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
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 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
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?