Don’t Forget Us Motivated Teens
by Elan Kramer

As the grandson of a rabbi, I not only grew up with Judaism, I was that atypical kid who always loved coming to synagogue. I can vividly remember my parents warning me: "If you misbehave, you won't be allowed to go to Shabbat services on Friday night."

I loved preparing for my bar mitzvah, learned as much as I could, and was very proud of my achievements. But once my bar mitzvah was over, something in me changed. I started to lose my passion for my religion. When I was young I would get caught up in learning the customs and traditions of Judaism, but now synagogue services became boring and repetitive, and I felt isolated as the only person under 30 showing up. Meanwhile, Hebrew school wasn’t as enriching or as much fun either, because many of my friends, who used to ask questions and lead engaging discussions, had “dropped out” after becoming b’nai mitzvah. I couldn’t relate to most of the kids who remained. I was interested in learning and they were not—they were forced to be there.

I still felt proud of my Jewish heritage, but needed something to inspire me.

Things took a turn for the better when Rabbi Deborah Schuldenfrei, then our assistant rabbi at Shir Ha-Ma’alot, said I would be challenged and grow in a Jewish leadership camp setting and recommended that I attend URJ Camp Kutz in Warwick, New York. Kutzchanged my life. For the first time, I was in the presence of other teens who were hungry to learn about their Judaism, and questioned everything.I learned so much about myself and my Jewish identity. I gained leadership skills, including confidence in my ability to reach out and motivate other teens to take an active role in discovering their voice and beliefs.

And I felt connected. I vividly remember one night when the Jewish rock star Dan Nichols performed for us. Everyone was so excited to listen to a “Jewish celebrity.” Towards the end of the outdoor concert it began to rain. We all rushed inside, feeling quite disappointed that the concert had to end, but suddenly Dan appeared too and started to sing. Soaking wet, we all sang together as one community. It truly was a kehilah kedoshah, a holy community.

After Kutz, it seemed only fitting that I would become active in my temple youth group. I was now in ninth grade, so I could join. At first I went to events to spend time with my friends from synagogue, but then I discovered that our youth group was affiliated with NFTY, which opened the door for me to meet hundreds of Jewish teens who cared about Judaism—and not only from North America, but from all over the world.

At the end of my sophomore year, I made my third trip to Israel, this time for a full summer semester abroad. I wanted to learn! It was the most incredible journey of my life.Staying on a kibbutz nestled in the Judean Hills, I took classes, hiked, biked, ate, and studied with 25 other students. In only two months I learned to carry on a conversation in Hebrew and a great deal about 4,000 years of Jewish history. Our small group of students quickly became good friends. We are still in close contact, even though we live far apart. I learned I have the ability to make new friends quickly and to engage with people from many different backgrounds.

My time in Israel shaped me into who I am today. It gives me great pride to know that I can understand Hebrew, the language of my people. This connects me with Jews all over the world, for no matter where we are from, we are unified by a common language. I’ve hung an Israeli flag in my room, and every night before I go to sleep I look up at it and dream of returning soon to my home away from home: Israel. I plan on studying about my religion and my people for the rest of my life.

My advice on how to engage Jewish teens is for adult leaders to realize that we are not all totally disconnected from our Jewish identities. Remember, many teens already have an idea of who they are, and no adult can change or reinvent them. And do not focus solely on alienated youth, but work to meet the needs of more motivated teens.

All synagogues should have a youth group. Ours, SHMoFTY, started small, but over time we have grown. Currently I serve as its co-president. Now we often have teen Shabbat services, which are great opportunities for teens to lead and pray together in a supportive, engaging environment. My youth advisor, Becca Zarrabi, is so helpful with everything, from co-planning events to making phone calls to teens and their families. Becca never says “no” to any ideas that the board poses; rather, she assists us in figuring out what is possible and how to make it work. This is important, because it enables us teens to lead and make decisions.

Temple youth groups are also a great way to connect Jewish young people to their congregations. For example, eachyear our congregation has a beautiful S’lichot service, and this year our decided to hold a social event beforehand, and then join the rest of the congregation for a dessert reception followed by a service. We began by having everyone light a candle, and when we turned off the lights, the candles reflected off the glass roof to display our large community, with lots of youth, senior citizens, and everyone in between.

At the time of this writing, Elan Kramer was a high school senior and member of Congregation Shir Ha-Ma'alot in Irvine, California.

What have your Jewish experiences been like? What gets you inspired and what turns you off? Do you agree with these teens' ideas about youth engagement-why/why not? What do adults need to know about how to engage young people in Jewish life?

Union for Reform Judaism.