Is it hip to be a teen Jew

Step into Club 18, a swank evening hangout for those under voting age at a converted bar and grill next to the JCC of San Francisco. Chill on the bean bag cushions, shoot some pool, mess around on the Internet, kick it to the tunes on the stereo.

The Jewish Community Center hopes it's a recipe to subtly strengthen Jewish identity by enabling Jewish teens to relate to one another in a Jewish environment.

"Most of the kids who come to our program are not affiliated and are not comfortable with traditional Jewish clubs," said JCC teen program manager Erik Ludwig. "We focus more on identity-building than religiousness. The teens are responsible for programming the events. They own the space, they designed and decorated it."

Directors of youth programs through-out the Bay Area are addressing a key question: Is the Jewish community cool enough to keep teens in the fold?

What's cool? A few hundred teens showing up to a rap and rock concert last year at the JCC of S.F. Amitai Heller, 16, set up the concert and headlined with his rap band Doz Caucazzian Playaz.

What's not cool? "If you are forced by your parents to do it, that automatically makes it uncool," said Revital Heller, 19, Amitai's sister who attends U.C. Berkeley.

Taking cues from teens such as Amatai Heller, the local Jewish community is stepping in, providing programs in cool locales to keep kids coming back. It's not just night clubs and parties. It's classes with enticing titles, work experiences and volunteer projects in which kids take part in the planning.

Parents concede that the recent attention to teen programming is an attempt to stem teen assimilation, which often permanently closes off a person to Judaism.

"If you give teens the chance of having a positive Jewish experience, that might carry into adulthood and keep a Jewish spark alive," said Toby Rubin of San Francisco, the mother of three girls.

"But if they don't have that as a teen, it's not going to happen in college and later on."

As chairwoman of the Bureau of Jewish Education's Teen Initiative, a two-year-old project sponsored by the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, Rubin has been looking into what has and hasn't been working in teen programming.

Although Jewish summer camps and Israel trips have long been a primary way to keep teens involved, the Teen Initiative is seeking ways to keep teens involved on a consistent basis, throughout their high school years. The focus is on what's creative and comfortable for the kids.

One program that seems to be working is Club 18, which is located at 427 Presidio Ave. in the former Bodega Seafood Bar and Restaurant. Parents like the spot because they know where their kids are. And kids like it because parents aren't allowed in.

But how is it Jewish? "We hit them with learning moments when they are a natural part of what is going on," Ludwig said.

Teen seders, music jams around the holidays, and Jewish-themed parties and discussions such as a regular Friday night program called "Cafe Shabbat and Chill Hours" are ways to slip in the tradition without disturbing the mellow tempo.

Club 18, which got in full swing almost exactly a year ago, is open on Tuesday, Thursday and Friday nights. Ludwig said about 15 to 20 kids hang out between 4 and 8 p.m. on school nights, with 40 or more showing up for the Friday night sessions that run from 4 to 10 p.m.

"We know it's cool, we see it in the expressions on people's face," he said. "We know we are the bomb."

Bomb is good. But although the number of kids attending is growing, not every kid is ready to jump in. That includes Rubin's daughter, Rachel.

"I think Club 18 is a pretty cool idea, even though I've never been," said Rubin, who is 16. "It has potential. They have to establish it as a cool place, but that is hard. Who is going to be the first to go?"

Rubin enjoys being involved. She's in the San Francisco high school Havurah program, she recently was confirmed and she also went on an Israel trip last summer.

So what's the best way to get a kid like Rubin to check out a Jewish event? Get the friends she made when she attended Brandeis Hillel Day School to come along, she said.

"You can't just hand teens a piece of paper and say check this out. Teenagers don't work like that," said Toby Rubin. "They want to go where the buzz is. Since you never know where a teen will connect, you have to have as many doorways as possible."

That's also the philosophy behind East Bay Midrashot, which holds high school programs in Berkeley, Oakland, Fremont and Walnut Creek. Programs are under the aegis of the Center for Jewish Living and Learning of the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay as well as area synagogues.

In recent years, classes have run the gamut from the traditional, including Torah and Talmud, to the glitzy. Last year, some eye-catching classes were "Sages, Sinners and Scorched-Thighed Shorties," "Jewish X-Files: Weird and Unexplained Phenomena in the Jewish Tradition" and "Whores, Witches and Concubines."

Tama Goodman, the CJLL's director of teen services, said many of the crazily titled classes are at the Berkeley Midrasha, which offered among its fall class schedule "Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oy Vey," about animals in the Bible, and "Are Jews White? Race, Racism and Multiculturalism."

