By Jeffrey Korbman
“The oldest generations is the most religious; the youngest are the most nonbelieving.” So wrote Lane Greene in a recent article in The Economist. Greene traced faith in the U.S., in historical terms, and demonstrated what we know and see: teens are not less engaged, they are unengaged. By extension, the very idea of gathering high-schoolers to study texts of a different language, during vacation time, in a strange place, would logically be doomed to fail.
This makes it very difficult to explain how I spent my recent winter-break.
For five days in early January, NCSY hosted a record-breaking conference for Jewish teens who attend public school, to study together. The conference, Aspire: NCSY’s Yarchei Kallah, is hard to pronounce. Of the 350 teens who attended, most don’t know each other. And located in New Jersey, it was decidedly cold.
NCSY’s most recent Yarchei Kallah is a High-School conference dedicated to traditional learning about a traditional topic. This past year it was about Aggadah in Jewish literature. (Aggadah is a compendium of rabbinic texts that incorporates folklore, historical anecdotes and much more.) As far as I know, no one in attendance had ever studied Aggadic literature, nor are there any video games nor Aggadic literature Apps.
The teens came in droves.
The answer to why is not relegated to the Yarchei Kallah program.
The answer to why is what NCSY focuses upon throughout the year and manifests itself on Yarchei Kallah as it does throughout the year.
NCSY is blessed with a small army of Advisors who develop relationships with the teens, one at a time.
Absolutely, teens come out to see each other. Absolutely, the food, the music, the collective energy and fun aspects of our programming are a draw. But where it all starts is when an NCSY Advisor meets a Jewish teen.
During Yarchei Kallah, a young man named Brian, participated in a donor letter-writing workshop. Brian wrote, in pen, on paper (!), “what I like is that I can ask any question and no one judges. And if they don’t know, they find someone who does. They make the Torah relevant to me today.”
Put differently, Aspire: NCSY’s Yarchei Kallah, in as much as all NCSY programs intend to be, is creative. We teach through text, through music, through art, dialogue and volunteer social action. However, the bedrock is content. The bedrock is an insane Jewish literacy among Advisors and staff which not only resonate with teens … but which they seek and yearn.
In a hallway conversation I had with a young lady named Hannah, she asked me if we could introduce a Tikkun Olam project into Yarchei Kallah. Instead of answering yes or no, in true Jewish tradition, I asked her a question back: Do you know where that phrase “Tikkun Olam” comes from?” Hannah didn’t know.
Hannah and I then took a walk to the virtual Beit Midrash, which was at the center of Yarchei Kallah. We opened up the Siddur and read through the prayer of Aleynu where the phrase “Tikkun Olam” appears. But the majority of the time, we focused on the subsequent two words, “B’malchut Shaddai,” meaning “with the Kingdom of God.” Hannah and I then talked about the true meaning of Tikkun Olam, and how our role on earth is to increase God’s presence through our behavior.
The conversation with Hannah reminded me of the famous 1970’s quip of Ira C Herbert, the man responsible for developing Coke’s, “It’s the real thing” slogan. Herbert said, “It responds to research which shows that young people seek the real, the original and the natural as an escape from phoniness.”
Perhaps, then, the Aspire: NCSY’s Yarchei Kallah take-away is that devoted staff, Jewishly literate, is precisely what teens seek and, quite frankly, need. Content needs to be delivered in a respectful manner and in a language that teens speak. That “content” remains our Torah and our traditions. And for a generation that can seem completely unengaged, our Torah remains “the real thing.”
Jeffrey Korbman is International Development Director, NCSY.