Jewish Teens Go!

pokemon goBy Rabbi David Levy

Pokémon Go is the latest craze. For the past week, millions of adults and kids have turned the world into a living video game, seeking to find, capture and train virtual monsters called Pokémon. This new twist on the popular 90s video game is played by moving and interacting in the real world, while engaging in the game using one’s mobile device. It’s transformed augmented reality, wherein computer-generated elements are overlaid onto our real world, from a niche technology into a mainstream application.

As I sit thinking about Pokémon Go, it occurs to me that those who work in the Jewish teen space have long used similar principles to create not an augmented reality, but an elevated one. We partner with teens to elevate everyday high school life into places of meaning, wholeness and holiness. Instead of collecting little monsters, we enable them to collect experiences and interactions that shape their future as Jewish leaders. Just several weeks into July, I’ve already come across several examples of this on United Synagogue Youth’s (USY) Summer Experience.

The first is on USY on Wheels, our North American teen tour. In week one of the trip, our group was in Washington DC, making its way up the steps of Congress. At the same time, the members of the House of Representatives who had just staged a sit in for legislation against gun violence were coming down the Capital steps. Our USYers stopped and joined the members of the House to sing “We Shall Overcome,” after which Representative Ted Deutsch of Florida, who recognized our group, spoke with the USYers about their role in shaping our future as an inclusive nation. Experience collected.

The next example took place on our Eastern European/Israel Pilgrimage trip. We were approached a week or so before departure and asked to delivering a Sefer Torah to the Masorti community in Prague for the bar mitzvah of the son of Andrew Schapiro, the US Ambassador to Prague. It was a wonderful celebration when our teens arrived with the Torah, full of singing, dancing and joy. On a trip that many assumed would be about the Jewish past, our teens supported a Jewish future. Experience collected.

Finally, our teens in Israel recently prayed at Ezrat Yisrael in a stand for egalitarian rights at the Kotel and have volunteered in various communities across Israel. The teens visited a community center in Sederot, played with young patients in the children’s ward at Rambam Hospital, spent time with students at a Haifa special education school, played card games with senior citizens at a care facility for the elderly, and more. By pausing in their touring to perform service projects, the teens have seen the impact they can have on their world and the impact tikun olam can have on them. Experience collected.

So what do we learn from comparing our elevated reality to the augmented reality of Pokémon? The praise for the Pokémon Go craze comes for the game’s novel call for people to get up and get out. We at USY agree that the world is best experienced through immersive activities that introduce you to the amazing world beyond your doorstep. However, instead of augmenting reality, we are elevating reality by engaging the hearts and minds of our teens with the complex real world all around them, while they collect incredible experiences. Like they say in Pokémon, you’ve got to catch them all!

Rabbi David Levy is Director of Teen Learning, USCJ.