Jewish youth groups help teens embrace their heritage
By Michael Wittner
Last Sukkot, around 40 teenagers from all over the North Shore came to Rabbi Shmaya Friedman’s house in Swampscott to celebrate. Under the sukkah, they made tacos, put on some Israeli music, and lit a bonfire.
A few of the attendees were 12 and 13, and didn’t know many of the people around them. Most people were older – 17 or 18. But by the end of the night, in true Sukkot spirit, everyone was sitting around the fire, talking like old friends.
Lauren Kagan, a junior at Gann Academy in Waltham, remembers that night as one of her fondest memories of Jew Crew, a local teen youth group run by Chabad of the North Shore.
For Kagan, the welcoming spirit of Jew Crew has always been its biggest draw. “It was fun to see the new generation of Jew Crew come bond with older kids and feel welcome,” she said. Seeing that reminded her of her own experience a few years ago, when she started coming to events right after her bat mitzvah. Although Kagan attended the Epstein Hillel School, she didn’t feel a true connection to Judaism until she joined Jew Crew.
“They welcomed me with open arms,” said Kagan. “It didn’t matter how religious I was or how I practiced. We all had being Jewish in common, and we were one big family. Everyone feels so comfortable and welcome.”
The North Shore is full of youth groups like Jew Crew. Even though they’re run by different synagogues and organizations and serve different communities, their overall missions are similar: To foster a sense of community among Jewish youth, and help them become upstanding citizens who give back to their community and are proud to be Jewish.
Some of the youth groups on the North Shore are run by synagogues. The Jew Crew has been a part of Chabad for 20 years. Its mission, according to Rabbi Friedman, is to “make Judaism real and appealing to today’s teens, ensuring a commitment to their Jewish future.”
Jew Crew holds weekly Shabbat dinners, and monthly events that usually center around a Jewish holiday and involve spirited discussion of its themes and meaning. Jew Crew also hosts outings that are both fun and tied to Judaism, like a “Maccabee Paintball Shooting and Latkes” for Hanukkah, and “Escape from Egypt” around Passover. Most notably, Jew Crew hosts numerous service events and trips, like the 1Mitzvah-sponsored trips to help rebuild in Houston and New Orleans.
Other synagogue-run youth groups include SMARTY, an amalgam of “Swampscott” and “Marblehead,” a program run by Temple Emanu-El for kids from ages 8 to 18. An affiliate of the Reform NFTY movement, SMARTY runs monthly events. Some are fun, like a trip to a trampoline park, a roller blading party, or a ski trip. Others are service-oriented, like organizing a hat and glove drive and baking lasagna and brownies for My Brother’s Table in Lynn.
“It’s important for kids to spend time with their Jewish friends outside of temple,” said director Jill Simmons. “It’s important for families that their kids have fun and also take away Jewish values.”
At another Temple Emanuel a few miles northwest in Andover, one can find a similar type of youth organization that places a high value on student leadership. Instead of SMARTY, there is TEMTY (Temple Emanuel Temple Youth), a group of students from 9th to 12th grade who oversee all youth programming at the temple. Eight high schoolers sit on the TEMTY board and hold monthly meetings to plan all events.
There is also a newly formed USY-affiliated group for children who belong to temples Ner Tamid and Tifereth Israel, both of Peabody. The group started just last year and has already hosted 10 events. It’s already enjoying a great deal of success – over 60 people attended its opening event, and in February, it took 47 children tubing in Andover. Founder Dave Goldberg is optimistic about the future, noting a stellar group of parents who are working together to coordinate more fun and educational programming for the young children of their temples.
Another organization that serves Jewish youth on the North Shore is the Lappin Foundation, founded by local philanthropist Robert Lappin. The goal of the Lappin Foundation, according to Executive Director Debbie Coltin, is to “enhance Jewish identity across generations and help keep our children Jewish.”
The foundation runs various programming for teens and tweens, including a Jewish book group, and a program called Tiku Shofar that teaches Hebrew School students about the mitzvah of the shofar and provides them with complimentary shofars from Israel. Their flagship program, however, is called Y2I, or “Youth to Israel.” Every summer, the Lappin Foundation sponsors about 100 teens from communities north of Boston to go on a completely subsidized trip to Israel.
Although the trip itself is only two weeks, the Lappin Foundation provides a year’s worth of pre- and post-trip educational programming for teens. Before the trip, teens attend a number of sessions that teach them about the culture, history, and language of Israel. During the trip, students spend two weeks traveling across the country accompanied by a group of Israeli teens, and spend a weekend staying in an Israeli home. After the trip, teens take part in a course that teaches them to advocate for the homeland they’ve just experienced.
“With regards to my Jewish identity, Y2I was a game-changer,” said Rachel Ellis of Peabody, who went on the trip in 2015. “I grew up attending Hebrew school and having a bat mitzvah, but I truly did not understand what all of that meant until I went to Israel. Israel put into place for me what it means to be Jewish. Y2I provided me with a chance to see the history of the Jewish people and understand why I need to continue to carry out my Jewish faith.”
While some teens join Jewish youth groups, 75 percent stop engaging with the Jewish community after their bar or bat mitzvah, according to research done by a number of different Jewish organizations. Adam Smith, executive director of the Jewish Teen Initiative of Greater Boston, said the typical response to this steep drop-off is to try to create new programming in the hopes of attracting teens. However, this model has not typically proved effective.
Enter the JTI.
“We’re the anti-‘Field of Dreams,’” said Smith, referencing the movie with the famous tagline, “If you build it, they will come.” Instead, the JTI, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, went on a comprehensive listening tour and partnered with a number of organizations to figure out four things: a full list of the programming already available; the programming teens actually want; how to inform teens of programming they might like but don’t know about; and how to create the programs that teens want but don’t already exist.
In so doing, the organization hopes to match teens with existing organizations that fit their interests.
In an innovative move, JTI has started a Peer Leadership Consort for teens to help educate their friends in programs that interest them. The true tragedy, said Smith, is not when someone tries a program and doesn’t like it. Rather, it’s when someone finds out that all this time, there was a perfect program for them they simply didn’t know about. That is what JTI and the Peer Leadership Consort are trying to address.
In addition to its educational outreach programming, JTI sponsors its own events, which are based on empirical research on needs that weren’t being addressed. JTI partners with a number of organizations to run service trips, and for years had teens write an insert in the Jewish Journal. This holistic, teen-centered model is working well, and has been replicated in 10 other cities.
Whether they’re run by a synagogue, a philanthropic foundation, or a mix of the two, youth groups across the North Shore are working hard to make sure teens remain engaged with their Jewish heritage. Whether below a starry Negev sky or in a rabbi’s backyard, there will be many more lively discussions around a bonfire, next to good food and good friends.