Diverse teen coalition sets a role model for adults

Two years ago, a few students at Kehillah Jewish High School realized that their youth groups — such as the Orthodox NCSY, the Conservative USY and the nondenominational BBYO — had parallel goals, similar programming and like missions.

And yet they never intersected. They existed in silos. Isolated. Separate but equal.

The teenagers were frustrated that the pluralism cultivated at their Palo Alto high school didn’t carry over after the school day ended and the students went off in separate directions.


Tali Azenkot (center) shares with her peers from the Jewish Teen Coalition what she gained from the day’s meeting. photo/stacey palevsky

So they created a coalition and asked 11 youth organizations to get involved. They called it the Jewish Teen Coalition and, with some guidance from adults (at the S.F.-based Bureau of Jewish Education, the Curriculum Initiative and Kehillah’s administrators), began meeting regularly.

For nearly two years, the teens have met monthly to share ideas and collectively organize events and programs for Jewish teens on the Peninsula — affiliated or not.

“I’ve seen tensions between the youth groups, and I think that’s a shame,” said Tali Azenkot, a senior at Kehillah and one of the JTC’s founders. “It’s important to inspire a sense of unity at a time when there are many challenges facing the Jewish community.”

Azenkot believes the JTC can create this unity among Jewish teens. And the adults who’ve offered support and guidance to the teenagers think so, too.

Julie Emden directs the Jewish Teen Alliance, a network of teen educators from around the Bay Area, at the BJE. She’s been impressed by how the Jewish Teen Coalition embodies a philosophy of collaboration.

“The teens of JTC are breaking down the boundaries between groups, denominations, service areas and institutional affiliations as they collaborate to create communitywide events,” Emden said.

On a recent Sunday in San Jose, eight teens gathered for their monthly leadership and planning meeting. They began by role-playing and discussing various scenarios based on real events: How to order food for a program when only one group member keeps kosher? Does it matter if a friend is having a serious relationship with a non-Jew?

The aim is to learn things from one another that they can use to strengthen their own group, as well as their Jewish identity.

“I appreciate being in a diverse group where Judaism means different things to different people,” Azenkot said.

In the general Jewish community, people of diverse backgrounds and denominations from different organizations don’t often merge their energies. But in the JTC, such interaction is par for the course.

“They want to create a vibrant Jewish teen community open to all, and they are willing to do what it takes to work with one another to achieve this goal,” Emden said. “They are a role model for us.”

Representatives from 11 organizations are in the coalition: B’nai B’rith Youth Organization, National Conference of Synagogue Youth, North American Federation of Temple Youth, United Synagogue Youth, Tzofim — Friends of Israel Scouts, the Peninsula Jewish Community Teen Foundation, Chabad’s Friendship Circle, Jewish Community High School of the Bay, Kehillah Jewish High School, Menlo School Jew Crew and Woodside Priory Jewish Club.

In addition to sharing ideas with one another, they have another primary goal: To plan programs rooted in social action and community service.

“We figured we’d have a bigger impact together than individually,” Azenkot said.

But before they could make the big impact they imagined making, they needed money — which they didn’t have.

So they learned how to write grants with help from Emden and from Adrian Schrek of the Curriculum Initiative, a nonprofit that provides programming for Jewish students at secular private schools in the Bay Area and across the country.

The S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation awarded them a start-up grant to pay for an adult adviser to attend monthly meetings. A few months later, the Goldman Fund awarded the Jewish Teen Coalition $5,000 to plan programs for all Jewish teens.

They decided to plan just three events per year — so as to not conflict with existing Jewish youth group calendars.

In February 2008, they had a film screening of “Invisible Children,” a documentary about child soldiers in Uganda. The teens invited the directors, who live in Los Angeles, to speak after the screening.

They decorated the room with quotes from Pirke Avot, the book of Jewish ethics. Seventy-five teenagers from a wide range of youth groups and schools attended.

In December, an open mic night drew about 60 Jewish teens from 19 schools, including 25 that had no affiliation with any Jewish youth group or synagogue. Some of the proceeds went to the American Israeli Cultural Foundation, a nonprofit that supports the arts in Israel.

“They’re always thinking: How can we give back to the world?” Emden said.

Adults are paying attention. The JTC is frequently asked to help plan events or provide input on various ideas.

A year ago, the Addison-Penzak JCC in Los Gatos asked the teens to help plan its Yom Ha’Atzmaut dance. More than 300 teens showed up, a huge turnout for such an event.

The JCC asked them to plan the dance again this year.

“We had such a good turnout and they planned such a great event that it was a no-brainer when it came to working with them again this year,” said Jason Goldstein, director of teen services at the JCC.

Coordinators of Israel in the Gardens have invited the JTC to help plan teen activities at the annual festival in San Francisco.

“Who knows better to design a teen program than teens?” Emden said. “We have to have teens at the table.”

Added Schrek, “And with the Jewish Teen Coalition, we [adults] are guests at their table. We facilitate their process. We guide. But they are the visionaries.”

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.