.

Our lower school (4th-7th grades) meets from 4:30-6:00pm on Wednesdays and our upper school (8th-12th grades) meets from 6:00-7:30 pm on Wednesdays, which means there are always older kids hanging around when the younger kids get out of school. Seeing the older kids laughing, hugging, and goofing around is an important part of the message for both parents and younger kids: it’s fun to be at the synagogue in high school.

We could do even more. We could (and should) be creating class Chavurot long before 7th grade and providing opportunities for parents to learn (or brush up on) the aleph bet while their students are first learning it. And we could be involving religious school parents on committees and events more than we do. Not only do we need parents to be engaging their youth in our Campaign for Youth Engagement, but we need those parents to be active, interested, engaged members once their kids graduate, too. The health of our congregations depends upon it, spiritually and financially.

Ellen Zieselman is Youth Director, Temple Beth Shalom, Santa Fe, NM.