Earlier this week I was in Phoenix for I-LEAD, a conference for newer professionals sponsored by the Jewish Federations of North America. As a member of the faculty, I talked about financial resource development, as well as new models for Jewish communities. In such gatherings, I like to pose a series of questions about people’s past Jewish experiences. I asked the 33 people: Who attended Jewish day school (5 people)...attended Jewish overnight camp (17 people)...participated on Birthright Israel (22 people -- several went on a teen program)...and who was in a Jewish youth group in high school (ALL 33). Everyone in that room had participated in a Jewish youth group – and now they are working for the Jewish community.
On the plane home, I was thinking about the conference and realized what day it was. On August 18, 1983, as I was entering 9th grade, I went to the Orlando Jewish Community Center and joined AZA (Aleph Zadik Aleph -- the boys component of BBYO). From that date my life took a very important turn.
As I have shared before, I became extremely involved and eventually served as the International President of AZA. My involvement in a Jewish youth group provided me so many incredible opportunities -- local, statewide and international conventions...leadership development training programs (it was in the summer of 1985 that I first met someone from Portland --Steven Kahn was my bunk counselor at B'nai B'rith Perlman Camp in Starlight, Pennsylvania)…skill development...and of course making friends from all over the world. My closest friends, however, were those members of my local AZA chapter (most did not attend my high school).
I would be remiss if I did not also mention it was in BBYO that I first met my wife -- at the age of 17 -- she was from Ohio and I was from Florida.
Portland has multiple Jewish youth organizations for teens in our community (some even start in middle school). There is something for everyone. I encourage our teens to learn more about BBYO, NCSY, USY, and NFTY in our community. Attend their programs and meetings. Meet new people. And take the opportunity to attend local and national conventions and summer programs.
When announcing the Jewish Federation’s allocations, I mentioned that we will be providing $10,000 in financial assistance funding to the various Jewish youth groups to enable teen participants to attend local and national conventions/programs. The impact for these teens is enormous -- and the long-term benefits incredible.
Beyond Jewish youth groups, there are a variety of other incredible opportunities for Jewish teens in Portland.
A fabulous teen leadership experience is the Oregon Jewish Community Youth Foundation (OJCYF). OJCYF is where Jewish high school-aged teens get involved in nonprofit board work, experiencing Jewish values of giving, raising funds, making site visits and grant-making. The nine-month program requires acceptance via an application process. Applications are due on August 20th.
It is also time for our teens to register for the various synagogue educational programs. Jewish learning does not end after bar/bat mitzvah. Our community is enhanced by life-long learners (Jewish education is not only about our youth – we have many wonderful adult Jewish education programs at our various synagogues and Melton). Ask your synagogue about the various options -- or if not a member of a synagogue and are interested contact the Jewish Federation.
Plus, the Jewish Federation continues to be the largest funder of teen travel to Israel in our community. Despite the current conflict over a dozen teens from our community participated in immersive Israel programs this past summer. Although their itinerary in Israel may have changed (FYI -- through the Jewish Federation’s Stop the Sirens Israel Emergency Fund we provided the resources to help both the Reform and Conservative movements fund changes in their respective teen Israel program itineraries) their energy, spirit and passion for the State of Israel and her people only blossomed. Those who continue their Jewish studies following bar/bat mitzvah have the opportunity for special funding to reduce the cost of such experiences in Federation’s partnership with the Oregon Board of Rabbis. It is never too early to plan for next summer in Jerusalem.
In many of our local public and private high schools there are Jewish Student Unions (JSU). JSU clubs meet weekly in high schools around Oregon either during lunch or immediately after school. JSU clubs give teens a forum to meet other Jews and discuss both communal and global Jewish current events.
Portland has always had a long history of teen engagement. Jewish youth groups have played an active role. Most of our community's leaders were involved in a Jewish youth group/leadership program and/or had a teen Israel experience and/or continued their Jewish studies through confirmation (and beyond) -- it all matters!
I know the pressures of today about getting into college are enormous. Grades matter. Test scores are important. And extracurricular activities may be the "make or break" distinction between you or someone else. I am not a college admissions officer, but in my humble opinion quality and depth of experiences trump the quantity of activities.
As students look to the start of the new school year, I hope our Jewish teenagers and their families explore the variety of Jewish options that will motivate them for years to come. We estimate there are over 2,000 teenagers in our Jewish community. Too small of a percentage participate in Jewish activities. I personally do not care what group someone joins or what program someone attends -- I just care that our teenagers are actively involved in our Jewish community. These opportunities will inspire them for today and long into the future.