Using the ATM to Bring Teens into Temple

Or Ami Californiaby Paul Kipnes

The entire American Jewish world, it seems, is focused on how to engage or reengage the younger generations of Jews. Foundations are funding, denominations are discussing, and Federations and synagogues are searching for the latest and greatest strategies to engaging these lost generations. Our own Union for Reform Judaism kicked off its Campaign for Youth Engagement, on the theory that unless we engage young people in their early years, we surely will lose them in their later high school years and beyond.

While the solution to this contemporary challenge necessarily needs to be multi-pronged and multi-focal, at Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, CA we have stumbled upon some success in the most unlikely of places: at the A.T.M.

Paying Jewish Kids to Play?

For most of us, A.T.M. refers to the computerized kiosk which dispenses cash. Young people are drawn to them second only to their parent’s credit card. At Congregation Or Ami, our teens do seek out A.T.M., not for money, but instead to make deposits (of their talent) to the temple.

At Or Ami, A.T.M. stands for “Art, Theater, Music,” a teen engagement program that is part of our constellation of teen activities known at the temple as Triple T: Tracks for Temple Teens. Inspired by the URJ’s Campaign for Youth Engagement and by similar programs at URJ Camp Newman’s Hagigah Festival, A.T.M. begins with a simple premise: that many young people find expression and relief from stress through arts and music, and we, the Jewish community, need to capitalize on that reality.

A few times a month, a diverse group of 7th-11th graders meet with a talented Jewish musician, and sometimes also with a young actress. Following a semester’s study of trends in Jewish arts, theater and music, our teens explored a variety of Jewish topics, settling on the issue of Jewish identity as their focus. Through class discussions and values clarification exercises, they delved into the multitude of experiences which influence Jewish identity development. Then the teens labored to create their own musical theater production.

As a group the teens wrote and edited a script, and utilized multimedia – music, singing, rap, video and more – to articulate the story of a teen developing her Jewish identity. Background sets were painted, props collected, stage hands selected, and costumes created. Their regularly scheduled A.T.M. sessions were supplemented with extra rehearsals during their free time.

A Festival of Jewish Arts

Rabbi Julia Weisz beautifully wove the A.T.M. musical theater production into a teen-led Shabbat service, forming Or Ami’s first Festival of Jewish Arts. Teens from all the Triple T tracks, joined parents and temple leadership, for this multimedia service.

The service began with a video presentation in which one student (who happens to be on the autism spectrum) interviewed other students about their experience in A.T.M. Throughout the service, teens from other Triple T tracks led prayers after introducing them with kavannot (inspirational creative writings) on the theme “What prayer means to me.” We were particularly inspired as one teen, whose father is fighting cancer, shared his interpretation of the Mi Shebeirach prayer for healing and then led us in the healing prayer. The musical theater production, a modern drash if you will, was engaging and inspirational.

The Kvelling Began As the Curtain Came Down

Our teens, their parents, and our entire temple community kvelled continuously that night and in the nights that followed, as each tried to capture the essence of the Jewish experience that embraced their teenage children. The comments from three parents are indicative of what we are hearing:

Parent Lesli Kraut: “I was very inspired by the Festival of Jewish Arts Shabbat Service. Remembering back to when I was a teenager, my parents forced me to be involved in a local youth group chapter. I didn’t want to go and definitely did not feel like I belonged. Our teens, including my own son Andrew, want to be at Temple. They are engaged, excited and most of all comfortable with their Judaism. It is so wonderful watching them interact with each other and knowing that they share a special bond and a sense that they definitely belong. Thank you, Congregation Or Ami!”

Parent Mike Moxness: “When my son Aaron presented his interpretation of the Mi Sheberach and led the prayer, I couldn’t stop the tears from falling. I have been living with advanced cancer for the past year and I have always taken great solace in this part of the service. It exemplifies the caring community of Or Ami and I truly believe that all the prayers offered up on my behalf have helped me survive. Having Aaron sing those words brought up strong feelings of gratefulness for all the support we have received. I am especially grateful for the home our kids have found in Or Ami’s youth programs. It provides a place of comfort in this turbulent world. All teenagers face many challenges, and letting them express their thoughts without judgement is incredibly important. It is difficult for most kids to talk about painful experiences, however, giving my son the podium for a few minutes in front of a supportive community helped the healing continue.”

Parent Addy Chulef-Mindel: “I want to let you know that after the Festival of Jewish Arts Shabbat Service, my daughter Jessie said, ‘I feel that Or Ami is my second family…’ We are thrilled that we joined Or Ami, and Jessie looks forward to continuing to make new friends and doing Tikkun Olam (acts which fix the world). Having the feeling of community, and the opportunity to help and give back is where Jessie finds meaning – and that’s what Congregation Or Ami is all about.”

So Go Ahead

Ask the A.T.M. teens what they accomplished at the Festival of Jewish Arts. They might say that they put on a musical play. They might respond that they made great friends and had a lot of fun. But we know better.

In the midst of the scripts and the sets and the rehearsals, our teens utilized their artistic and musical talents to grapple with what it means to be Jewish. All within the context of a Jewish night for teens. Although we did not pay them to participate, they each came away with something even more valuable: A deeper understanding of their Jewish identity.

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