SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — When the terror attacks occurred in Paris in November 2015, a “Hot Topic” discussion was sparked among Hebrew High students at Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel. The teens shared their feelings and views on responding to global unrest — an exchange made possible by a shift in how the Reform synagogue conducts its Hebrew High program. The changes have boosted participation, creating a cadre of students who are putting their Jewish studies at the top of their homework lists.
“We recognize that teens connect Jewishly in different ways than adults,” Rabbi Dan Cohen said in a release. “We’ve reinvented our Hebrew High program to meet these young people where they are today, with a curriculum they can relate to and opportunities to forge a connection to Judaism they will take with them into adulthood.”
TSTI offers three areas of Jewish engagement for its teenage students: Hebrew High; STISY, a senior youth group; and as “madrichim,” or classroom aides, in the religious school. Each provides an avenue for connection with the synagogue and with each other, develops a commitment to Jewish community and education, and provides opportunities for them to serve as role models for younger students.
Cohen explained that the Hebrew High program for grades nine through 12 has been restructured to combine both formal and informal discussion, and includes some socializing time. In recognition of how busy today’s teens are, the start and end times also shifted a half hour earlier to give students more time to do their homework afterward.
“We are seeing a different level of engagement among our teen community as a result of these changes, as well as what has always been a strong youth group program,” Cohen said.
Each weekly evening session starts with a casual dinner with teachers and clergy, which fosters a sense of community and provides opportunities for the clergy to reach out to students who may have personal issues to discuss. At 7 p.m. everyone moves into the week’s “Hot Topic,” a short discussion on current events that incorporates Jewish values and teachings, and empowers students to include those teachings to make sense of today’s world. Discussion topics range from world affairs such as the attacks in Paris or security alerts in Israel to pop culture, U.S. politics, or what’s happening on college campuses.
“Each session and the approach to that week’s discussion is different, depending on the issue and facilitator,” Cohen said. “There’s no pre-arranged curriculum — the only guideline is that topics be something the kids want to discuss. What’s amazing is that the students put their cell phones away and move into place for ‘Hot Topic’ without any prompting. They look forward to this opportunity to connect their Jewish lives to the world at large.”
After the discussion, the group splits into grade-specific classes for an hour of instruction on subjects that include: Israel and the Middle East, Jewish mindfulness practices and stress reduction, social issues such as gun control, LGBTQ advocacy, and voting rights, and studying Jewish text from historical and contemporary Jewish perspectives. Students come together again for social time and a snack before heading home.
“The key takeaway is that they come to understand that Judaism is as relevant or more relevant now than it’s ever been, and that our tradition has something to say about our lives today,” Cohen said. “Our kids will connect — to TSTI and to their Jewishness — when they understand the connection between their Jewish identity and the life they are leading. Our job is to give them the tools and knowledge they need to draw those lines of understanding.”
Another way that TSTI builds engagement among its high school-age congregants is through Sharey Tefilo-Israel Synagogue Youth. Led by program director Tracy Horwitz and a group of dedicated teen leaders, STISY provides a path for high schoolers to develop their leadership skills through participation on its board, and to build meaningful connections with each other and the wider synagogue community through its programs.
The youth group fosters engagement in various social action initiatives, develops an appreciation for volunteerism, and cultivates a connection to Jewish life through its social, recreational and cultural activities.
“Our teens learn how to be both worship leaders and community leaders through STISY,” Horwitz said in the release. “They plan and execute their own events, model leadership and community involvement to younger students, and come to understand how what they learn here can be applied to their post-high school lives.”
Fifteen STISY members serve on the board, which has bylaws and proscribed responsibilities for each position. All members take part in running youth and synagogue programs, with many working in the religious school as tutors and classroom helpers. They may also participate in regional youth events through NFTY-GER, the New Jersey area branch of the North American Reform youth organization.
“STISY participants lead religious services, coordinate and manage programs that reflect Jewish values and concepts, and learn the importance of giving back to others. They also meet Jewish teens from other communities and build ever-wider social networks. Through it all, they forge deep connections and see that they are a valuable piece of the TSTI community,” Horwitz said.
Mindy Schreff, director of TSTI’s religious school, has 40 teens working this year as “madrichim,” or classroom aides. These teens provide much needed assistance — from Hebrew tutoring to class activity coordinators — and are valuable role models for younger students, who see that the teens are enjoying their continued involvement and connection to TSTI.
“We couldn’t run the religious school without them,” Schreff said in the release. “The program also enables our teens to learn important life and job skills in a safe environment, and gain experience they will take with them into college and the working world.”
Schreff tries to match the students’ interests and skills with positions in the school. For example, two budding musicians are working with the music teacher and lead songs on their own; another high schooler created original educational games to play with younger students.
“It’s been amazing to watch their personal growth over the years, as they embrace the job and make it their own,” Schreff said.
Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel is located at 432 Scotland Road in South Orange. For more information, visit www.tsti.org.