Successful Models of Teen Engagement: When Teens Take Over High Holy Day Services

What better way to trumpet our commitment to youth engagement than to have teens lead the congregation through the final moments of the High Holy Days.

Congregation Or Ami teensby Paul Kipnes

In the midst of inspiring and emotionally charged Yamim Noraim, an utterly unexpected yet totally welcome reality set in as our Congregation Or Ami teens all but took over our High Holy Day services.

For years synagogues and Jewish denominations have been seeking models of successful teen engagement. Ever since the Union for Reform Judaism challenged communities to prioritize teen engagement, the clergy and lay leadership teams at Congregation Or Ami (Calabasas, CA) have been experimenting with teen engagement strategies. We seemed to have stumbled into a successful strategy: invite them in, set clear goals, and get out of the way. Recently, we have applied that strategy to the most sacred of synagogue rituals: the High Holy Days.

Teens Sing and Inspire

It began a few years back when our Cantor Doug Cotler invited four teens to sing Sim Shalom at Yom Kippur morning services. Their sweet voices lit up the sanctuary; worshippers literally leaned forward in their seats to take it all in. Since that service, Cantor Cotler has continued inviting a handful of teens each year to sing, and added in others who share poignant poetry which speaks to the service’s theme. We set high expectations: The teens have only two rehearsals – a week before the service and the day of. Participants are sent sheet music and an MP3 of the song and are expected to practice at home. Each has risen up to the task; their sacred performances have been stellar.

Simultaneously we turned to teens to webcast our services and to serve as Visual Accompanist for our Visual T’filah. With minimal rehearsal and preparation, each technology leader performed very well and has since been tasked with training their successors.

Creating a Cadre of Levites, a Teen Musical Liturgy Team

Last year, Cantor Cotler and Or Ami’s Rabbi Julia Weisz schemed to create youth High Holy Day service leaders. Recruiting a newish guitar player, a pre-teen violinist, and a talented teen singer, they taught the trio the basic prayers and songs. Their initial task was to accompany Rabbi Julia as she led services for three youth services: Pre-K through 2nd grade, 3rd-5th grade, and 6th-8th grade.

This year, prior to taking maternity leave, Rabbi Weisz engaged another group of teens and deputized them as service leaders. This group of 5 teens – each actively involved in either the Union for Reform Judaism’s NFTY youth movement, URJ Camp Newman or both – created a schedule for the three youth programs, developed age-appropriate activities and services, and coordinated with the adult leaders of the youth programs. The teens ran their work by me for input and advice. They coordinated with the teen music leaders.

On the morning of the High Holy Day services, I wished them good luck and then headed off to lead adult services. Youth participants and their parents kvelled like never before, calling these “the coolest services and activities ever.” The secret to our success: being clear about goals and expectations, checking in and supervising, and then getting out of the way.

Are We Crazy? Inviting the Teens to Lead the Neilah Concluding Service

Two days before Yom Kippur, someone approached me suggesting we let the teens lead the Neila service. (Talk about waiting until the last minute!) The idea had such merit. What better way to trumpet our commitment to youth engagement than to have teens lead the congregation through the final moments of the High Holy Days.

With Facebook and texting we quickly gathered teen volunteers; moments later, service parts were distributed along with dress code and bimah sitting instructions. Excited and prepared, the teens led with a real sense of sacred responsibility.

One of our veteran members, a woman in her late 80’s wrote that seeing the teens lead services for the community provided her with assurance that the congregation was healthy, forward looking and stable. Another noted that our integration of the teens into all parts of congregational life was the primary reason that they remain members of Or Ami.

So What Did We Learn about Youth Engagement?

  • Clear goal and high expectations present teens with a clear path toward success.
  • Personal invitations to teens – especially from clergy – propels them toward active involvement.
  • More than being a novelty, full teen participation in even the most sacred of moments of congregational life inspires others to continue involvement and support.
  • Rather than leading to the congregation running amuck, deep teen integration and participation in all aspects of synagogue life can invigorate and energize a community.

Where Might We Go from Here?

Imagine the positive response that might ensue if we…

  • Invited teens to deliver a collaborative sermon on one of the Holy Days.
  • Asked the youth group LoMPTY to lead an interactive multigenerational study program during the time between the Morning and Yizkor services on Yom Kippur.
  • Paired teens with older members of the congregation and tasked them with researching and brainstorming engaging, creative innovations – in music, prose, prose and multimedia – to enhance our High Holy Day experience.
  • Other suggestions???

At Congregation Or Ami, We Look Forward to Exploring These and Other Avenues

How have you succeeded in integrating teens into the most sacred and central places of congregational life?

Rabbi Paul Kipnes is rabbi of Congregation Or Ami, Calabasas, California and blogs at Or Am I?