Teen group weighs in on Jewish values, history, ethics

Twice a month, North Bay Jewish teens get together and talk — not about alternative rock, piercings or dating, but about interfaith marriage, Israel or Jack Kevorkian.

The teens are part of Kehillah, a group at Congregation Beth Ami in Santa Rosa.

Joshua Chernin, a ninth-grader, is in his second year in the group. "It's really great for me," the 14-year-old said. "It gives me a break from studying."

Rick Concoff, a Jewish educator and musician, is director of Kehillah, which means "community" in Hebrew. Five years ago, he approached the board of Beth Ami, a Conservative synagogue, about starting a program for teens who had completed their b'nai mitzvah.

"The assumption is that bar and bat mitzvah is the beginning and not the end [of Jewish education]," Concoff said. So he decided to bring teenagers together to discuss Jewish values, history, culture, ethics and current events.

Recent Kehillah topics have included the Jewish approach to euthanasia, why good things happen to bad people (and vice versa), whether the world is getting better or worse, the Jewish approach to war, issues related to Israel and contemporary views of the Ten Commandments.

The discussions are designed "to stimulate kids' thinking about how Judaism plays a role in their life," said Concoff, who also directs a Jewish day camp in Santa Rosa during the summer.

Kehillah now boasts nearly 100 high-schoolers who cross synagogue lines in the North Bay. "For the size of the community," Concoff said, "it's a lot of kids."

Kehillah's four groups start in eighth grade. Teens in eighth through 10th grade meet in separate groups. Grades 11 and 12 meet together.

The two-hour sessions begin at 6:30 p.m. with a potluck or take-out dinner — "social time," according to Concoff. Then Concoff leads the discussion. From the start, he assures participants that Kehillah does not include homework or in-class assignments.

Joshua Carson, an 11th-grader, has participated in the Kehillah program since the eighth grade.

"I love it. It's stimulating conversation. It's a good time to see people," said the 17-year-old, who also helps Concoff run meetings for the eighth-graders.

Concoff uses interactive exercises to trigger discussion.

During a unit on interfaith marriage, for example, he assigned everyone a personality prototype described on a piece of paper. Half the personalities assigned were Jewish, ranging from Orthodox to non-observant. The other half were not Jewish, ranging from fundamentalist Christian to Buddhist.

He then paired "Jews" with "non-Jews" and presented several issues — such as pregnancy –to the "interfaith couple." The students then had to resolve the issue, acting it out in front of the class.

Concoff asserts that adults can't just tell teens not to intermarry. "It's better to make them advocates of the issue themselves," he said.

He also brings local rabbis to Kehillah. During the "Ask the Rabbi" sessions, teens submit anonymous questions to the rabbi. "The kids are candid," Concoff said. One student, for example, asked a rabbi whether he had ever communicated with God.

Kehillah has served well in times of crisis, including one period when the friend of one of the teens had committed suicide.

"I structured a curriculum called `Reasons to Live,'" he said. "It was about the tribe experience [of Jews]. I tried to teach them to remember their roots and that they have support, love — that mistakes they make are mistakes, not failures."

Joanne Cheslow, Beth Ami's education director, said parents and the congregation's board are pleased with Kehillah.

"It's very successful at keeping our teenagers involved with the synagogue," she said.

Concoff agreed, adding that many Kehillah graduates are going on to travel to Israel and become religious school assistants.

But not everyone thinks of Kehillah in such serious terms. Carson, for one, simply likes the format.

"It's a fun way to be involved in the Jewish community."