New program helps teens stay connected after Israel trip

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When 17-year-old Simona Zharzhavsky returned from a trip to Israel last summer she was filled with excitement. She had made great friends and cherished warm memories.

But as the months rolled by, those memories grew more and more distant, as friends made on the trip drifted apart.

"We seemed so close at the time — and then, when you get back, everyone has their own life," she said. "It's very difficult to stay in touch. It would be great to see them again."

For many teens like Zharzhavsky, 10th-grade Sunday-school confirmation not only concludes their Jewish studies, but also their involvement in the Jewish community.

A new program called the Teen Initiative San Francisco High School Havurah Program is making it possible for Zharzhavsky to further her Jewish education and reunite with her Israel trip cohorts.

In conjunction with S.F.-based Congregations Sherith Israel, Emanu-El and Beth Sholom, the Bureau of Jewish Education will launch the Teen Initiative this September to promote youngsters' involvement in the Jewish community.

Facilitated by a $161,200 grant from the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation's Endowment Fund, the teen program will be open to any Jewish high school student, regardless of age.

Robert Levison, chair of the JCEF's committee on education and youth, sees the Havurah program as "a response to a problem" of bringing kids closer to the community.

Tenth-grade participants will meet one evening a week, rotating among the three congregations. Confirmation instruction will be integrated into the program's elements of text study, spirituality, social action, Hebrew, art, leadership training and retreats.

The initiative developed after the JCF's Task Force on Programs and Services for Teenagers found that after 10th grade confirmation and trips to Israel, teens' community involvement drops off. The task force also determined that current teen programs are not well-known to those not directly participating in them.

The task force also found that teens want to meet other Jewish youngsters outside their immediate communities. And now there's another program to help them do that.

High School Havurah Program coordinator Yael Lazar-Paley says the initiative is designed to bring Bay Area Jewish teens together.

Last year, a JCEF seed grant enabled the BJE to hire Lazar-Paley as its director of teen programs. She organized pre- and post-Israel-trip activities and has developed other teen programs for the Mid-Peninsula Midrasha at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills and for its new expansion in the North Peninsula at Congregation Beth El in San Mateo.

With the High School Havurah Program, Lazar-Paley is helping to create a similar opportunity for San Francisco teens.

Hebrew Academy High School senior and Congregation Sherith Israel member Emily Baer welcomes the latest teen program.

Baer, who remains involved in the community by working as a Sunday-school teacher's assistant, attends the Orthodox school where "we study Judaism and read from the Torah every day."

But "a program like this sounds good because it's more relaxed and different from what I'm used to," she says.

Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan of Congregation Emanu-El notes that "teens are isolated in dozens of little high-school programs all over the Bay Area."

"The Teen Initiative creates a single community of Jewish teens and allows us to draw on the strengths of all three congregations," he says. "It's not just another new program. It's a new attitude."

Lazar-Paley described the Teen Initiative as a "one-stop shopping place" for teens with all the information about teen activities in the federation area.

Students like Mark Levine of Congregation Beth Sholom embraced the idea too.

"It's a good way for kids to be able to see each other after the Israel trip," he says.