Help Us Find Our Own Jewish Meaning
by Austin Wand

Growing up in Colorado, where being Jewish was so uncommon, I always felt that Judaism was not relevant to my life. There was a separation between who I was inside and outside of temple, and it led me, slowly, to disengage from the Jewish community. With each passing week of Hebrew school and Sunday school, I became less enthusiastic about Judaism. And at the end of my temple education, I knew little more than a few letters of the Hebrew alphabet!

Things started to change in my sophomore year of high school when I reconnected with Viktor Jackson, a good friend who was involved with the thriving Jewish teen community in Boulder. When I heard about all the great people and fun activities he did with the youth group at Congregation Har HaShem, I felt like it might be worth taking a step into the past and rejoining my Jewish community again. A little unsure but curious, I joined up, and it didn’t take me long to realize that the Jewish community is actually much bigger than I had thought. A domino effect took hold of my life as I fell into more events with other Jewish teens. That led to my getting involved with Jewish kids across North America through NFTY, which holds a big place in my heart.

At my first NFTY retreat, I thought how odd it was to be around so many kids who had all walked down similar paths in developing their Jewish identities against the background of a Christian society. Right from the beginning, I sensed a community developing around me. And by the end of that retreat, and all those I’ve gone on since, I felt amazingly close to everyone as we acted together to improve our society as well as ourselves. One of our major themes was tikkun olam—to give back or to give unto others. We also learned about our Jewish culture in a fun and unforced way.

When I was 17, our youth group was told about an opportunity to go to Israel with a group called IST (Israel Study Tour). It took me a long time to decide to go because the trip would be a month long and I would use up most of my savings. Finally I decided not to miss out on a chance to travel to such a meaningful place with a group of people my age who would be able to process and talk about the experiences on the same level.

Being in Israel clarified for me what Judaism means. I looked past the hardships of the Jewish people and found a world of Jews who wore their Judaism with pride. A highlight was being invited by Israelis to join them at the Western Wall on a Friday night to welcome Shabbat with the same dances and prayers I had learned in America. It felt so good knowing that Judaism brings us all together.

After this amazing journey, Judaism moved more to the center of my life. It is who I am, who my ancestors were. I am proud to be Jewish.

To successfully reach out to youth, I believe our leaders need to offer us different kinds of fun-filled activities that promote working together and reaching out to others, rather than drowning us with prayers and worship services. These worship services don’t work well because it’s hard to relate to something you don’t understand. It might help if more prayers were in English. I am also a believer in games as a way for teens to open up to each other and become more excited about Jewish learning. Going to youth group activities with my buddies and playing games that developed character and promoted Jewish learning definitely worked for me.

Most of all, Jewish teens need opportunities to socialize and freely share our ideas of religion with a large group of friends and not let one leader or counselor provide the only interpretation of what is being taught. Young people need to develop the skill and capability to communicate their own ideas about the meaning of Judaism. This will help them Jewishly and in life.

At the time of this writing, Austin Wand was a high school senior and member of Congregation Har HaShem in Boulder, Colorado .

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.