In Just Five Years, CTeen Movement Attracts Tens of Thousands of Young Jews

A group of real caricatures; photo courtesy
A group of real caricatures; photo courtesy

By Faygie Levy

When Risa Mond’s friends urged her to attend the Chabad Teen International Shabbaton in New York last year, the 17-year-old from Plano, Texas, could never have imagined how it would change her life. Not only did she discover an organization that really spoke to her, but just one year later, at the 2015 conference in February, she was elected “International CTeen Leader of the Year.”

“CTeen really connects teens and really focuses on the Judaism aspect,” says Mond. “There’s a feeling of unison with other CTeeners around the world … it’s like a little community that you feel a part of.”

“For me,” she goes on to say, “CTeen has two aspects that make it so great. The first is the nonjudgmental feeling: The focus on ‘You’re a Jew, I’m a Jew,’ and we’re together. The second is how you can personalize the CTeen experience for you. Some people love the trip aspect; some people love the learning aspect.”

With programs ranging from holiday events to leadership training seminars to a two-week summer travel camp, CTeen has the ability to touch a real chord with young people.

“It’s all about instilling Jewish pride and showing Jewish teens they are powerful,” adds Mond. “That youth is powerful.”

And with numbers like these, how can it not be? An estimated 40,000 teens worldwide have attended a CTeen program since it began as a small pilot program just five years ago.

“It’s fantastic to see how rapidly CTeen is growing,” says Rabbi Mendy Kotlarsky, executive director of Merkos Suite 302 in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., which launched CTeen in 2010. “In many cities, the program is initiated by the teens themselves; they see how much their friends in other places enjoy CTeen and are excited to be a part of it, too.”

‘A Household Word’

Reciting the candle-lighting prayers prior to the start of Shabbat. Photo courtesy
Reciting the candle-lighting prayers prior to the start of Shabbat; photo courtesy

The most recent CTeen national program, held last month, brought together thousands of Jewish young people from around the world to usher in Shabbat by attending regional Shabbatons in their local communities.

Marketed in the United States as “Thank G-d It’s Shabbat” (based on the popular saying, “Thank G-d It’s Friday!”), the Shabbatons featured dinner, prayer, games and other activities. Events were held in 56 locales, including Massachusetts, Delaware, Georgia, Illinois beyond. Several others will take place in the coming weeks for a total of more than 60 Friday-night celebrations.

Havdalah; courtesy
Havdalah; courtesy

Simultaneous programs were held in Canada.

“Our goal is to reconnect teens to their heritage in a safe, friendly environment – somewhere they can give back to their community and learn leadership skills while in Jewish atmosphere,” says Leah Rivkin, co-director of CTeen with her husband, Rabbi Shimon Rivkin, who live and work in Crown Heights.

By far, the biggest CTeen event is the annual international Shabbaton held each winter in New York City. The program brings together Jewish teens from around the world for a weekend of education, sightseeing, entertainment and a traditional Shabbat experience. For the most part, the teens stay with host families in Crown Heights, and visit and spend time at 770 Eastern Parkway, Lubavitch World Headquarters.

This year’s international conference was attended by more than 1,000 teens from a dozen countries. Already, interest is being drummed up for next year.

According to organizers, the vision is for every city to have a CTeen chapter – for it to become a household word as the place for Jewish teenagers to go and have a good time, and learn about their heritage. It’s also geared to build the Jewish leaders of tomorrow.

To that end, they’ve established a base of 150 teen leaders whose input is used to help plan programming, fundraising ideas and more. And like any active leader, they also serve to attract friends and others they meet to various events.

‘The Right Path in Life’

Group activities are also par for the course. Here, a little spray paint and a board … photo courtesy
Group activities are also par for the course. Here, a little spray paint and a board … photo courtesy

Perhaps one clear indication of how seriously Chabad takes its programming for teens is that a significant number of new emissaries are setting out to focus exclusively on youth demographics and CTeen programming.

“It is really thanks to Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky [vice chairman of Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch] and CTeen Central, who really saw the need for this program. We wouldn’t have anything without them,” says Rabbi Mendy Mottal, who, along with his wife, Haya Mouchka, are the CTeen representatives to France.

Mottal estimates that nearly 30,000 Jewish teens live in France, and offering them CTeen programming will be crucial to helping them stay connected to Judaism and each other.

“French teens in Strasbourg or Toulouse have very little connection with teens in Paris,” he explains. “Now that they belong to CTeen, they are learning the same subjects, doing the same programs and having the same events. It’s very important for them to belong to something Jewish in a country that’s going through a very hard time.”

Since its inception last fall, CTeen France has hosted holiday programs throughout the country, participated in the international Shabbaton (more than 100 teens flew into New York for the event), held a regional Shabbaton and performed humanitarian projects, among other activities and good deeds.

“Given the age of teens, they are looking for the right line, the right path in life,” says Rabbi Mendy Azimov, director of Beth Loubavitch Paris 16. His father, Rabbi Shmuel “Moulé” Azimov, the former leader of the Chabad community in Paris who passed away in November after serving as head shaliach for more than 40 years, has long been credited with jump-starting a revival of Jewish life and institutions in France.

“This is the time they study, and they are looking toward the future and what will be best to ensure success in life in general,” he continues. “For this reason, if you can get someone doing the right thing at this age, odds are that they will continue to do the right thing.”

“Teens are everything,” stresses Rivkin. “They are the future of tomorrow and at a most crucial age. They are questioning society and are open to learning more about Yiddishkeit. At the end of the day, they are the change-makers and the trendsetters. Anything that happens in history starts with the youth.

“You only need one teen to realize he or she wants to make a difference,” she continues, “and that can change a whole town.”