By Karen Schwartz
Some 2,500 young delegates will converge in New York this weekend for the CTeen International Shabbaton. The summit, now in its 10th year, will bring together teens from around the world for camaraderie and fun, and this year especially, for inspiration and unity.
Rabbi Shaya Denburg, director of CTeen in Coral Springs, Fla., will bring a group to the convention for the first time this year. While he knew it was an important trip, it’s taken on added significance after the mass school shooting on Feb. 14 in which 17 people, most of them teens, were gunned down at a high school in nearby Parkland, Fla. Some of the teen delegates joining Denburg are students who survived the attack at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, while all the rest have many friends at the school.
“Now it’s not about going to New York for a weekend; it’s about going to a place with other kids their age who will support and encourage them, and hopefully, provide strength to move forward,” he says.
“They want to be part of a community in which they can feel support,” says Denburg, whose group will be in New York from Thursday to Sunday. “They weren’t planning to attend before this tragedy happened. Knowing that that they will be able to memorialize their friends on an international level will be an incredible moment.”
Drawing teens from 436 cities in North America, Europe, South America, Israel and Asia, the weekend includes the chance to participate in workshops and lectures, discussions and a trip to the Ohel – the resting place of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory.
CTeen, which is in 41 countries and reaches 100,000 teens, has seen strong growth since its start in 2008, says Rabbi Mendy Kotlarsky, executive director of Merkos 302. The program brings high-schoolers together during the year to take part in educational, humanitarian and social initiatives. “The reach of CTeen is phenomenal,” he says. “It uncovered this need and desire among teenagers that they want Jewish experiences, they want Jewish connection, and to be part of this Jewish mission and their mission together.”
The weekend they spend as a like-minded group – which has grown exponentially from 40 delegates in 2008 – moves them to return home ready to spread Judaism and encourage their friends to become involved, he says. “It’s a summit of these teens coming together and creating a powerful difference in the world and the places they return to.”
Instilling Jewish Pride
Rabbi Shlomo Poliwoda, director of CTeen Panama, will be bringing nine students to the convention this year. Last year’s contingent was deeply moved by the trip, he says.
“For me, the purpose of this trip is to give the teens this very strong feeling of Jewish pride,” he explains, adding that many will leave Jewish schools for a more diverse and secular university setting in the year ahead. “They have to confront the world out there – they have to have a strong feeling of Jewish pride to keep going on their Yiddishkeit.”
Oryah Lahijani, 17, a senior who will attend the convention with a contingent from Delaware, says the weekend is a chance not only to bond with teens from all over the world, but also to be re-inspired to do more mitzvahs.
With only a handful of Jewish students in her school, she says she especially values the chance to meet other Jewish teens and build relationships, as well as to strengthen Jewish pride she can take home with her.
“I become more educated in Judaism, and I come back with a bigger social network of people I know around the world,” she says, adding that she’s met people from the United States, England, Sweden, Canada and beyond. “It’s really interesting to see how Judaism is in different countries as well.”
She says she also enjoys the home hospitality aspect of the trip, as the teens stay with local families in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., during their visit. “We get to see their values, their traditions, how they run their households. We get the inside scoop,” says Lahijani. “You can see everyone’s so positive and happy, and usually, you see a lot of little kids running around.”
A Focus on ‘Every Individual Teen’s Needs’
This year’s convention highlights include a festive Havdalah ceremony on Saturday night with entertainers Yoni Z and Jewish rapper Nissim Black, and a grand banquet at Brooklyn’s Pier 12. Additionally, CTeen has arranged for each participant to receive his or her own letter in a Torah scroll known as the “Sefer Torah Haklali.”
It is part of a campaign initiated by the Rebbe that each person should have a letter inscribed in a Torah scroll especially for them.
“Even at the largest Shabbaton to date, we will never lose focus of catering to every individual teen’s needs,” says Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, vice chairman of Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, the educational arm of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, “ensuring that each one gets what they need to grow in their Judaism.”
Tomer Andegeko, 17, from Grand Rapids, Mich., will celebrate his birthday on Friday while at the Shabbaton. “On my weekends, I usually hang out with my friends, do homework, play video games and watch sports, but I chose to spend my weekend this way because the connections built through CTeen are unbreakable,” he says. “I decided to spend [my birthday] at the Shabbaton because there’s no greater gift for me right now than being able to see all the people I’ve met and friends I’ve made over my years in CTeen in an amazing event like this in New York.”
The high school senior says even though this will be his last time going to the convention as a teen, he hopes to inspire people attending for the first time to return, and to help them know that the CTeen experience is “100 percent worth it.”
He plans to continue the friendships he’s made in college and to get involved with Chabad on campus at whatever university he decides to attend.
“Knowing that this is my last time going” to the convention, says Andegeko, “makes me appreciate and feel thankful for all the time I had there, and makes me reflect on all that.”