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Leveling Up Your Youth Group
By ISJL Education Fellow Mackenzie Haun
Jewish education does not end after we put the Torah back in the ark on our thirteenth birthday, but the post-b’nei mitzvah crowd is also a notoriously difficult group for which to create programming. An often underserved segment in Jewish education is this collection of pre-college teenagers. If your synagogue does not have an established confirmation program or mad’richim program (or even if it does), these teens can easily slip through the cracks.
One of the programs used to fill this gap is the synagogue and regional youth group. However, this idea is often underutilized. When people think of youth groups, the first things to cross their minds are usually lock-ins and purely social programming. While these programmatic concepts have their own merit, they are not the end-all-b-all of working with teens. The idea of educational events for teens can be intimidating, but it is not impossible.
Tapping into the interests of teens and showing them the connection with Judaism is key. For example, many high school students today are very opinionated and passionate about social justice issues. Most of these issues can be grounded in our texts. We cover everything from repairing the earth to taking care of each other, and everything in between. Using this as a bridge can help teens form a stronger connection with their Jewish faith. By getting involved with other organizations that are actively looking to make a positive impact on the world, you can marshal your teenage segment to becoming involved “with the synagogue” even more.
This age is also a common time for people to start questioning their faith and realizing that they have doubts that they would like to express. Judaism encourages this kind of thinking, and so can you! Leaning into this uncertainty is a great way to promote teen engagement. This offers you the opportunity to host singular events, or even a series. You can bring in experts, read interesting texts, allow for debates or discussions, and so much more. Showing teens that they are not only allowed to pose questions, but are actually encouraged to do so, can make it easier to embrace their heritage and learn more about it.
During this time, teenagers are finding their voices and looking for ways to share their thoughts. One way to utilize this and to help teens feel a stronger connection with the community as a whole, is to have them lead. Whether that takes the form of a service or programming for children or even adults, giving them agency in their Jewish journey is important. This kind of activity allows for more communication between generations and better cohesion in the community as a whole.
Even if your synagogue does not have many teens or a strong youth group presence, your teens can still get involved in regional youth group events! Particularly if you are in a small town with relatively few Jewish people, regional events can be life changing for the teens in your congregation. This is an amazing way for high school students in your community to meet other Jewish teens. These friendships can be lifelong and transformative both personally and in connection to Judaism.
Here at the ISJL, we know that working with teens requires a lot of work, and we are here to help! Your Fellow would love to be a part of this endeavor.