Midrasha enrollment has steadily increased in recent years, reaching more than 900 in the first month of 2000, and the CJLL's weekend program, which is mostly for 11th- and 12th-graders, has grown by about 65 percent in the past three years, Goodman said.

She attributed much of the increase to word-of-mouth. "Students tell their friends that Midrasha is a great thing and the students are staying," she said.

But kids are also coming because they want to learn and enrich their Jewish education, Goodman said. "Students are starved for answers to some intense questions."

She added, "We don't want to grow for the sake of growing. We want students who are committed to looking at themselves and their community."

With those goals in mind, Jewish Vocational Service's Avodah arranges paid summer internships in the Jewish community for high school juniors and seniors from San Francisco, Marin, the Peninsula and the East Bay.

The program, which also made its debut a year ago, gives teens the opportunity to work for such agencies as the Anti-Defamation League, the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival and the Bay Area Council for Jewish Rescue and Renewal. Students also get jobs at JCCs and synagogues, doing such things as program development and curriculum development.

By all accounts, the program is a rousing success, according to coordinator Jennifer Mangel.

By plunging the teens into the Jewish work force, Mangel said, they learned rapidly how to network and got a chance to explore the Jewish community, forging connections.

Plus, they met like-minded people their age, Mangel added. "What will bring them back will be the opportunity to see each other…It's very important that teens have their own world."

Heller, the Jewish rapster, sees the marriage of community and cool as a good thing. One of the reasons his rap band was willing to play at the JCC of S.F. is that four of the five musicians are Jewish. They met at a Jewish summer camp.

But as an indication of how far he is from the Jewish mainstream, Heller doesn't typically hang at places like synagogue, Jewish youth group meetings or even Club 18. He's not really friends with those who haunt the Jewish crash pads.

"It's hard to draw kids to the Jewish community," he said. "Some people say there's too much religion and praying at these events. Some are turned off because they think it's another one of those Jewish events my parents would be happy to see me at."

So Heller, who says he's "a proud Jew" and interested in all things Jewish, recommends that the Jewish community plan "more countercultural things."

It seems a tricky order. In part, Heller said, parents shouldn't plan at all. "Forced interactions are kind of lame," he said. "I think the challenge is to find the hip place where everyone can hang."

Misha Imberman Berkowitz, 16, also wants to find a Jewish way to be chill. At his age, he said, that's what being Jewish is about — hanging out with Jewish friends.

So Berkowitz has helped to start a spot like Club 18 at the Albert L. Schultz Jewish Community Center in Palo Alto. Berkowitz is the chair of the ALSJCC's Teen Council, a group of students who steer the teen program.

The JCC Teen Lounge debuted last November but teens haven't embraced the concept. "It's kind of slow," said Jason Epstein, the director of teen services at the ALSJCC. "We're hoping it will pick up."

The lounge, located on-site at that JCC, fails to draw any teens on some days, and on good days only about five or six show up, Epstein said. The lounge is open from 3:30 to 7 p.m. on Mondays and Tuesdays and from 3:30 to 6 p.m. on Thursdays.

"We're passing out a lot of fliers and also holding events, like dances," Epstein said. "We hope by creating traffic, a buzz will be created and the attendance will pick up."

Pool tables, a stereo, foosball, computers and a snack bar fill out the lounge. Berkowitz has written to Silicon Valley corporations asking for donations of electronic equipment, although nothing has come through yet.

Berkowitz started getting into Judaism over the past three years, along with his family. He celebrated his bar mitzvah last April at age 15, two years later than most kids. The friends he made while going to synagogue kept him coming back, he said.

Now he wants to extend that camaraderie to others. "If I can help someone who is also feeling a little unaffiliated welcome in the Jewish community, then the lounge works," Berkowitz said.

The best way to create that sense of community is to cram many different faces into a fun space, he said.

"I don't want only the JCC crowd. The Teen Council is well represented, and also includes Russian emigres. The point is to bring everybody together to have fun in a Jewish context."

He added: "Is the Jewish community cool? Yeah, I'd say so. I feel good being part of it."

Community is what many teens are seeking, and if there's one thing that's cool about parents, Rachel Rubin readily admits, it's that they know how to create it.

"In my mom's group, everybody knows everybody. They are there for everybody and in times of need people really come together," Rubin said. "All the teens need to get together that way if it's going to work."