Youth groups help some keep the faith

Dan Abbe goes to a Catholic high school and his family doesn't belong to a synagogue.

The Palo Alto 16-year-old didn't celebrate a bar mitzvah and he doesn't attend services on the High Holy Days.

But he is involved with the Albert L. Schultz Jewish Community Center, working as a camp counselor, serving on its teen board and occasionally hanging out at the Palo Alto center's teen lounge. He's also been involved in its Teen Leadership Connection program for several years.

Some will say that without a formal Jewish education, Abbe is "at risk" and soon will be lost to the Jewish community.

Others will see his connection to the JCC as having the potential to at least keep him involved in Jewish life.

"I'm learning more about Judaism than I've ever learned before," said Abbe, who in 1999 went on a trip designed for Jewish teens who didn't have much of a Jewish upbringing.

"If you would have talked to me a few years ago, I wouldn't know half as much as I know now."

Abbe is a textbook example of a changing trend in the world of Jewish teens, where Jewish high schools and year-round youth groups are no longer the mainstays of programming. In fact, those activities seem to appeal to a limited audience of teens today.

Leaders in both the Reform and Conservative movements estimate that fewer than 25 percent of the teens whose parents are synagogue members participate in youth groups.

Over the past few years, as the American Jewish community has focused on promoting "continuity" and renewal, local federations, the JCC movement and the religious movements are trying to find new ways to reach teens.

Although no one plans to eliminate the year-round youth group, those involved with the new initiatives are finding the majority of Jewish kids more likely to participate in shorter, more intensive experiences such as summer camp and Israel trips, as well as ones tailored to their interests.

Shanah Keyes, for example, got involved with the ALSJCC as a 14-year-old, signing up to play basketball in the national Jewish Community Centers Association's Maccabi Games. That was eight years ago.

Today, although she had stopped going to religious school as a youngster and never had a bat mitzvah, the 21-year-old has been involved with the JCC, serving as an assistant girls basketball coach for the San Francisco-Bay Area JCC Maccabi team. Last year, she went on a Birthright Israel trip designed specifically for athletes.

"So many kids nowadays are involved in athletics, so that's a great way to get through to them," Keyes said. "Through sports, being involved in a Jewish organization can become a very major part of their lives."

Then again, the idea of drawing in new kids by any means possible is met with skepticism by some, including 11th-grader Ariel Postone of Berkeley.

Postone, who goes once a week to the Berkeley Midrasha high-schoolers' program, warns that special programs should have "more Jewish content than let's say an SAT prep class."

When it comes to a Jewish wilderness retreat, for example, "I don't think that kids will be drawn to that more than a regular [secular] one just because they are there with other Jews," she said.

Skeptics aside, Rabbi Allan Smith, director of the youth division of the Reform movement's Union of American Hebrew Congregations, says event-oriented programming is the popular emerging strategy.

"We're talking now about points of contact as opposed to an ongoing club," he said.

In Alameda and Contra Costa counties, however, no one is sounding an alarm, said Ryan Bauer. He is co-director of teen services for the Center for Jewish Living and Learning of the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay. He is also involved in the curriculum for the East Bay Midrashot, which offer Jewish-content confirmation classes and retreats for eighth- through 12th-graders.

"Participation in the Midrashot has doubled in the past four years and attendance at the weekends is around 250, an all-time high," he said.

More than 900 teens participate in the program, which is held during the school year at five sites — from Walnut Creek in the north to Fremont in the south. Each group is open to kids from any synagogue as well as to those whose parents don't belong to a congregation.

"People may be looking for new strategies around the country, but fortunately for us, we already have a program that has hooked teens," said Tama Goodman, the former teen services director. "This is not a one-time-event type of thing."

Bauer agreed. "The success of the program is based on the fact that it is heavy in Jewish content and learning, giving teens the resources to develop a firm and solid identity," Bauer said.

Goodman estimated that 80 percent of East Bay teens who have a bar or bat mitzvah remain connected to Judaism through the program, thus bucking the national trend.

"The crisis is definitely not on the minds of the people in this community. We're in the nachas, nachas, nachas mode," she said with satisfaction.

Elsewhere, they're in the kvetch, kvetch, kvetch mode.

Young Judea, which is sponsored by Hadassah, the Women's Zionist Organization of America, has 12,000 year-round members, but 5,000 are college students and young adults rather than teens. Three decades ago, it boasted more than 18,000 members.

Explaining the declining interest in youth groups, Rabbi Art Vernon of the Jewish Educational Service of North America said, "Kids are busier, with many other things to do, and they're prioritizing their activities."

To that end, the UAHC is implementing a national effort called the Youth Initiative.

Through the initiative, still in its early stages, synagogues are exploring different kinds of offerings for teens whose interest in the Jewish community is minimal at best.

Some projects under discussion are community-service days, SAT prep courses in which teens also talk about how to stay connected to Jewish life while in college, camping trips and wilderness retreats that also involve Shabbat celebrations, guitar lessons (focusing on Jewish songs) and a regional Jewish youth choir.

"There are a certain number of teens who do get very connected, and that has a very profound impact on them spiritually and intellectually," said Bob Sherman, director of the S.F.-based Bureau of Jewish Education.

"But we need to figure out how to get the other teens more deeply connected with the Jewish community and with Jewish learning. All the research that has been done so far points to two things making the difference: having a highly skilled, Jewishly knowledgeable professional staff, and highly engaging and content-rich programs."

The Youth Initiative, like other new efforts, uses what one organizer calls a "boutique" approach — programs that have Jewish content but use other activities as a "hook" to attract teens.

One of the largest of such efforts is the JCCA's Maccabi Games, an annual Olympics of sorts that attracts more than 5,000 teens, many of whom do little else under Jewish auspices.

"Maccabi has been very successful because sports is a natural hook for a lot of kids," said Craig Salgado, the athletic director at the JCC of San Francisco. "In the Bay Area, there are lots of competing interests for a kid's attention. That's always been the challenge."

The JCCA is now talking about creating year-round teen sports programs that build on Maccabi's momentum and also running Israel trips specifically for Jewish athletes, with sports training and competitions.

But the lure doesn't have to be sports. Through a civics program, Jewish teens in Florida organized a "homeless fair" to collect household and personal hygiene products for homeless people. Teens in San Antonio, Texas, got involved with a campaign against a state school-voucher bill.

Rabbi Sidney Schwarz, the founder and director of the Washington Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values, is a subscriber to the "outside-in approach to Jewish learning."

Instead of sitting down to learn about Jewish philosophy or texts, he said, "you start with an issue they have an interest in, like abortion or refugees, and then look at what does Judaism have to say about it."

His opinion is not shared unanimously, though. At a recent conference of the alliance, some youth workers questioned the hook approach and its value in offering activities that teens can also do in a non-Jewish venue.

"The activities the kids plan are fun and flashy, but I wonder where the Jewish part is," mused Robin Shrater, the teen coordinator at the JCC of Greater Washington.

Rabbi Eve Rudin Weiner, the director of the UAHC's National Federation of Temple Youth, offers an answer.

"Once we get them in the door, we know what to do with them," she said. "But getting them in the door is difficult. It's better to go bowling with Jewish kids than do nothing Jewish."

Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr was J.’s managing editor and Hardly Strictly Bagels columnist until he retired in 2016 to travel and live abroad. He and his wife have a home base in Mexico, where he continues his dalliance with Jewish journalism.